Leroy Anderson (June 29, 1908 – May 18, 1975) was best known as an American composer of short, light concert music pieces, many of which were introduced by the Boston Pops Orchestra under the direction of Arthur Fiedler. John Williams described him as "one of the great American masters of light orchestral music".
Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Leroy Anderson was given his first piano lessons by his mother, who was an organist. He continued piano lessons with Henry Gideon at the New England Conservatory of Music, and adding double bass lessons from Gaston Dufresne in Boston. In 1926 Anderson entered Harvard, where he studied theory with Walter Spalding, counterpoint with Edward Ballantine, harmony with George Enescu and composition with Walter Piston, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1929 and Master of Arts in 1930.
He continued studying at Harvard, focusing on Scandinavian languages, while also working as organist for the university, leading the choir and the University Band, and conducting and arranging for dance bands around Boston. This work came to the attention of Arthur Fiedler, who in 1936 hired Anderson to arrange traditional and popular music for the Boston Pops, as well as write original compositions, commissioning Anderson to write Jazz Legato in 1938 and Jazz Stacatto in 1939 .
In 1942, Anderson joined the U.S. Army, as a translator and intelligence officer, working at the Pentagon on Scandinavian intelligence matters during World War II. But his duties did not prevent him from composing, and in 1946 Anderson wrote his first hit, The Syncopated Clock, earning a Golden Disc and the No. 11 spot on the Billboard charts.
His pieces, and his recordings during the fifties directing a studio orchestra, were immense commercial successes. Blue Tango was the first instrumental recording ever to sell a million copies. His most famous pieces are probably Sleigh Ride and The Syncopated Clock, both of which are instantly recognizable to millions of people. In 1950 WCBS selected Syncopated Clock as the theme song for The Late Show, and later used as the music for Final Jeopardy on the game show Jeopardy in the 70s. Mitchell Parish added words to Clock, and later did for many other Anderson tunes. According to a 1953 study, Anderson was the American composer most performed by American orchestras.
Anderson's musical style, heavily influenced by George Gershwin and folk music of various lands, employs creative instrumental effects and occasionally items not traditionally used as musical instruments, such as typewriters and sandpaper. (Krzysztof Penderecki has also a typewriter in his orchestral music, in Fluorescences, but with a decidedly less humorous effect).
Anderson wrote his Piano Concerto in C in 1953, but withdrew it feeling that it had weak spots. In 1988 Erich Kunzel and the Rochester Pops Orchestra released the first recording of this work; some structural weaknesses are evident, but the fact that other recordings have since been released shows that it is more than a curiosity.
In 1957, Anderson orchestrated Meredith Willson's 76 Trombones, inspiring him to write his own musical the following year, Goldilocks, which earned a Tony but not much commercial success. Anderson never wrote another musical, preferring instead to continue writing orchestral miniatures. Some of his pieces, particularly "The Typewriter" and "Bugler's Holiday", are also performed by many high school bands.
For his contribution to the recording industry, Leroy Anderson has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1620 Vine Street. He was posthumously inducted into the Songwriters' Hall of Fame in 1988 and his music continues to be a staple of "pops" orchestra repertoire.
- Once Upon a Sleigh Ride PBS website devoted to a recent documentary about Anderson; biographical sketches, photographs, etc.
- Official Leroy Anderson website maintained by his family.
- Blue Tango sound clip
- The Syncopated Clock sound clip
- Sleigh Ride sound clip
- Leroy Anderson biography on the Songwriters' Hall of Fame site