Leroy Anderson: Sleigh Ride


The popular light orchestra standard Sleigh Ride was composed by American composer Leroy Anderson. A master of light orchestral music, much of Anderson’s music became popular through performances by the Boston Pops Orchestra and the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra. Although known as a festive work, the concept of the piece actually came to Anderson during a heatwave in July 1946. The work was completed by early 1948. Originally, the work was purely orchestral, and it wasn’t until 1950 that Mitchell Parish added the well-known lyrics in.

The original orchestral version was first recorded in 1949 by the Boston Pops Orchestra under the baton of Arthur Fiedler. The work was a hit across America, and soon became one of the orchestra’s signature pieces to perform. The BPO have also recorded Sleigh Ride under esteemed conductors John Williams and Keith Lockhart. 

Sleigh Ride has been performed and recorded by a wider selection of musical artists than any other piece in the history of Western music. It consistently ranks as one of the top 10 most performed songs on the radio in America. Anderson wrote about the genesis of Sleigh Ride:

“Sleigh Ride was one of the first things I wrote when I got out of the Army and moved up here to Woodbury, Connecticut. Sleigh Ride, I remember, was just an idea at this time because it was just a pictorial thing, it wasn’t necessarily Christmas music, and it was during a huge heatwave!”

The Music

Opening with a pulsating string accompaniment that is underneath a prominent trumpet unison line, the sleigh takes off immediately with sleigh bells in hand. The main theme is then heard from the strings. The warm melody is joyful and triumphant, whilst remaining incredibly light. The swells in the orchestra with the melody, with the bells keeping the quick tempo moving along.

The work is noted for its realistic horse sounds which mainly derive from the percussion section. The use of temple blocks here sound like the horse clip clopping along the road as it pulls the sleigh. The next section is similar in melody, but the tonality has shifted from Bb to G. Anderson uses the temple blocks to bracket these two sections, as he realised that they weren’t strong enough to be opening the piece.

Muted trumpets accentuate the temple blocks by playing short and crisp crotchets to bolster this comedic idea even further. The trumpets then take over the melody here with it now sounding fuller as Anderson has added more of the orchestra onto the melody line. The quick loss of texture takes us into the middle section, where we hear the first whipcrack’s of the piece. These cracks are used to portray the driver of the sleigh trying to get the horses to go faster. The whipcrack (or slapstick) is traditionally built from two pieces of wood that smash together creating a slapping sound. Can you hear the whipcracks in the recordings below?

Anderson puts in a signature jazz section, which is of course led by the trumpets and trombones. Based on the original melody, this jazz version accentuates off-beats, syncopation, whilst also oozing style and class. After this brash section the delicate string melody returns, this time accentuated by random whipcracks from the percussion section. The temple blocks and marimba keep the frivolity of the music alive in this section.

The music begins to build towards the end of the piece when the music cuts out and a trumpet makes a horse whinny sound. One final whipcrack and the piece has come to a quick close. 

The Importance of the Horse Whinny

This is light orchestral music in its purest form. Anderson’s comedic elements only add to the overall experience of the piece. From the clip clopping temple blocks to the whipcracks, the music is full of horsey cues. The whinny at the end, which is made by ‘half-valving’ and shaking, is there to imitate the horse’s sound. It offers a sort of sigh of relief that the sleigh ride is over, as well as adding to the comedic effect of this piece. It’s importance comes from its ability to make audiences laugh, feel comfortable in the concert hall, as well as playing into Anderson’s quintessential light orchestral music style.

Final Thoughts

Sleigh Ride is a popular work for orchestra that I don’t think audiences will ever really tire of. There have been many arrangements for alternative instrumentation created such as wind bands and brass bands. In terms of the vocal versions, there have been many covers of the song including covers by The Andrew Sisters, Air Supply, Johnny Mathis, The Carpenters and The Ronettes. 

A fun-filled Christmas classic!


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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