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Sleigh Ride!

Sleigh Ride!
Andrea Stark
Sleigh Ride!

We New Englanders know the routine: we go from hay rides to sleigh rides. Well, some of us do. OK, probably none of us do any more – when was the last time anyone actually knew where they could go for a sleigh ride locally? But it doesn’t matter. The very idea of going for a ride, huddled with your honey under a big warm blanket, is one of the most endearing and satisfying winter dreams so many of us share. Here’s your playlist for your next real (or wished-for) experience!

Let’s go all the way back to Wolfgang Mozart’s composer/violinist/teacher dad. Leopold Mozart’s The Musical Sleighride was written in 1755. If ever a musical piece could be said to have “special effects,” this piece would be it. Leopold specifies that, in addition to the use of actual sleigh bells, the performers include sounds for horse hooves, a cracking whip, and dogs barking. The Ensemble Eduard Melkus captures the scene for us:

The only time I’ve heard this piece in concert was at a children’s matinee to which I brought my own son when he was about four years old. Although I’m guessing it was an unfamiliar piece to most of the kids in the audience, they all sat there mesmerized, delighting in sounds that they could imagine actually happening.

Here’s a case of “like father like son,” as Leopold’s son Wolfgang also painted a musical picture of a sleigh ride. It was during his time as the Imperial Chamber Composer for Emperor Joseph II. He started the job in December of 1787, with the understanding that he needed to write dance music for the many balls held in the royal courts. As one who liked to dance, this was not a chore for Mozart. In fact, he had started writing a set of dances earlier that year, and once he got the court position he buckled down and wrote many others right away.

In his collection known as Three German Dances, K. 605, the first two are in typical dance style for the Vienna of the day. The third one, “Schlittenfahrt (Sleigh Ride)” is in a different style from those, but has a very special charm to which everyone could relate. Other than the typical instruments of the day, he makes use of sleigh bells, as well. Here’s Willi Boskovsky conducting the Vienna Mozart Ensemble:

I think the beginning of the piece with the sleigh bells would have been a tough part to dance to, but Mozart sure knows his dance music once you get past the introduction.

Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky wrote a sleigh ride into “November,” from The Seasons. In 1876 a music magazine commissioned Tchaikovsky to write 12 pieces, one for each month of the year, that they, in turn, would publish. Like the Mozart pieces that came before him, his Troika (Sleigh Ride) also includes sleigh bells and uplifting movements of sounds to which everyone could relate. Neeme Järvi conducts the Detroit Symphony Orchestra:

By the way, a Google search for this piece yielded mostly orchestra versions, but it turns out you can also find the music in many other arrangements, including for solo piano and for handbell choir!

German-English composer Frederick Delius also described a sleigh ride in a short tone poem. And yes, you will hear sleigh bells! He had included the snowy travel scene in his Three Small Tone Poems. The story is a little more complicated, though. It’s believed that he first wrote a piano piece titled Norwegische Schlittenfarhrt  (Norwegian Sleigh Ride), in honor of his friend, the Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg, who attended its premier on Christmas Eve of 1887. Unfortunately, that first iteration was lost. In 1889 he wrote Winternacht (Winter Night No. 2), believed to have been based on his original Norwegian Sleigh Ride and later changed the title to simply Sleigh Ride.

In Delius’s own notes he writes about hearing a sleigh approach from the distance, “but soon it rushed by and disappeared.” He writes that sensation into this piece.
Conductor John Rutter and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra set the snowy scene for us:

Sleigh Ride became one of Delius’s most popular short pieces.

Another short sleigh piece that piano students will eventually tackle (thank you, Mrs. C, and yes, I still play this as a warm-up exercise), is from Jacques Ibert’s 1943 Petite Suite en 15 images. In about one minute’s time Ibert brings sleigh bells, horse hooves clip-clopping and a cheery outlook on winter into the listener’s imagination. Here is Jean-Yves Sebillotte:

How about a summertime sleigh ride? Well, the story goes that composer and long-time Boston Pops collaborator/arranger Leroy Anderson was back home in Woodbury, Connecticut in July of 1946 after having served in World War II. There was an insufferable heat wave that summer and Anderson was inspired to write about having fun in the snow to give folks a cool break, if only psychologically. Since it was not written specifically for the winter season, Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops Orchestra premiered the piece in May of 1948! They recorded it the next year and it has been a holiday pops staple ever since.

In 1950 Mitchell Parrish added lyrics. There have been numerous recordings of the song version over the years, from Bing Crosby to Ella Fitzgerald, The Spice Girls, and even the Star Wars androids CP3O and R2D2. (I kid you not. It’s one of the pieces on “their” 1980’s album, Christmas in the Stars.)

Around the time Leroy Anderson was writing his Sleigh Ride, Sergei Prokofiev was writing the soundtrack to the 1947 movie, Lieutenant Kijé. He included a sleigh ride, called Troika (which is a 3-horse-drawn Russian sleigh). Here’s the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, led by Claudio Abbado:

You can hear another performance of this piece in my Winter blog post from January of 2023.

Finally, if your son or daughter has been in the school band in the last dozen years or so, he or she may have played a piece in their holiday concert titled Minka’s Sleigh Ride. It’s based on an old Ukrainian folk tune called “Minka,” that actually inspired pieces by Beethoven and Hummel. It was paired in 2007 with an old Russian folk tune, “The Birch Tree.” The blended version, arranged by Pierre La Plante, includes (you guessed it) sleigh bells, along with wood blocks to create the sound of horse hooves, all combining to describe another wintry sleigh ride. Publishers J. W. Pepper & Son, Inc. produced this orchestrated version:

And if some of this sounded familiar to you, “The Birch Tree” was quoted by Tchaikovsky in his Symphony No. 4.

Whether you’re the type to venture to a nearby farm for a winter sleigh ride, complete with a thick blanket and Thermos of cocoa, or you prefer your “sleigh rides” in your fully heated minivan, take along this little collection and enjoy the sounds of the season.

CODA: Most of us associate “sleigh ride” music with the Christmas holidays, as they appear each holiday season on every radio station it seems. It’s only natural that “Jingle Bells” and its lyrics describing “Dashing through the snow in a one-horse open sleigh” be included, right? Well, not so fast. Did you know that “Jingle Bells” could have been written as a Thanksgiving song? In 1850, James Lord Pierpont penned the song in a tavern in Medford, Massachusetts. Some say it was meant for a Sunday school choir to sing, and others theorize it was intended as a drinking song. Either way, it has come down to us through the ages as possibly the first non-sacred song most of us learn for Christmas sing-alongs. Here’s Frank Sinatra’s version:

Laura Carlo is the Morning Program Host for CRB.