Leroy Anderson (June 29, 1908 – May 18, 1975) was an American composer of short, light concert pieces, many of which were introduced by the Boston Pops Orchestra under the direction of Arthur Fiedler. Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts to Swedish parents, Anderson was given his first piano lessons by his mother, who was an organist. He continued studying piano at the New England Conservatory of Music. In 1925 Anderson entered Harvard University, where he studied musical harmony with Walter Spalding, counterpoint with Edward Ballantine, canon and fugue with William C. Heilman, orchestration with Edward B. Hill and Walter Piston, composition with Piston and double bass with Gaston Dufresne. He also studied organ with Henry Gideon. Graduating with a Bachelor of Arts Magna cum laude in 1929, he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. In Harvard University Graduate School, he studied composition with Piston and Georges Enescu and received a Master of Arts in Music in 1930.
Anderson continued studying at Harvard, working towards a PhD in German and Scandinavian languages. He spoke English and Swedish during his youth and eventually became fluent in Danish, Norwegian, Icelandic, German, French, Italian, and Portuguese. At that time he was also working as music director at the East Milton Congregational Church, leading the Harvard University Band, and conducting and arranging for dance bands around Boston. In 1936 his arrangements came to the attention of Arthur Fiedler, who asked to see any original compositions. Anderson’s first work was the 1938 Jazz Pizzicato, but at just over ninety seconds the piece was too short for a three-minute 78-RPM single of the period. Fiedler suggested writing a companion piece and Anderson wrote Jazz Legato later that same year. The combined recording went on to become one of Anderson’s signature compositions.
In 1942 Anderson joined the U.S. Army, and was assigned in Iceland as a translator and interpreter. In 1945 he was reassigned to the Pentagon as Chief of the Scandinavian Desk of Military Intelligence. However his duties did not prevent him from composing, and in 1945 he wrote “The Syncopated Clock” and “Promenade.” In 1950, WCBS-TV in New York City selected “Syncopated Clock” as the theme song for The Late Show/ the WCBS late-night movie. Anderson became a reserve officer and was recalled to active duty for the Korean War. Anderson’s most famous piece is probably “Sleigh Ride” which is instantly recognizable to millions of people. It was not written as a Christmas piece, but as a work that describes a winter event. Anderson started the work during a heat wave in August 1946. The Boston Pops’ recording of it was the first pure orchestral piece to reach No. 1 on the Billboard Pop Music chart, and Mitchell Parish later added words.
In 1951 Anderson wrote his first hit, “Blue Tango,” earning a Golden Disc and the No. 1 spot on the Billboard charts. “Blue Tango” was the first instrumental recording ever to sell one million copies. His pieces and his recordings during the fifties conducting a studio orchestra were immense commercial successes. From 1952 to 1961, Anderson’s composition “Plink, Plank, Plunk!” was used as the theme for the CBS panel show I’ve Got A Secret. Anderson wrote his Piano Concerto in C in 1953 but withdrew it, feeling that it had weak spots. In 1988 the Anderson family decided to publish the work. Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra released the first recording of this work. In 1958, Anderson composed the music for the Broadway show Goldilocks with orchestrations by Philip J. Lang. Even though it earned two Tony awards, Goldilocks did not achieve commercial success.
Anderson never wrote another musical, preferring instead to continue writing orchestral miniatures. His pieces, including “Bugler’s Holiday” and “A Trumpeter’s Lullaby” are performed by orchestras and bands ranging from school groups to professional organizations. Anderson’s musical style employs creative instrumental effects and occasionally makes use of sound-generating items such as a typewriter as in “The Typewriter.” Anderson would occasionally appear on the Boston Pops regular concerts on PBS to conduct his own music while Fiedler would sit on the sidelines. For “The Typewriter” Fiedler would don a green eyeshade, roll up his sleeves, and mime working on an old typewriter while the orchestra played. Anderson was initiated as an honorary member of the Gamma Omicron chapter of Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia at Indiana State University in 1969. In 1975, he died of cancer in Woodbury, CT. John Williams described him as “one of the great American masters of light orchestral music.”
My collection includes the following works by Anderson:
Alma Mater (Suite, 1954).
Belle of the Ball (1951).
Blue Tango (1951).
A Christmas Festival (1950).
Classical Juke Box.
Forgotten Dreams (1962).
The Irish Suite (6 movements, 1949).
Jazz Pizzicato – Jazz Legato.
Plink, Plank, Plunk!
Richard Rodgers Waltzes (arranged).
Scottish Suite (4 movements, 1954).
Summer Skies (1953).
The Syncopated Clock.
A Trumpeter’s Lullaby.
The Waltzing Cat.