'A Christmas Story': Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev and a BB Gun

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Christmas movies that run on TV each December have a familiar sound – jangly, sweet and carol-laden. 

That is, until “A Christmas Story” appears. Though it hasn't been given much consideration, the 1983 holiday perennial, about a boy with an unquenchable desire for a Red Ryder BB gun, has a classical music soundtrack. Along with "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" and period songs by the Andrews Sisters and Bing Crosby, there's a generous helping of Tchaikovsky and Grofé, Britten and Prokofiev.

The Canadian film and TV composer Paul Zaza was responsible for much of the movie's music. Along with the composer Carl Zittrer and director Bob Clark, he chose the pieces and wrote some of his own. Often his task was to match the mock heroic tone of the film’s narration – with its hyperbolic lines like "the legendary battle of the lamp."

"The boy’s fantasies and his flashbacks or dream sequences are cartoony," said Zaza in a phone interview with WQXR. "They're larger-than-life because that’s the way this kid saw things. The music played into that. It was completely over-scored and over-the-top – but deliberately.”

Russian Romantic music has a prominent role, largely because it was out of copyright and could be re-scored for the small orchestra. “We had nothing like the money to hire a 90-piece orchestra,” said Zaza. “How do you play Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev with a 15-piece orchestra and not have it sound anemic? So I had to do some fancy orchestrating.”

Zaza told us about four pivotal compositions and their use.

Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf:

Zaza chose Prokofiev’s 1936 children’s classic to accompany the debut scene with Scut Farkus, the neighborhood bully.

“We had to make this yellow-eyed, freckly-faced ugly little kid really mean,” said Zaza. “I didn’t want to start using horror music techniques because we don’t want to scare people. It’s supposed to depict a very mean, bad-spirited person who wants to hurt people. I just loved the Peter and the Wolf thing because it’s got some nastiness in it – but it’s still playful."

 

Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite

In the fantasy sequence where Ralphie imagines using his Red Ryder rifle to fend off some bandits, snippets of “On the Trail” from Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite can be heard. Also featured are arrangements of “Sunrise” and “Sunset” from the same suite.

“That was Bob’s idea and it was a good one,” said Zaza. “Again, you’re dealing with a kid whose fantasy is to be on an open range and kill bad guys with his gun: Old blue, the Red Ryder BB gun. That was part of American culture back then. In his mind, he was out on the range looking for bad guys. The Grand Canyon is just a classic piece of American music."

Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet

In the fantasy scene where Ralphie’s teacher Miss Shields is grading his paper, two excerpts from Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet Overture turn up: “Through this kid’s eyes, he’s fantasizing about getting A+++++. It’s so over the top and ludicrous.”

Tchaikovsky’s Hamlet (and some saxophone melodies)

Tchaikovsky’s incidental music for Hamlet also turns up in several places in “A Christmas Story”: when Ralphie says "fudge," after he breaks his glasses, and after his father’s lamp breaks for the second time. The lamp also came with its own leitmotif, a slinky saxophone melody.

Zaza said that director Clark “is titillating us with this ridiculous lamp that the old man somehow wins. We never know how he won. Romeo & Juliet would have worked there too. But we kind of wanted to save that for other places.

“So it’s an old trick: you want a sexy scene, you get a sax wailing and squirming around and it just oozes sex. It played with the narration and the visuals.”

“Fudge”

"The Broken Lamp"

The 25th anniversary of “A Christmas Story” in 2008 was celebrated with a party in Cleveland (where Ralphie's house stands as a museum), and the belated release on Rhino Records of the film's soundtrack. This year’s 30th anniversary is a more muted affair. "There’s really not much steam left in it except for people who just remember it as a valuable piece of American folklore," said Zaza.

Even so, the composer considers it to be a highlight of his career. “You never get tired of ‘Christmas Story’ because every scene is so well constructed and well acted," said Zaza. "There’s never a moment where the film really slows down and you say, ‘let’s fast-forward to the next one.’ Every scene works. It’s the kind of movie where the more you see it, the more you want to see it.”