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Celebrating 75 years of 'Russian Christmas Music'

St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow is surrounded by Christmas lights and decorations. Mladen Antonov/AFP via Getty Images
13min 55sec : Alfred Reed: 'Russian Christmas Music' (Dallas Wind Symphony/Junkin)

LISTEN Concert Band stream

Alfred Reed's Russian Christmas Music has become a majestic mainstay of the concert band repertoire since its debut in 1944 — so popular, in fact, that it's programmed year-round, not just during the holidays.

"What I continue to like about the work is its agelessness," says composer Jack Stamp, whose Gavorkna Fanfare also has become a concert band staple. "It has seemingly stood the test of time, and that is a credit to Alfred Reed's craftsmanship as a composer."

As Russian Christmas Music marks its 75th anniversary, it's worth retelling how remarkable its world premiere was.

According to excellent program notes by the Foothill Symphonic Winds, one of many bands that plays the work regularly:

Alfred Reed Provided

Alfred Reed was a 23-year-old staff arranger for the 529th Army Air Corps Band when he was called upon to create what has become a masterpiece of the wind literature. It was in 1944, when optimism was running high with 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 premieres of new works from both countries. Roy Harris was placed in charge and planned the second movement of his Sixth Symphony (the Abraham Lincoln Symphony) to be the American work. The Russian work was to have been Prokofiev's March, Op. 99, but Harris discovered that it had already been performed in the United States (by Reed's own organization). With just 16 days until the concert, Harris assigned Reed, already working for Harris as an aid, to compose a new Russian work for the concert. Scouring the corps' music library, Reed found an authentic 16th-century Russian Christmas Song "Carol of the Little Russian Children" to use for an introductory theme. Drawing on his investigations of Eastern Orthodox liturgical music for other thematic ideas, he completed the score of Russian Christmas Music in 11 days; copyists took another two days to prepare parts for rehearsal. The music was first performed on Dec. 12, 1944, on a nationwide NBC broadcast. A concert performance was given in Denver two days later.

Running about 15 minutes, Russian Christmas Music is divided into four sections: "Children's Carol," "Antiphonal Chant," "Village Song" and the closing "Cathedral Chorus."

"It was a while until I realized that he used actual Russian tunes in the piece, however obscure," Stamp said. "It really is a one-movement symphony, and to think it was written in the 1940s. To me, it is in many ways, the Pines of the Appian Way for band."

Like Ottorino Respighi's popular work (part of his larger Pines of Rome) and orchestrations of Modest Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, Russian Christmas Music plays with various themes as it slowly and steadily builds to a thunderous climax.

"All of the resources of the modern, integrated symphonic band are drawn upon to create an almost overwhelming sound picture of tone color, power and sonority," according to the notes in the score.

"My first experience with the piece was as a trombone player," said Jerry Luckhardt, the associate director of bands at the University of Minnesota and a noted guest conductor and band clinician. "The ending was like — you live for those moments!"

Russian Christmas Music's popularity has spread beyond the concert stage, too. The work has become indelibly identified with the Crossmen drum and bugle corps, which has performed the work in five of its field shows over its 45-year history and made the work its signature tune. Many other corps have performed the work, too, including heavyweights such as Drum Corps International's Carolina Crown, the Cavaliers and Santa Clara Vanguard, and Drum Corps Associates' Reading Buccaneers.

It's clear that Russian Christmas Music remains as vital to the band repertoire today as it was hoped to be when it debuted 75 years ago.

"It's a wonderful work to program and a joy to conduct," Luckhardt said, adding: "It has to be an ending piece. What do you program after that work?"

More resources

Wind Band Literature: Russian Christmas Music, by Andy Pease

Wikipedia: Russian Christmas Music

Recommended recording (listen using the player above): Horns for the Holidays — Dallas Wind Symphony, conducted by Jerry Junkin (Reference Recordings)

LISTEN Concert Band stream

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