Composer Leroy Anderson: Cambridge Born and Bred

by Jane Anderson Vercelli, 2008

While the entertaining music of Leroy Anderson is heard all over the world today, the composer who wrote “Sleigh Ride” was born, raised, and educated in Cambridge, thanks to his Swedish parents, who immigrated as children to the United States. They chose to make Cambridge their home because they wanted Leroy and his brother to be educated at good schools and to qualify for scholarships to Harvard College.

During his lifetime, Anderson arranged, conducted, and composed mostly instrumental music, including the whimsical “Syncopated Clock,” “Waltzing Cat,” and “The Typewriter,” and the rousing “Bugler’s Holiday.” The lilting “Sleigh Ride” is the exception. So many people know lyricist Mitchell Parish’s opening words, “Just hear those sleigh bells jingling,” that they often refer to the song as “Sleigh Bells.”

This recent CD of Leroy Anderson’s music features the world-premiere recording of the “Cambridge Centennial March of Industry”—a newly discovered unpublished composition.

The centennial of Anderson’s birth in 1908 is being celebrated in concerts around the country and the world. On September 3, at the Hatch Shell in Boston, the Boston Landmarks Orchestra under the direction of conductor Charles Ansbacher will dedicate part of its concert, titled “Red Sox and Apple Pie,” to Anderson’s music.

Leroy’s father, Bror Anton, the seventh of eight children, was born in Ovarp near Kristianstad in southern Sweden and immigrated with his family to Chicago in March 1882. A graduate of North Park College in the 1890s, he moved to Philadelphia and then to Cambridge, where he worked for the post office his entire life. As a young man, Bror played mandolin and banjo.

Leroy’s mother, Anna Margareta, was born in Stockholm, the youngest of four daughters of Bengt Jonsson (later Johnson) and Maria Lovisa Horling. The family immigrated in 1887 to Worcester and then to Cambridge. Bengt, a fine woodworker, built Victorian piano cases for the Ivers and Pond Company of Boston. The most musically gifted of the four daughters, Anna played piano, organ, and guitar, and was excused from doing housework to protect her hands.

Anna and Bror Anderson with their sons Leroy (left) and Russell. Courtesy of Jane Anderson Vercelli.

Anna and Bror, whose nickname was Ed, met and married in October 1904, when both were 25. They lived with Anna’s parents and two unmarried sisters in the family house at 269 Norfolk Street, Cambridge, where Leroy was born on June 29, 1908.

In 1909, Anna and Ed bought land at 12 Chatham Street. The next year, they took out a mortgage to build a three-decker house, which still stands. By all accounts, their home was filled with music. Anna played piano and taught Leroy as soon as he could reach the keys. Once Leroy could play, he accompanied Anna on guitar. In time, Leroy also learned to play organ, tuba, accordion, and double bass.

Edith Anderson Nelson, Leroy’s cousin, vividly recalled those early-20th-century years: “Church youth groups in Cambridge would rent sleds used for commercial deliveries and then sell tickets for sleigh rides. Nobody cleared off the streets in those days, and the snow was packed because everything was delivered in pungs (sleds) during the winter…. so you could go just about anywhere on a sleigh ride.” Edith recalls Ed asking Anna, “Remember those sleigh rides we took?”—to which Anna’s response was “Shhhhhh!”

After graduating from Cambridge Grammar School in 1921 and Cambridge High and Latin School in 1925, Leroy entered Harvard as a member of the class of 1929. There he arranged and composed music for the band, played trombone, and eventually became the band’s director. In 1936, the manager of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, George Judd, also a Harvard alumnus, asked Leroy to arrange Harvard songs for the Boston Pops, beginning a collaboration with its director, Arthur Fiedler, that lasted for the rest of Leroy’s life.

The Anderson house at 12 Chatham Street

Over the years, Leroy Anderson’s ties to his home town remained strong through his relationship with the Pops. Fiedler premiered Anderson’s compositions and asked him to arrange music for the Pops, including selections from Gershwin’s Girl Crazy, which Anderson completed shortly before he died on May 18, 1975 at his home in Woodbury, Connecticut. His widow, Eleanor Anderson, continues to live in Woodbury, promoting her husband’s legacy.

Among the concerts featuring Anderson’s music and celebrating the centennial of his birth, the largest of all—consisting of 750 musicians and singers—was held on April 26 in Kristianstad, Sweden. The Boston Pops scheduled an Anderson tribute on June 3, with a performance of his Piano Concerto in C.

Jane Anderson Vercelli of Thompson, Connecticut, is Leroy Anderson’s daughter.