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The King of the Magi

About the Work

Duke Ellington
Quick Look Composer: Duke Ellington
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: NEW MOVES: symphony + dance: Thomas Wilkins, conductor; New Ballet Ensemble / From Gershwin to Ellington May 10 - 13, 2014
© Thomas May

Edward Kennedy Ellington (1899-1974), one of the great shaping forces of American music, spent part of his childhood on Ward Place, just off New Hampshire Avenue-a walkable distance from the future Kennedy Center. Ellington received encouragement for his obvious musical gifts from an early age. He later began crafting his signature piano technique playing gigs at venues in the U St. Corridor, while working a day-job as a sign-painter. The nickname "Duke" that forever became associated with Ellington also dates back to his high school years in the nation's capital. A friend, he later recalled, "felt that in order for me to be eligible for his constant companionship I should have a title."

By the time he wrote Harlem at mid-century-the earliest of the works in this Ellington set-Duke had long since proved his musical royalty but refused to rest on his laurels. Indeed, he tirelessly faced the challenges posed by postwar developments in musical taste. More-recent trends in jazz and in styles of popular song had hastened the end of the big-band era in which Ellington and his jazz orchestra played a definitive role, particularly through their association with the old Cotton Club in Harlem and on tours of Europe.

Ellington's concept of what he liked to simply call "American music" included a fascination with large-scale forms-making for interesting parallels and contrasts with Gershwin's exploration of the same. Periodically Ellington composed large-scale suites, orchestral pieces, ballets, and sacred works. For these projects he enlisted the aid of colleagues and arrangers such as Luther Henderson (1919-2003), a Juilliard-educated musician and prolific orchestrator of Broadway musicals. Earlier this season, Chicago Opera Theater staged a version of Ellington's unfinished opera Queenie Pie, which was inspired by the real-life story of the entrepreneur Sarah Breedlove, aka Madam C. J. Walker. Already in the 1930s Ellington contemplated an opera on the history of the African-American experience (Boola), another unfinished project, which became the source for the ambitious, 45-minute-long tone poem Black, Brown and Beige (the centerpiece of Ellington's legendary 1943 concert at Carnegie Hall).

Giggling Rapids is a brief scene from Ellington's belated debut as a ballet composer, The River. It dates from late in his career (1970) and was commissioned by American Ballet Theatre, with choreography by Alvin Ailey-his first large-scale collaboration with Ellington. The composer-uncharacteristically, notes Terry Teachout in his new biography-immersed himself in famous classical depictions of water to fuel his inspiration (think La Mer, the "Sea Interludes" from Peter Grimes, Smetana's own "river music," the Moldau).

Like the mighty Mississippi, The River encompasses a multitude of meanings and perspectives. Ellington, in his memoir Music Is My Mistress, describes a guiding metaphor of life's passage from birth to death and rebirth as the river courses on down to the sea. He likens the development of an individual to the river's passage. Giggling Rapids, with its restless energy and catchy, joyous, ever-repeated motif, occurs more or less at the toddler stage, when this imaginary Everyman "races and runs and dances and skips and trips all over the backyard until, exhausted, he relaxes and rolls down the Lake" (the ensuing section).

Another Alvin Ailey collaboration is represented by Three Black Kings (Trois Noirs Rois, per the published title), though in this case the ballet was premiered posthumously. Ellington was still working on it while in the hospital with his final illness when he died in 1974; his son Mercer took over to complete a performable version that was arranged for orchestra by Luther Henderson. The three iconic kings of this ballet are Balthazar ("the black king of the Magi"), Solomon, King of Israel, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

We hear the first and last sections. Mercer Ellington explained that his father's overall inspiration had been a stained-glass window he observed in the Catedral del Mar in Barcelona. According to Mercer, the ballet was originally intended "as a eulogy for Martin Luther King," but Ellington "then decided to go back into myth and history to include other black kings."

The ballet begins with the mesmerizing percussive and brass patterns for the Balthazar section-almost a hint of later Steve Reich-which reaches a lush climax. For the final Martin Luther King section, Ellington turns to a relaxed "slow gospel" beat in 12/8, building up excitement via something like the Boléro principle-that is, through continual changes in instrumentation and decoration as the main tune is reiterated.

Luther Henderson also crafted the orchestration of Harlem, the earliest Ellington music we hear on this program. Harlem unfolds as a single movement but is kaleidoscopic in its variety of moods, one jostling up against another. Much of the piece develops from a simple motif played at the beginning-the trumpet's bluesy two-note phrase, which is immediately echoed-which Ellington interpreted as a musical enunciation of the two syllables of the word "Harlem." The clarinet also plays a key role in an introspective linking section at the center. After this, the trombone introduces the suite's other main theme, a nostalgic melody. In the final section, Ellington interweaves his material with flawless imagination.

In Music Is My Mistress Ellington provided his own unsurpassable description of the piece, which is found below in the Notes from the Artistic Director of New Ballet Ensemble.