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

Wednesday, December 18, 2013 - 04:00 PM

Scene from 'A Christmas Story' Scene from 'A Christmas Story'

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.”


"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.”


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Comments [4]

L.K.T from Baltimore, Md.

You had to put the line about the bee bee gun in, Why?
There are many areas in America where children learn RESPONSIBLE gun use form their toddler years up, and are never involved in criminal behavior but enjoy outdoor sports such as fishing, camping and hunting.
For your information the Olympics has fire arms competitions and if it were not for guns of all kinds we may be speaking a very different language today, try German or Japanese. Guns by themselves are neutral non judgmental objects. It is the people who use them that determine if they are used for good by soldiers, police, legitimate sportsmen and women, and for much needed personal protection, or if they are used by criminals and punks for antisocial purposes.
I believe that guns should be kept away from the mentally unstable, and felons and that if in a home they should be locked safely away, but there is nothing wrong with starting a child's firearms education with a bee bee gun to teach them the basics of ethical and safe gun use.

Dec. 23 2013 11:29 AM
Charles Fischbein from Front royal, Va.

Dear Jason, and Concetta, you are both 100% correct. Public Radio and NPR in general is controlled by people who have an agenda designed to eliminate the crucial role of Christianity in music and in all other aspects of daily living.
I was thinking of making a year end contribution to WQXR after they posted a historically significant clip on the anniversary of the JFK assassination, however in light of their other positions against traditional Christian music and other public issues I am not giving a penny to them.
I sincerely suggest that classical music lovers who are sick of being tied to liberal Public radio to hear classical music, spend a few dollars and purchase a sirusxm system where for just under $18.00 a month they can have a Classical, Classical pops and a 24/7 Metropolitan Opera radio station, Broadway show music, and hundreds of other listening choices, many commercial free.
These systems have a tiny antenna that can be easily attached to any apartment window and assure an excellent signal.
This allows total freedom of listening.
I am resolved this new year to virtually drop all Public Radio listening, in favor of SirusXM.
Their broadcast schedules are excellent allowing the listener to set recording equipment to capture the performances they wish to listen to at latter times.
I DO NOT own any stock in SirusXM. At a time when there are very few radio stations other than those affiliated with NPR that provide classical programming, I encourage those who are tired of blatant liberal agendas on so called Public Radio to switch to SirusXM Radio.
I recently purchased six Sirusxm systems with one year subscriptions for my Opera loving friends for this Christmas, and while it may be too late to get these systems shipped before Christmas most major electronic retail stores have them available. These inexpensive systems are not just for car radios but can be plugged into any stereo system anywhere in the home.
They provide a wonderful sense of freedom from the political agenda on the few remaining Classical music radio stations.
Jason, Concetta, If I knew how to reach you I would get a SirusXM radio for each of you for Christmas to you allow you to enjoy wonderful Classical Music and Opera free from a Program Directors liberal political agenda. Merry Christmas, and God Speed, Charles Fischbein

Dec. 23 2013 11:12 AM

Much to listen for when this year's Christmas Story marathon is running on tv!

Dec. 19 2013 11:51 AM
Jason from New York

I find it amusing that WQXR has been airing audio segments in its daily programming in-between the music that serve to diminish the role of religiousity/Christ in Christmas Carols.

I just heard an audio segment that carols originated (and I am summarizing) from some form of 12th century royal court tradition where individuals danced a little and sang. As Jeff Spurgeon goes on to say (paraphrasing) "Carols had nothing to do with religion or Christmas ... " Yesterday I heard a clip that undermined the religious origin of Mendelssohn's "Hark the Herald Angels Sing". The audio clip stated that the music was originally composed by Mendelssohn for an advertising jingle and subsequently the words for "Hark the Herald" were written to match the music. Again the narrator emphasized and clearly stated that religion/Christmas had nothing to do with the origins of the song's music.

While some might say that I am being a stickler, these people would be incorrect. As Plato said "Those who tell the story rule society." While the facts I mentioned in the previous paragraph may be true, mentioning only these facts while omitting the truth about the praise that is given to Christ via these forms of music is disingenuous at best. In airing clips where EACH clip conveys an "interesting fact" that "inadvertently" diminishes the religious underpinning of the subject matter song(s) is a calculated choice by WQXR.

I might add that during the recent month of Mozart, WQXR aired similar interesting fact segments that diminished the role of religion (i.e. Christianity) in Mozart's life. Similarly, WQXR significantly reduced the role of Catholicism and its influence on John Taverner's music in the recent obituary that they wrote and displayed on their website. How shameful, calculated and obvious WQXR's agenda is.

It is apparent persons within WQXR (and NPR by extension) would like to eliminate Christ from the public sphere. This is sad because Christ is TRUTH and JOY. His love informs the political and social consciences of close to 2 Billion people throughout the world! When any belief system is systematically trivialized, misrepresented and (some would argue) vilified by the media then WE ALL, Catholic - Jew - Muslim - and even atheist, are in serious trouble.

I for one will no longer donate money to WQXR until this blatant bias is addressed AND remedied. A public explanation by WQXR posted on this forum would be a good start.

Just something to reflect upon. God Bless you all. Merry Christmas, and may everyone have a peaceful and prosperous New Year!

Dec. 19 2013 10:31 AM

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