Alfred Reed (1921-2005) was born in New York City. He studied composition at the Juilliard School with Vittorio Giannini after a tour in the US Air Force during World War II. He was later a staff arranger for NBC in the 1950s and a professor of music at the University of Miami from 1966 to 1993. He is remembered today as a distinguished educator, conductor, and composer. His impact was the greatest in the wind band world, where he left behind more than 100 frequently performed works. He was particularly popular in Japan, where he developed a close relationship with the Tokyo Kosei Wind Orchestra, and where many of his works are required literature for all bands.
Russian Christmas Music is one of the many Alfred Reed pieces that is counted among the standard repertoire for wind bands. Its score contains the following program note:
Originally written in November 1944, Russian Christmas Music was first performed in December of that year at a special concert in Denver, Colorado, by a select group of musicians from five of the leading service bands stationed in that area. Two years later the music was revised and somewhat enlarged, and in that form was one of the three prize-winning works in the 1947 Columbia University contest for new serious music for symphonic band. First performances of this second version subsequently took place in 1948: the first by the Juilliard Band under Donald I. Moore, and the second by the Syracuse University Symphonic Band under Harwood Simmons, to whom the work was dedicated. Since then this music, although not previously published, has remained in the repertory of the concert band consistently and has established the composer as one of the most important writers for the contemporary band or wind ensemble.
This published edition represents a thorough revision of the entire work by the composer in keeping with the developing instrumentation of the serious band or wind ensemble. It incorporates all of the many changes that have taken place in this area during the past years. Although the music is essentially the same, the instrumentation has been completely reworked throughout to achieve even greater clarity of texture and the utmost sonority possible. Thus we attain a degree of differentiation in the brass choirs that has come to be an accepted characteristic of the contemporary attitude toward the large-scale wind-brass-percussion ensemble.
An ancient Russian Christmas carol (“Carol of the Little Russian Children“), together with a good deal of original material and some motivic elements derived from the liturgical music of the Eastern Orthodox Church, forms the basis for this musical impression of Old Russia during the jubilant Christmas season. Although cast in the form of a single, continuous movement, four distinct sections may be easily recognized, which the composer originally subtitled “Children’s Carol,” “Antiphonal Chant,” “Village Song,” and the closing “Cathedral Chorus.” 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.
The note above dwells on instrumentation, and for good reason. Russian Christmas Music is unique in several aspects of its instrumentation. There is a huge English Horn solo. Contrabass clarinet, bass sax, and contrabassoon all have parts. It calls for 4 trumpets and 3 cornets, some which also divide into two parts – Reed even specifies in the conductor notes to double each of the trumpet parts, calling in total for 11 players. There are 4 trombone parts. The string bass has a large and independent part. The percussion section is huge for its time, and requires 3 different mallet instruments. While some of this is commonplace now, this was a strikingly large band to ask for in 1944.
This program note from the Foothill Symphonic Winds illuminates some drama in the piece’s conception:
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 premiers 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 Corp’s 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 December 12, 1944, on a nationwide NBC broadcast. A concert performance was given in Denver two days later.
Here’s a contemporary English language version of the Russian Children’s Carol, which you will recognize immediately:
And here is a loose sampling of Russian Orthodox liturgical music. The bells play an important part.