It came to me several years ago, and the idea stuck: I wanted to create a new arrangement of The Little Drummer Boy. I mentioned to Linda Mack, artistic director of the Durango Choral Society, my idea to create an exotic arrangement of the timeless piece for all three DCS choirs and percussion, and a commission was born. Linda had been wanting a way for the Choral Society to honor the memory of Morley Ballantine, Durangos grande dame of the arts, and this seemed perfect.
The Little Drummer Boy has been a perpetual holiday favorite since it was recorded in 1955 by the Trapp Family Singers and made even more popular by a 1958 recording by the Harry Simeone Chorale. The song has been recorded dozens and dozens of times since. It seems everyone, and I do mean everyone, has recorded the work, from Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Cash, The Brady Bunch and, in just the last couple years, Mariah Carey, Pink Martini, The Black Eyed Peas and Justin Bieber.
The piece, originally titled Carol of the Drum, was written and published by the American classical music composer/teacher Katherine K. Davis in 1941. Her manuscript is set as a chorale, the tune in the soprano with alto harmony, tenor and bass parts producing the drum rhythm and a keyboard accompaniment marked for rehearsal only. It is headed Czech Carol freely transcribed by K.K.D. Some time later, these initials were deleted and replaced with C.R.W. Robinson, a name under which Davis sometimes published. The Czech original has never been identified.
The song appealed to the Austrian von Trapp singers, who first brought the song to wider prominence when they recorded Carol of the Drum in 1955, shortly before they retired; their version was credited solely to Davis and published by Belwin-Mills. In 1957, it was recorded with a slightly altered arrangement by The Jack Halloran Singers for a record to be released on Dot Records, but the recording was not made in time for Christmas and was not released.
Dots Henry Onorati introduced the song to his friend Harry Simeone, and the following year, when 20th Century Fox Records contracted him to make a Christmas album, Simeone, making further small changes to the Halloran arrangement and retitling it The Little Drummer Boy, recorded it with the Harry Simeone Chorale on the album Sing We Now of Christmas. Simeone and Onorati claimed joint composition credit and royalties with Davis.
The album and the song were an enormous success, and the single scored on the U.S. music charts from 1958 to 1962. In 1963, the album was reissued under the title The Little Drummer Boy: A Christmas Festival, capitalizing on the singles popularity. The next year, the album was released in stereo; in 1988 on CD by Casablanca Records; and subsequently on Island Records.
Harry Simeone, who in 1964 had signed with Kapp Records, recorded a new version of The Little Drummer Boy in 1965 for his album O Bambino The Little Drummer Boy. The story is somewhat similar to a 12th-century legend retold by Anatole France as Le Jongleur de Notre Dame (Our Ladys Juggler), which was adapted into an opera in 1902 by Jules Massenet. In the French legend, however, a juggler juggles before the statue of the Virgin Mary, and the statue, according to which version of the legend one reads, either smiles at him or throws him a rose (or both, as in the 1984 television film, The Juggler of Notre Dame.)
Katherine Kennicott Davis (June 25, 1892 April 20, 1980) graduated from high school in 1910, and studied music at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. After graduation, she continued at Wellesley as an assistant in the Music Department, teaching music theory and piano. At the same time, she studied at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. Davis also studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. She taught music at the Concord Academy in Concord, Mass., and at the Shady Hill School for Girls in Philadelphia.
Though The Little Drummer Boy was her most famous work, Davis wrote more than 600 compositions for the choirs at her school. Another famous hymn by Katherine Davis is the Thanksgiving hymn Let All Things Now Living, which uses the melody of the traditional Welsh folk song The Ash Grove. She was a member of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), as I am.
Davis continued writing music until she became ill in the winter of 1979-1980. She died at the age of 87 in Littleton, Mass. She left all royalties and proceeds from her compositions, which include operas, choruses, childrens operettas, cantatas, piano and organ pieces and songs, to Wellesleys Music Department, where the funds are used to support musical-instrument instruction.
Many community, church and school choirs (and musical ensembles of all variety) commission new works on a regular basis, even annually, or for important milestones or special occasions. This is the Choral Societys first commission. The Durango Womens Choir is co-commissioning a work from Santa Fe composer Linda Rice Beck with the Santa Fe Womens Choir. Joint concerts are planned to debut the new work in Durango and Santa Fe in June.
Unless the song is in the public domain, a composer has to ask permission from the copyright holder to do the arrangement. Thankfully, publishers have made it much easier since I last asked for permission to arrange a piece, probably 20-plus years ago. Initial contacts are made via email, forms are emailed back, and the completed form and a check go in the mail. Considering that Alfred Publishing is a huge company, I think the process actually was quite easy.
Where does music come from? I find composing to be part inspiration, part exploration and part hard work. A lot of the quest for interesting harmonies and chord progressions is purely experimental. Sometimes you hear it in your head, and sometimes you just have to go looking for it.
Before I actually sat down to work, I had ideas for three musical passages and knew I wanted it to have an exotic, Middle-Eastern vibe. I opened Finale, the music-composition software I use on the Mac, and discovered that I actually had begun to input some notes two years ago, including the exact same musical phrases that were on my mind at that moment. I think it was a sign.
Though undaunted by the pieces illustrious history (go figure), I was very conscious of messing with the well-loved melody and, in fact, didnt alter the melody or lyrics at all; its exactly like what was in the sheet music my Mom bought for me 30-ish years ago. Everything around the melody has changed, though, and I think it has turned out pretty interesting. The piece clocks in right at four minutes, and I wouldnt be surprised if each minute of music took 20 hours on the computer, not to mention the countless hours of listening to the voices in my head.
Six percussionists from the Fort Lewis College Percussion Ensemble will join about 150 singers from the Durango Childrens Chorale, Durango Womens Choir and Durango Choral Society to close the Traditional Family Christmas concert with the world premier of my arrangement. I hope youll be there.
C. Scott Hagler is associate conductor of the Durango Choral Society. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.