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First, the suite is entirely instrumental, sidestepping the issue of setting Shakespearean language in an African-American idiom.Even so, in a few cases the sections have a conversational quality, as in the opening number “Such Sweet Thunder,” which musically depicts the seductive stories Othello tells Desdemona.On the other hand, Ellington claims that his art and Shakespeare’s are sufficiently sophisticated to reward repeated encounters, an assertion which differentiates their arts from mere pop ephemera.
(Accessed May 02, 2017.) " data-medium-file="https://shakespeareandbeyond.folger.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/5/2017/05/Duke-Ellington-Library-of-Congress-300x163.jpg" data-large-file="https://shakespeareandbeyond.folger.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/5/2017/05/Duke-Ellington-Library-of-Congress.jpg" class="wp-image-5720 size-full" src=" alt="Duke Ellington" width="1000" height="542" srcset="https://shakespeareandbeyond.folger.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/5/2017/05/1000w, https://shakespeareandbeyond.folger.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/5/2017/05/Duke-Ellington-Library-of-Congress-300x163300w, https://shakespeareandbeyond.folger.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/5/2017/05/Duke-Ellington-Library-of-Congress-768x416768w, https://shakespeareandbeyond.folger.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/5/2017/05/Duke-Ellington-Library-of-Congress-24x1324w, https://shakespeareandbeyond.folger.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/5/2017/05/Duke-Ellington-Library-of-Congress-36x2036w, https://shakespeareandbeyond.folger.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/5/2017/05/Duke-Ellington-Library-of-Congress-48x2648w" sizes="(max-width: 1000px) 100vw, 1000px" /, a jazz suite based on Shakespeare’s plays.
Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://gov/item/gottlieb.02511/.
A third portrait, “Sonnet in Search of a Moor,” also concerns Othello, this time depicting his tenderness and pathos rather than his oratorical skill.
All three portraits actively celebrate black erotic power—as the pun on “a moor / amour” suggests—defying stereotypes of black sexuality by stressing these characters’ sly charm and sophistication.
If Shakespeare was renowned for his universal poetic facility, his ability to mime any verbal idiom, so too Ellington demonstrates his ability to think in any musical key and freely, deftly move between them.
This phrase acknowledges the historically denigrated status of African-American music, the idea that jazz was mere “discord”—Ellington’s early jazz was originally dismissed as “jungle music.” But the phrase also asserts the possibility that such “thunder” could be labeled “sweet,” the adjective most often applied to Shakespeare’s style.In his program notes for the first performance of , Ellington worries that, as classics, he and Shakespeare labor under the misperception that their arts are for the cultural elite, making some reluctant “to expose themselves and join the audience.” In the 1930s and 1940s, swing had been seen as the very voice of popularization, reaching (problematically) across racial divides and rendering whatever it touched modern, American, and immediately appealing, but in 1957 the “classicizing” of Ellington’s music by linking it to Shakespeare risked making jazz a coterie form, the property of connoisseurs.In his program notes Ellington seeks to navigate these concerns.consists of eleven numbers, each of which is linked to Shakespearean characters: “Such Sweet Thunder” [Othello] “Sonnet for Caesar” [Julius Caesar] “Sonnet to Hank Cinq” [Henry V] “Lady Mac” [Lady Macbeth] “Sonnet in Search of a Moor” [Othello] “The Telecasters” [The Three Witches and Iago] “Up and Down, Up and Down, I Will Lead Them (Up and Down)” [Puck] “Sonnet for Sister Kate” [Katherine] “The Star-Crossed Lovers” [Romeo and Juliet] “Madness in Great Ones” [Hamlet] “Half the Fun” [Cleopatra] A final number, “Circle of Fourths,” added later, offers a musical tribute to Shakespeare himself.The suite addresses the challenge of wedding Shakespeare with African-American music in several ways.The suite includes four “Sonnets,” each of which sets a fourteen-line melody (a Shakespearean “sonnet”) into what is a modified twelve-bar blues framework, that most quintessential of African-American musical forms.Puck’s taunting of the lovers in “Up and Down” is portrayed by mocking call-and-response sequences between dissonant instrumental pairs and Clark Terry’s solo trumpet, and in its original release the piece ends with Terry musically quoting “Lord, what fools these mortals be.” “Circle of Fourths,” the final number which traverses all the musical keys in less than two minutes, slyly suggests an analogy between Shakespeare and Ellington himself.Most importantly, Ellington stresses Shakespeare’s affirmation of black characters and his works’ formal affinities with African-American music.Ellington’s suite begins and ends with black characters—Othello in “Such Sweet Thunder” and Cleopatra in “Half the Fun” (as the liner notes wryly observe, Antony seems to be on hiatus).Ellington’s assertion of the affinity between Shakespeare’s art and the black experience also extends to artistic form.Throughout are little musical touches that elegantly transpose Shakespearean styles and forms into an African-American musical idiom.