Yes, it’s that time again, folks – time for the trumpet players to practice their horse whinnies and time to break out the whips and sleigh bells. I’m of course talking about Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride,” the piece that is often THE encore of any holiday concert.
In Toledo, we’re gearing up to play it a whopping 20-25 times this December alone. If someone is going to create the template for music to be played at a Holiday Pops show, it should always start with “Encore: Sleigh Ride” and go from there. It’s astonishing, really, the effect this piece has on people and I’ve never been able to put my finger on exactly why. Is it the uber-familiarity of the piece? According to ASCAP, it’s the most popular piece of Christmas music in the USA for the past two years (based on airplay tracking). Wow – the most popular. More so than “White Christmas” or Jingle Bells, for that matter. Sleigh ride uber alles. What, exactly, is it about Sleigh Ride in particular that eclipses all other Christmas (or other holiday) music?
So here are some of my thoughts:
Melody – Let’s face it. It’s got a lovely, jaunty melody that skips up and down over the space of an octave (well, just over an octave). This is the kind of melody that Paul McCartney seemed to be able to spin out so effortlessly in his best songs. It’s simple, yet classy. And boy does it stick in your head.
Orchestration – Leroy Anderson had an astonishing gift for writing music that sounded great when an orchestra played it. This is not for nothing. Ever heard Sleigh Ride played by a band? It doesn’t have anywhere near the same “esprit” as when the violins play the melody – it just doesn’t. When I hear it sung, I usually find myself wishing I were listening to the orchestra version, no offense, Mr. Mathis. In a way, the words (which were added later, not by Anderson), in my view, take some of the magic out of the song. Even Ella Fitzgerald can’t make “Giddy-up, let’s go” sound anything but… well, corny. And there’s nothing like Anderson’s clip-clops in the percussion or the aforementioned horse whinny to put a smile on the face of even the most Scrooge-like concertgoer.
The song’s non-specificity helps its broad appeal. Sleigh Ride is about having fun on a sleigh ride, period. You don’t have to believe in anything but the joy of being outside, in nature, in the company of friends.
Nostalgia – seems to be the order of the day at holiday time. If there were ever a time in the calendar year to pine for Norman Rockwell imagery, Christmas time is it. And no piece of music seems more capable of evoking “times of yore” than Sleigh Ride. Is sleigh riding part of a holiday tradition in any part of North America? (Was it ever?) But it seems that we’d like to think that it was. Somehow, Sleigh Ride makes us FEEL like this is music of “the good old days,” whatever that may mean to each listener.
So if you put all of these factors together, here’s my best guess as to the unvanquishable popularity of Sleigh Ride. In this three minute piece, Leroy Anderson created the ultimate holiday song. Its flowing melody, its expertly crafted orchestration, and its sentimentality that’s somehow devoid of treacle all work together in a way that’s greater than the sum of its component parts. It’s the Christmas classic. It musically evokes (without ever actually spelling it out in words) all the things that we hope to feel at the holidays – ease, jollity, warmth. In the time that it takes for an orchestra to play Sleigh Ride, the concert audience becomes as one, united in emotions and good will. I’ve yet to see an orchestra finish playing the piece and have the musicians not be smiling by the end.
And audiences eat it up. Every time.