American composer William Henry Fry wrote the highly enjoyable Santa Claus: Christmas Symphony in 1853, deeming it “the longest instrumental composition ever written on a single subject, with unbroken continuity.” This claim, which is probably true, is quite surprising, as is the fact that the legend of Santa Claus was already ingrained in American culture eight years prior to the outbreak of the American Civil War. Fry counted composer Hector Berlioz among his important influences, and one can hear echoes of Berlioz’ grand orchestral effects in the piece, though Fry’s voice is his own. The Santa Claus Symphony is likely the first use of the recently-invented saxophone in an orchestral work. There are even a few good melodies here. Though termed a symphony, it is really a tone poem, depicting a series of scenes:
The trumpet announces the Saviour’s birth, and the celestial host takes up the chorus. The exultation is broken by loud discords as some of the angels fall away in anger, but harmonious triumph concludes the section. Now a Christmas Eve party. reunited family, dancing, and general frivolity are depicted in pell-mell joy An impending snowstorm arrives in the brass, but the dancing resumes, quieter this time as the party-goers leave for home. As sleep descends, Fry employs one of his favorite devices, the setting of text to instrumental declamation. We hear The Lord’s Prayer in syllabic cadence on the upper strings, followed by ‘Rock-a-bye baby’ on the soprano saxophone. Muted strings even mimic the baby’s breathing. The snowstorm again comes into view, and in the middle of it is a traveller (the solo double bass). Lost and alone, his moans are heard through the wind as he perishes. But this depressing scene shifts as Santa Claus enters, with the voice of the high bassoon, here in his horse-drawn sleigh. Down the chimney he slides with flutes accompanying; plucked strings signify the clicking of toys being dropped into stockings The children still sleep Santa leaves, the sound of hooves and bells receding into the distance. Up in the sky, extremely high violins portray a chorus of angels singing the familiar Adeste fideles. The sun rises on Christmas Day. The house awakens to the sounds of ‘Get up!’ on the horn and ‘Little Bo-peep’ on the trumpets as the children play. The beginning of the work reappears, as does the Adeste fideles, as Santa Claus closes in a hymn of praise. —From Kile Smith’s essay for the the only recording of this piece, under Tony Rowe, with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, coupled with other non-seasonal works by Fry. Below is a video of this recording:
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The featured image is a detail from the cover of the Saturday Evening Post of December 4, 1920, “Santa and Expense Book,” by Norman Rockwell, and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.