Russian-American Unification and Alfred Reed's "Russian Christmas Music"

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  • Topic: Concert band, Orthodox Church, Russian Orthodox Church
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  • Published : February 7, 2012
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Russian-American Unification in the Mid-Twentieth Century and Alfred Reed’s Russian Christmas Music

What makes a piece of music great? Is it the time and place it was premiered? Is its greatness defined solely by the reputation of the composer who wrote it? Why do some pieces become part of a canon of works, while others simply disappear in to the volumes of history? I believe it is a combination of all the above; however, the greatest element is a piece’s ability to speak to many people in many times and places. The universal appeal of a piece of music is what allows it to be accepted and adored beyond just its premiere. The ability of a piece of music to reach far beyond the black dots and scribbled lines is what determines its place in the musical world. The composer Alfred Reed was a master of combining different elements and ideas to clearly communicate to more than just his works’ intended audience. Reed’s works are now part of a greater canon of wind band literature that speaks to performers and audiences now, in addition to the mass of those who have been inspired by his works for the past half-century.

I want to discover the impact from Alfred Reed’s Russian Christmas Music on Soviet-American relations nearing the end of World War II. The relationship between the piece and the time it was written would help others understand the social and political reasons, as well as the musical dichotomies present in the music, as to why Reed’s piece has become ingrained in the canon of wind band literature.

The birth of Alfred Reed’s Russian Christmas Music (RCM) is quite unique. The piece was originally commissioned in 1944 to be played at a convention of new music by both Russian and American composers. Originally, the organizers had scheduled Prokofiev’s March, op. 99, but it had already been premiered in America. The organizers wanted a premier; Reed, then only twenty-three, was given thirteen days to write a new piece for the convention. The result was the now famous Russian Christmas Music. It was originally written for a small, twenty-eight member army band with whom Reed was already working. In later years, Reed revised the piece for different instrumentation and for clarity of harmonic structure. There now exist three different versions of the piece but only the final arrangement written in 1969 is currently offered through publishers.

The piece itself is truly a dichotomy of musical styles and settings. Reed wrote the piece using different types of Russian melodies and styles; he then combined them with American types of harmonies and textures to show a growing relationship between the Soviets and Americans. The conference where the piece was first performed had the same idea in mind. RCM, as a whole, is a collection of Eastern Orthodox liturgical songs. This is an important aspect because there are no instruments in the Eastern Orthodox Church; however, Reed uses these classic, Russian religious liturgical songs and arranges them for an American army band. This is a dichotomy in itself. The use of some of the instruments, such as the tubular bells, helps emulate the sounds of church bells throughout the piece but does not reduce the impact of the original monophonic liturgical music. There are many interesting connections that make the political and social events that happened in history relate even more closely to the music and its compositional style.

The premiere of RCM was on December 12, 1944 in Denver, Colorado and was broadcasted on NBC nation-wide public radio. The work was written in a little under two weeks time for a small army band with whom Reed was currently working. After the premiere performance of RCM, Reed did something quite unique for wind band composers. He went back and revised his score, not once but twice. In an article that Reed wrote for The Instrumentalist, he says that most composers look back on their past works and feel that they can improve them in...
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