A Couple of Christmas Crackers

These two pieces are instantly recognisable as classic yuletide stuff, but they’re not hymns, carols or ’70s pop hits. They’re similar in feel and have interesting histories that you may not know.

PROKOFIEV’S TROIKA

In the early ’30s Prokofiev produced a score for a highly influential Soviet film called Lieutenant Kije. It was a brave and clever film that took the piss out of fearful deference under the Tzars, but the contemporary resonance pinged out clearly under the radar. Musically, it was notable for two reasons – it was one of the first times a “serious” composer had dirtied their hands with the vulgar new world of film, and it was probably also the first time a film score was reset as a concert suite in its own right. (One which has become far more popular than the film itself.)

The film contains a scene with a frantic drunken nocturnal ride on a troika (the traditional Russian sled pulled by three horses – troika means trio). For the accompanying music, Prokofiev adapted a Cossack song and the resulting piece is now forever associated with Christmas, even though the original context was nothing to do with it.

You might recognise it from Greg Lake’s I Believe (and you might also recognise the main theme from the film and suite from Sting’s Russians).

There are versions of Troika everywhere, but here’s a link to the actual film. The sequence starts at around 45:40. It’s interesting to experience it in its original context:

And here’s Frederic Chiu’s formidable Lisztian piano transcription:

I have an autographed copy of this suite and I often marvel at it, and occasionally chip away at it, as much as a masterclass in the art of orchestral transcription as anything else. Chiu is, for my rouble, the best Prokofiev exponent out there – his Sonata recordings are wonderful.

ANDERSON’S SLEIGH RIDE

Leroy Anderson isn’t very well known, but he was a prolific and successful composer of light orchestral music – not that there was anything remotely light about his talent for composition and orchestration.

Sleigh Ride was written during a sweltering summer in the mid ’40s and only got its sleighing ring-ting-a-linging lyrics later. Again, neither the original tune nor lyrics are specific to Christmas – but the rest is history.

Anderson also wrote the famous Concerto for Typewriter. They’re both known as novelty pieces of course, but believe me, even the snobbiest orchestras love playing them.

Sleigh Ride has been covered many times (notably by the Andrews Sisters and the Ronettes with some serious Phil Spector beef behind them). But the original was often featured in the Boston Pops programmes, as here:

Enjoy these winter warmers. And now you can bore people with “interesting” facts about them…

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