It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Russian Christmas Music — Alfred Reed, orchestration by Clark McAllister
Originally written in November 1944, Alfred Reed composed Russian Christmas Music for symphonic band, based on the liturgical music of the Eastern Orthodox Church. In 1944, when optimism was running high from the successful invasion of France and Belgium by the Allied forces, a holiday band concert was planned by the city of Denver to further promote Russian-American unity with premiers of new works from both countries. The original Russian work was to have been Prokofiev’s March, Op. 99, but it had already been premiered, so 16 days before the concert, Reed was asked to compose a new Russian work for it.  He completed the score in 11 days, then spent 2 more days preparing parts for the rehearsal. Two years later the music was revised and somewhat enlarged, and that form was one of the three prize-winning works in the 1947 Columbia University contest for new serious music for symphonic band. It has remained in the repertory of concert bands consistently since 1948 and has established the composer as one of the most important writers for contemporary bands or wind ensembles. It is intended to transport the listener to Old Russia during the Christmas season. Although it is written as one piece, it includes four distinct sections: the Children’s Carol, Antiphonal Chant, Village Song, and Cathedral Chorus. Each of these sections has its base in choral music, which makes the piece lyric in style. It is one of the most popular and frequently performed pieces of concert band literature.

Clark McAlister, who orchestrated this work, is a music editor and arranger who worked at Kalmus Music Publishing. Reed stated, “I am delighted to say that Clark McAlister’s transcription of this music, made under my supervision, meets with my unqualified approval and recommendation as having entered so closely into the letter and spirit of the original scoring as to be, truly indistinguishable from my own approach.”

The opening section is based on a 16th Century Christmas Carol, Carol of the Little Russian Children. It is followed by the Antiphonal Chant heard initially in the low brass. The Village Song is next and features two solos, one in the  English Horn, flutes and French horns which all leads to the final section, The Cathedral Chorus. The piece was performed for the 2005 “Christmas with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir” with the choir singing the Cathedral Chorus.

‘Twas the Night Before Christmas — Bill Holcombe
The original title of the iconic poem was “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” This poem, written in 1837, has created many of the traditions we associate with Christmas. Coca-Cola (TM) based their soda campaign on the description from this poem and the rest is history. At that time in America there were many different ideas about the appearance of Saint Nicholas. When this poem was published we had an interesting description not only of the “jolly old elf” himself, but a description of his transportation and activities. Eight reindeer were very exotic and their ability to fly was amazing!

In the 1980s the Philadelphia Pops Orchestra, conducted by Peter Nero, commissioned Bill Holcombe to create a music setting for the Philadelphia Phillies’s star pitcher Tug McGraw to narrate. Holcombe has a background in swing, jazz, radio, and TV music, and this piece includes fragments of easily recognizable carols and songs. Each theme illustrates the narrative. There are also some Jazz and Big Band elements to give the music a modern, festive flavor. Geoff Heath, our new concert announcer will narrate for us tonight.

The First Noel  (2008) – Ric Flauding

The First Noel is a traditional, classical English Christmas Carol. Noel is an Early Modern English synonym of “Christmas.” Today we are most familiar with the four-part hymn arrangement by English composer John Stainer which was published in 1871. The melody is unusual among English folk melodies because it consists of one musical phrase repeated twice followed by a refrain which is a variation on that phrase. All three phrases end on the third of the scale.

This is an Epiphany carol. Historically, carols would have been sung outside the Catholic Mass in non-liturgical gatherings and spread through oral tradition. In their earliest forms, they would have been ways of preserving and spreading biblical or quasi-religious narratives among those who were not literate. The carol folk tradition was used at other high seasons of the Christian Year, including Holy Week and Easter. Christmas hymns are a part of the literate song tradition. They were used by the Church Clergy, but since congregational singing was very limited, they were not sung by people. Christmas hymns are part of the tradition of the Church and can be traced back to the fourth century; carols are of more recent origin, the 15th and 16th Century.

Ric Flauding is an award-winning composer, arranger, songwriter, and classically trained guitarist. He has composed and arranged in styles ranging from jazz  and easy listening to classical and orchestral, and has performed with some of America’s best known jazz and pop artists. He has arranged and composed for soloists, ensembles and orchestras in Europe, the U.K. and several U.S. cities, and he teaches performance, composition, and theory to students in this country and abroad. He is a jazz-band conductor and a frequent clinician, adjudicator, and guest performer for colleges and regional band competitions.

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year — George Wyle & Edward Pola, Arr. Mark Hayes

This popular Christmas song was written in 1963 and recorded by Andy Williams on his first Christmas album. George Wyle was the vocal director for The Andy Williams Show. He wrote all the music for that show and Andy Williams decided to use it as a theme for his next few shows. It celebrates some of the activities associated with the Christmas season. The telling of “scary ghost stories” was a Victorian tradition that has fallen into disuse, but survives in the story A Christmas Carol which is viewed annually many times. Slowly, it became a Christmas standard and is now one of the top 10 Christmas songs of all time.

In the issue of Billboard magazine dated November 28, 2009, the list of the “Top 10 Holiday Songs (since 2001)” places it at #5. The American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) started compiling data regarding the radio airplay of holiday songs and although it started out at #25 of twenty-five songs, it gained steam over the next ten years reaching #18 in 2002, #13 in 2003 and eventually #4 in 2010. In December 2017, Andy Williams’ version of the song entered the top 40 of the Billboard Hot 100 for the first time, and peaked at number 32.

Carol of the Kings – Paul Anderson

Our own trombonist, Paul Anderson, has created an exciting arrangement of two well-known Christmas songs: Carol of the Bells and We Three Kings. Paul Anderson began playing music at a young age and has performed in many organizations. He is proficient in styles from classic to popular and jazz. He created this piece originally for a family Christmas performance.  Carol of the Bells was originally sung in pre-Christian Ukraine to welcome spring. We Three Kings was written by John Henry Hopkins in 1857 for a Christmas Pageant in New York City. The carol’s melody has been described as “sad” and “shifting” in nature. Because of this, it highly resembles both music from the Middle Ages and Middle Eastern music to which it is has been frequently compared.


Greensleeves/What Child is This? – Ralph Vaughn Williams, Arr. Ralph Graves

Greensleeves is an English is a Christmas carol whose lyrics were written by William Chatterton Dix, in 1865. At the time of composing the carol, Dix worked as an insurance company manager and had been struck by a severe illness. While recovering, he underwent a spiritual renewal that led him to write several hymns, including lyrics to this carol that was subsequently set to the tune of Greensleeves, a traditional English folk song.

The original words to Greensleeves are anything but spiritual and are actually quite bawdy for the time. One possible interpretation of the lyrics is that Lady Green Sleeves was a promiscuous young woman and perhaps a prostitute.  At the time, the word “green” had sexual connotations, most notably in the phrase “a green gown”, a reference to the grass stains on a woman’s dress from rolling in the grass outdoors. Its transformation into a Christmas Carol could be seen as a step up for the lovely tune. By the 19th Century almost every printed collection of Christmas Carols included some version of the words and music together, most of them ending with the refrain “On Christmas Day in the morning.”  Although it was written in England, the carol is more popular in the United States than in its country of origin.

A Festive Fanfare — Brian Balmages
A fanfare is a short ceremonial tune or flourish, usually played on brass instruments, typically used to introduce something or someone important. Tonight’s fanfare was written to signal the beginning of this most festive season. It features a mix of original themes and snippets of holiday favorites. It doesn’t sound like a medley, but an echoing fanfare. Brian Balmages is a contemporary composer and conductor who has composed and conducted music for bands and orchestras worldwide. He has worked extensively with bands and orchestras at all levels and is currently the Director of Instrumental Publications for the FJH (Frank J. Hackinson) Music Company, a publishing firm that specializes in educational music, in Florida.

Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24 – Paul O’Neill & Robert Kinket, arr. Bob Phillip
The Trans-Siberian Orchestra is a side group formed by members of a hard rock band called “Savantage.” Because Savatage had the well-earned reputation of being an ’80s Heavy Metal band, many radio stations were reluctant to play their Christmas offerings. Evidently, they never even listened to it because the next year, when it was released the under the name Trans-Siberian Orchestra, it was #1 on 500 radio stations.

Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24 is an instrumental medley of God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen and Shchedryk, the melody known as Carol of the Bells. Both of the tunes used in Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24 were in the public domain in 1995: Shchedryk was released in 1918 (although the English lyrics to Carol of the Bells, dating to 1936, were still under copyright and were not included in the recording), while God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen dates back several centuries.

This song tells the story of a Sarajevo-born cellist Vedran Smailovic, who returns to his homeland to find it in ruins after the Bosnian War. TSO lyricist Paul O’Neill explained to Christianity Today, “I think what most broke this man’s heart was that the destruction was not done by some outside invader or natural disaster—it was done by his own people. At that time, Serbs were shelling Sarajevo every night. Rather than head for the bomb shelters like his family and neighbors, this man went to the town square, climbed onto a pile of rubble that had once been the fountain, took out his cello, and played Mozart and Beethoven as the city was bombed.”

TSO created this instrumental medley of Carol of the Bells and God Rest You Merry Gentlemen to fit the story. “The orchestra represents one side, the rock band the other, and single cello represents that single individual, that spark of hope,” O’Neill said.

A Mad Russian’s Christmas – Paul O’Neil & Robert Kinkel and Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Arr. Bob Phillips
The Trans-Siberian Orchestra is a hard rock group that gained popularity when they began touring in 1999. They are the first major rock band to go straight to the theaters and arenas, having never played at a club, never having an opening act, and never being an opening act. They skillfully combine traditional and classical music with exciting electric guitars, drums, voices, and amplified strings. They are also known for their elaborate concerts which include a string sections, a light show, lasers, “enough pyro to be seen from the International Space Station,” with moving trusses, video screens, and effects synchronized to music.

A Mad Russian’s Christmas is the traditional tune, Trepak, from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker ballet, enhanced with the addition of a rhythm section and an electric guitar. The local band, Rumor Has It, will add their talents to tonight’s performance.

Sleigh Ride – Leroy Anderson
Sleigh Ride is a popular light orchestra standard composed by Leroy Anderson. In the early 1930s, a Harvard graduate student named Leroy Anderson thought there wasn’t much future in music. At the last minute he changed his mind and decided to be the director of the Harvard University Band where he became acquainted with Arthur Feidler, the music director for the Boston Pops Orchestra. After a few interesting pieces, Leroy Anderson became one of the most successful composers of light orchestra music ever.

The composer had the original idea for the piece during a heat wave in July 1946 in Woodbury, Connecticut where he was vacationing, and finished the work in February 1948. It was originally instrumental; the lyrics, where someone asks another to join them for a ride in a sleigh, were written by Mitchell Parish in 1950. The orchestral version was first recorded in 1949 by Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops Orchestra. Sleigh Ride was a hit record and has become one of the orchestra’s signature songs. The 45 rpm version was originally issued on red vinyl. The Pops also recorded the song with John Williams, their conductor from 1979 to 1995, and Keith Lockhart, their current conductor. Sleigh Ride is similar in theme to the earlier song Jingle Bells.

Sleigh Ride does not make any specific reference to Christmas, but the seasonal imagery has made it very much associated with the holiday. It’s hard to think of a sleigh in winter without thinking of Santa. Sleigh Ride was instantly beloved from the time the Boston Pops introduced it in 1948. Their recording, made the next year, was a big hit and it’s never gone out of fashion.

In his book Leroy Anderson: A Bio-Bibliography [Praeger 2004], Steve Metcalf says “Sleigh Ride… has been performed and recorded by a wider array of musical artists than any other piece in the history of Western music.”