Do you ever wonder what inspires composers and songwriters to create the music they do? Would you be surprised to learn that some of our favorite Christmas tunes were written in the heat of the summer?
Music is a great time traveler. Hearing a beloved song can quickly take us back in time through the memories we have of singing or listening to it years ago with friends and family. Christmas music has even more power to help us recall fond memories from our younger days.
Many of the songs we hear at Christmastime today are the same ones we enjoyed when we were younger and in some cases, even our parents and grandparents enjoyed when they were younger – often even by the same artists.
Check the copyright dates of Christmas classics and you will find that “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” was first published in 1949, “Winter Wonderland” in 1934, and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” in 1943. Even though these songs are decades old, they are still loved by children and adults today.
On today’s podcast, I’ll share some of the interesting things I discovered about some of the songs we enjoy throughout the holiday season.
Sleigh Ride by Leroy Anderson (Woodbury, CT July 1946)
During a July heat wave and drought, Leroy was digging trenches to try to find some old pipes coming from a spring. He began composing several tunes, including Sleigh Ride (Sleðaferð), in which he envisioned as a musical depiction of the winter season long ago.
Here is a wonderful video of John Williams conducting the Boston Pops Orchestra in “Sleigh Ride”. Boston Pops premiered “Sleigh Ride” May 4, 1948, not your typical calendar date for a holiday tune. My favorite part is the moving bass line at 1:50 of the video.
The Christmas Song by Bob Wells and Mel Tormè (Toluca Lake, CA July 1945)
It was a sweltering hot July afternoon in 1945 when Mel Tormé showed up for a writing session at the Toluca Lake house of his lyric partner Bob Wells. … “It’s so d— hot today, I thought I’d writing something to cool myself off,” Wells replied. “All I could think of was Christmas and cold weather.”
In this video, you see Mel Tormè and Judy Garland singing “The Christmas Song”. I love watching composers play their own music like Mel Tormè does here. Notice, too, that Judy Garland makes a mistake with the lyrics at 2:58 but she doesn’t panic. She simply salvages the line, smiles, and keeps singing. What a great lesson for our piano kids! Music is not about perfection; it is about giving your audience an enjoyable performance. I believe Judy’s mistake is endearing and gives this video even more character and charm.
(Did you notice where Judy sang “rainbows” instead of “reindeer”? I suppose the one and only Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz had much more practice singing about rainbows.) 🙂
White Christmas by Irving Berlin (Los Angeles, CA 1937)
I’m taking a bit of liberty with this selection. While it wasn’t written during the summer, it was inspired while the composer, Irving Berlin, was working in Los Angeles, California. Don’t they have perpetual summer there? It was during the holiday season of 1937 and Irving Berlin was working on a movie in Beverly Hills and missing his wife and three daughters who were home in New York.
I think part of the attraction to “White Christmas” is the simplicity of it. With only 54 words and 67 notes, it is very musically accessible. Of course, part of the connection is all the memories that hearing “White Christmas” brings to mind.
Mr. Berlin wrote another simple song, “God Bless America”. I am looking forward to researching more about this iconic song in an upcoming podcast episode.
The legendary Berlin, one of Americas greatest, was a Russian, Jewish immigrant who, though he couldn’t even read or write music notation, managed to compose over 1,000 songs, the very foundation of our American songbook.
But it’s “White Christmas,” one of his simplest, just 54 words and 67 now classic notes, that remains his most popular.
Here is Bing Crosby singing “White Christmas”. I like the contrast and comparison in this video between his first and last performances that were filmed. How many thousands of times do you think he sang this song in that 35-year span? Still, he made that final performance look and sound as special as the first. That’s another lesson for our piano kids: No matter how many times you’ve played a piece of music, make it special for the audience.
Here is The Drifter’s version of “White Christmas”.
I can’t decide which version is my favorite! Do you have a favorite? Tell me which one in the comment section below.
I’d also like to hear which Irving Berlin song you think is the best: “White Christmas” or “God Bless America”. Comment below.
But there was someone else Irving missed, too. Someone whose loss he grieved in that song: his infant son, Irving Berlin Jr., who died in 1928 on Christmas Day. Every Christmas, Berlin and his wife would visit their son’s grave before returning home to open presents with their daughters, who wouldn’t learn until they were older that they’d had a brother.
Suddenly the line, “just like the ones I used to know” takes on fresh, heartbreaking weight.
During World War I, … Berlin helped his country — by putting on a show, Yip Yip Yahank. He gave all the money the show earned, $150,000, for an Army camp service center.
He did the same during World War II, creating a show, This is the Army, which was performed on Broadway and was made into a 1943 movie, …. Berlin traveled with the show for 3 1/2 years, refused any salary or compensation for his expenses, and gave all profits, which added up to more than $10 million, to the Army. President Harry S. Truman thanked him by awarding him the Army’s Medal of Merit in 1945.
Hallelujah Chorus by George Frideric Handel (Brook Street, London, August 22, 1741)
Though it pains me to confess this to you, I was never really a fan of Handel’s Messiah or the Hallelujah Chorus until I read Chapter 1 of Kavanaugh’s book. It was too stuffy in my opinion. Now that I know the backstory, I have a greater appreciation for the true miracle this musical masterpiece is.
Three important variables converged in order to spark the creation of Handel’s work:
Handel was on the verge of financial ruin and facing debtor’s prison.
Charles Jennings, a friend of Handel, sent him a libretto containing Scripture passages about the life of Christ.
A Dublin, Ireland charity reached out to Handel to commission him to write music to raise funds.
In just over three weeks, Handel hand wrote 260 pages of musical manuscript! That feat alone is mind-boggling but then to realize he was composing, not simply copying the music is astounding.
The premiere performance took place April 13, 1742, in Dublin as a charitable benefit. The performance raised 400 pounds and freed 142 men from debtor’s prison. In subsequent years, Handel continued to conduct performances of Messiah to benefit other charities, particularly the Foundling Hospital in London, England.
Here is a lovely theatrical trailer for a documentary called “Messiah at the Foundling Hospital”. If you know where I can watch the full documentary, please tell me in the comments. I’d love to watch the whole program.
I’ll stop for now but you are welcome to continue to explore the history of other Christmas songs.
You might also enjoy The Origins of 10 Popular Christmas Carols.
Thank you for listening to the podcast and for visiting the website.
Send me that code!
Should you choose to accept this mission, type your name and preferred email address then click the green "I Accept This Mission" button.
Your top-secret code will be sent to you ASAP.