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Leroy Anderson conducted by Kurt Anderson
Press Articles on Leroy Anderson and Kurt Anderson

Howard Pollack, "Harvard Composers," on Leroy Anderson

Howard Pollack
author of "Harvard Composers"

Howard Pollack is Professor of Music at the Moores School of Music at the University of Houston. His most recent book is Aaron Copland: The Life and Work of an Uncommon Man (University of Illinois Press, 2000).

The following is an excerpt from the chapter, "Leroy Anderson" in Howard Pollack's book, "Harvard Composers: Walter Piston and His Students, from: Elliott Carter to Frederic Rzewski (Metuchen, N. J.: Scarecrow Press, 1992)

The continued success of Anderson's best orchestral miniatures could be explained in part by the composer's careful, meticulous workmanship. Anderson composed painstakingly, often spending whole months on a single three- or four-minute piece. Just the introductory four measures to "The Penny-Whistle Song", he tells us, took four days to write. Occasionally the search for a general concept or title, with which his compositional process usually began, itself took weeks of pacing about the house, a habit, he was interested to learn, he shared with Irving Berlin. This concept or title was usually associated with some rhythm, an association epitomized by his own description of "Belle of the Ball"- "Whenever you hear a waltz going like that, you can see some beautiful girl in a long, flowing gown just waltzing around the place." After finding the basic concept and rhythm, Anderson created a harmonic context, sometimes tried out at the piano, and then a principal melody, never worked out at the piano for fear of falling into conventional habits. He then wrote out a three-stave condensed score, and finally orchestrated it in full score.

Within the wide world of moving objects, the ideas that inspired Anderson were quite varied: cats and horses, typewriters and clocks, belles and soldiers, buglers and penny-whistlers, pizzicato and perpetual motion. The dance was naturally of special importance to Anderson, and many of his titles alluded to dances of one sort or another, including Promenade, Chicken Reel, Saraband, Governor Bradford March, The Waltzing Cat, Blue Tango, and Sandpaper Ballet, which was a kind of soft-shoe number. Other numbers were essentially dances without being called so: Jazz Pizzicato/Jazz Legato (fox-trot), Fiddle-Faddle (reel), Serenata (beguine), Belle of the Ball (waltz), The Girl in Satin (tango), Bugler's Holiday (polka), and The Captains and the Kings (march and polonaise). Even such musical landscapes as Summer Skies and The First Day of Spring seemed related to the dance, more specifically, to the "Adagios" of classical ballet. Performed one after the other, Anderson's miniatures, in fact, seemed to resemble nothing so much as the court entertainments from the Tchaikovsky ballets.

Having found some suitable idea, there was some tendency to use it a second time, for example, a trotting horse in Sleigh Ride and Horse and Buggy, the tango in Blue Tango and The Girl in Satin, and violin pizzicato in Jazz Pizzicato and Plink, Plank, Plunk! The second of these couplings was usually not as inspired as the original, but nonetheless gave a new, distinctive dimension to the shared idea.

One noted, too, in the course of Anderson's career a stylistic development that can be said to comprise three periods. The first of these (1937 to 1950) was characterized by the sly irreverence and improbability of Jazz Pizzicato, The Syncopated Clock, Trumpeter's Lullaby, and The Waltzing Cat.

The second period (1951-1954) was more romantic and nostalgic with Its Belle of the Ball, Horse and Buggy, Summer Skies, and Forgotten Dreams. The third period (consisting primarily of only one year, 1962) had a cool, restrained, somewhat abstract quality, as in Arietta and Balladette. Audiences liked the earliest pieces best.

Throughout Anderson's career, but especially in his second period, there was often a quaint, homey, American quality that perhaps could be compared with a popular illustrator like Norman Rockwell, but at the same time an ironic urbanity that seemed closer to a sophisticated cartoonist like James Thurber. As for Anderson's polish and elegance, it had at least some relation to his collegiate enthusiasm for the French clavecin school and Rousseau.

Shortly before his death, at a 1973 Yale University lecture, Anderson spoke at some length about two musicological myths" that were popular during his college days in the 1920s. The first was that enduring composers were not admired in their own lifetime. This myth, he claimed, was fabricated by Wagnerites in order to conceal the offensiveness of Wagner's character. The historical facts, as reported by Ernest Newman, told another story; and to give another example, Anderson cited, in German, Schubert's eulogy of Beethoven. He suspected that in the course of the 20th century this myth had been discredited by the success of Stravinsky and Prokofiev.

The other myth, still widespread, in his opinion, was that only serious music survived. He recalled reading a passage in Ebenezer Prout's music text that named three late 19th century German composers that the author surely thought would endure: Richard Wagner, Johannes Brahms, and Joachim Raff. Anderson remembered thinking that had Prout cited Johann Strauss, Jr., instead of Raff, his statement would have been considerably more accurate. But Strauss wrote waltzes, whereas Raff wrote symphonies, and the academic assumption was that symphonies, not waltzes, survived. Anderson suspected that this myth was losing currency also.

Anderson made no allusion to himself in this discussion, but by inference it was clearly a defense of his own life's work. The confidence and ease with which he spoke suggested that he had no regrets. He seemed quite reconciled to let future audiences decide his fate. And, indeed, in 1988 he was inducted posthumously into the Songwriter's Hall of Fame, a singular, but somehow appropriate honor for this unusual composer of orchestral songs without words.

copyright Howard Pollack, 1992

Classic Pops music of Leroy Anderson, conducted by his son, Kurt Anderson