Such Sweet Thunder: Duke Ellington & Billy Strayhorn’s Musical Tribute to Shakespeare (1957)

The great Duke Elling­ton and his long­time musi­cal part­ner Bil­ly Stray­horn per­formed such musi­cal feats of strength togeth­er over the course of near­ly three decades that they can seem to dwarf many of their con­tem­po­raries. The two co-com­posers had a knack for turn­ing pop­u­lar music—jazz, rag­time, the blues—into high art, then trans­mut­ing it right back into pop again, via three-minute blasts of swing like their most famous tune “Take the A Train.” In some respects, Elling­ton and Stray­horn’s com­po­si­tions are like that of writ­ers who har­mo­nize hip ver­nac­u­lar, pop­u­lar idiom, and The Great Tra­di­tion into works that feel thrilling­ly fresh and time­less all at once. And so it makes per­fect sense that Elling­ton and Stray­horn would com­pose a suite of songs based on scenes from William Shake­speare, that most skill­ful of lit­er­ary alchemists, and that it would turn out to be, in the words of poet and music crit­ic A.B. Spell­man, “one of the most remark­able orches­tral pieces in all of Amer­i­can music.”

That piece, Such Sweet Thun­der, found its impe­tus in Shakespeare’s most mag­i­cal play, A Mid­sum­mer Night’s Dream, notably in a line that so well cap­tures the har­mo­nious clash­ing of styles and lan­guages in both the Duke and the Bard: “I nev­er heard so musi­cal a dis­cord, such sweet thun­der.” Dan­ger­ous Minds quotes Elling­ton, who called the piece his “attempt to par­al­lel the vignettes of some of the Shake­speare­an char­ac­ters in miniature—sometimes to the point of car­i­ca­ture.” The suite of songs pre­miered at New York’s Town Hall in April, 1957, at a con­cert called “Music for Mod­erns.” Its final num­ber had yet to be writ­ten. Soon after, at the Ravinia Music Fes­ti­val out­side Chica­go, Elling­ton intro­duced the first broad­cast per­for­mance, which you can hear in full above. See below for the titles of each song and list of soloists.

1:48 Son­net For Sis­ter Kate [solo: Quentin Jack­son]
4:53 Up And Down. Up And Down [solo: Clark Ter­ry]
8:04 Star-Crossed Lovers [solo: John­ny Hodges]
12:38 Mad­ness In Great Ones [solo: Cat Ander­son]
16:25 Half The Fun [solo: John­ny Hodges]
20:42 Cir­cle Of Fourths [solo: Paul Gon­salves]
23:23 Jam With Sam [solos: Willie Cook, Paul Gon­salves, Britt Wood­man, Rus­sell Pro­cope, Cat Ander­son]

Elling­ton, the CBS radio announc­er at the begin­ning informs us, was first spurred by his atten­dance at the Strat­ford Ontario Shake­speare Fes­ti­val in 1956. But he had been a devo­tee of the­ater, and of Shake­speare, for many years. Stray­horn, it seems, was even more so. Spell­man tells us that Stray­horn “was deep into Shake­speare […] could quote whole sec­tions of plays [….], vast num­bers of son­nets from mem­o­ry, at the drop of a hat.” Immersed not only in the­ater, but in clas­si­cal music, Strayhorn’s first ambi­tion was to become a clas­si­cal com­pos­er. While the col­or bar­ri­er sti­fled that dream, his move into jazz was cer­tain­ly no com­pro­mise. Stray­horn and Elling­ton “were so attuned to one anoth­er musi­cal­ly,” writes a biog­ra­phy com­pan­ion to Ken Burn’s Jazz, “that it is now impos­si­ble to estab­lish the exact extent of the former’s con­tri­bu­tion to Ellington’s oeu­vre.” (Elling­ton called Stray­horn “my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head.”) Giv­en Strayhorn’s deep knowl­edge of Shakespeare’s work, it’s prob­a­bly fair to assume that his con­tri­bu­tion to Such Sweet Thun­der was sig­nif­i­cant. Above, see selec­tions from a 1959 per­for­mance in Switzer­land, and just below, see a 1960 avant-garde bal­let chore­o­graphed to Elling­ton and Strayhorn’s Shake­speare suite by Mau­rice Béjart, anoth­er artist with a par­tic­u­lar tal­ent for bring­ing high art themes and styles to pop­u­lar audi­ences.

via Dan­ger­ous Minds

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Duke Ellington’s Sym­pho­ny in Black, Star­ring a 19-Year-old Bil­lie Hol­i­day

Duke Elling­ton Plays for Joan Miró in the South of France, 1966: Bassist John Lamb Looks Back on the Day

Thelo­nious Monk Plays Duke Elling­ton: Solo Piano, Berlin 1969

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.

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