Admirers of Duke Ellington’s music are blessed with the quality of the scrutiny scholars continue to bring to bear on his work.
Their studies offer fresh perspectives, provide opportunities for us to revisit pieces which sometimes fall into unjustified neglect, help us to understand a little more and appreciate a little better his achievements.
It has been a particular pleasure recently for me to play Ellington and Strayhorn’s Peer Gynt Suite and to spend time absorbing a new study on this masterwork.
Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn and the Adventures of Peer Gynt in America is a study which has been written by Anna Harwell Celenza, Thomas E. Caestecker Professor of Music at Georgetown University.
When it was first issued, Ellington and Strayhorn’s arrangement of Grieg’s music for Ibsen’s play was banned from broadcast in the composer’s native Norway. Ellington remained circumspect about this slight to the end of his life. The suite received largely indifferent notices elsewhere and whilst his version of the Nutcracker has become something of a Christmas staple and is often performed in the repertoire of many outfits, Peer Gynt was never performed live by the Ellington band nor – so far as I am aware – by anyone else.
Having read Anna Celenza’s work, I can see now that the reason for this is largely lack of appreciation of Ellington and Strayhorn’s artistic intention and the scope of their achievements. Anna's study more than redresses the balance and is invaluable. I will not repeat the argument of her study here: let the reader discover that for himself in prose more elegant and incisive than I can muster. Suffice it to say, Anna’s work sheds new light on the literary influences of translations of Ibsen’s play, of previous performances, of Strayhorn’s influence and the political context in which the musicians were working. Music samples and a fascinating account of the recording sessions are also available. The study can be downloaded for free and comprises part of the Summer 2011 edition of the on-line journal Music and Politics, Volume V Number 2 of which can be found here.