The History Behind 'Sleigh Ride'

The Cleveland Orchestra performs during the holidays in 2015 (photo by Roger Mastroianni).
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By Carrie Wise

“Sleigh Ride” is a standard at the Cleveland Orchestra’s Christmas Concerts, and it also plays in stores, cars and malls throughout the holiday season.

But composer Leroy Anderson never set out to write a holiday hit,  according to his son, Kurt, who manages a classical radio station in Connecticut.

“He was trying to describe an event that took place in the winter,” he said.

To capture the feeling of a sleigh ride Leroy Anderson started with the sound of sleigh bells.  

“He did it with a certain panache that makes his works not seem like period pieces, but have a deep sparkle to them that makes them shine for generations,” Kurt Anderson said.

His father started writing the piece during a heatwave in the summer of 1946. It took him two years to complete, but it didn’t take long to catch on as a holiday piece. Popular lyricist Mitchell Parish wrote words to accompany the piece in 1950, but it is the orchestral version that endures.  

The popularity surrounding “Sleigh Ride” and “Blue Tango,” another piece by Leroy Anderson, led people to expect more hits.

“People don’t realize that what the public chooses to make a hit is their choice, he just [tried] to write good music,” Kurt Anderson said.

The fame also led to invitations to guest conduct many great orchestras, including the Cleveland Orchestra in 1954 and 1957.

“It’s one thing to sit at home,’ he would say, ‘and write good music. But it’s another to go out and perform,” Kurt Anderson said.

The Cleveland Orchestra began regularly performing “Sleigh Ride” at its Christmas concerts beginning in 1988. This year’s concerts run Dec. 10-18.

Hear Kurt Anderson discuss the history behind “Sleigh Ride” during Here and Now featuring the Sound of Applause on 90.3 on Tuesday at 12:33 p.m. and 1:52 p.m.

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