Earlier this month, St. Louisans enjoyed a special, multi-disciplinary performance of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s Such Sweet Thunder, a collaboration between the Big Muddy Dance Company, Jazz St. Louis, the Nine Network of Public Media, and our partners at Shakespeare Festival St. Louis.
When Ellington performed a series of concerts at Ontario’s Stratford Festival in 1956, Festival staff asked if he’d ever considered writing music inspired by Shakespeare. Ellington and Strayhorn, both Shakespeare-lovers, took the idea and ran with it. Over the next year they wrote Such Sweet Thunder, a suite of twelve tunes inspired by Shakespeare’s plays and characters: Othello, Caesar, Lady M, Puck, Macbeth’s Weird Sisters, Iago, “Hank Cinq” (Henry V), Cleopatra, and others. (You can hear the suite on Spotify and Apple Music, but be warned: some of the song titles pair the tunes with the wrong Shakespeare characters.)
Such Sweet Thunder takes its name from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
I was with Hercules and Cadmus once,
When in a wood of Crete they bayed the bear
With hounds of Sparta. Never did I hear
Such gallant chiding, for, besides the groves,
The skies, the fountains, every region near
Seemed all one mutual cry. I never heard
So musical a discord, such sweet thunder.
– Hippolyta, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 4.1
“It’s an oxymoron,” Shakespeare Festival St. Louis Executive Producer Tom Ridgely tells St. Louis Public Radio’s St. Louis on the Air. “Thunder isn’t usually described as something that’s sweet, and sweet things aren’t normally loud and noisy and scary.” The quotation expresses an essential quality of the play it comes from: Midsummer mashes up three-ish plots and juxtaposes love with fear, humans with fairies, and aristocrats with craftsmen, all over the course a wild night in the woods. In writing Such Sweet Thunder, Ellington and Strayhorn juxtaposed early modern English drama with American big band jazz—then proceeded to connect them in thrilling ways, as in Such Sweet Thunder’s four “sonnets,” which take their musical structure from Shakespeare’s sonnets. In those four tracks, fourteen melodic phrases with ten notes each reflect the fourteen ten-note lines of a Shakespearean sonnet.
You can also find that mash-up spirit at Shakespeare Festival St Louis. Part of their mission is to encourage cross-disciplinary collaboration, so it made sense for them to partner with Jazz St. Louis and the Big Muddy Dance Company to bring Such Sweet Thunder to the stage. “Soon after the [Ellington and Strayhorn’s] album was put out,” Ridgely said, “this Belgian choreographer, Maurice Béjart, had used it as the score for a modern ballet. So we knew that dance had been a part of its life very early on.” (Watch Béjart’s ballet on YouTube.)
Then, Ridgely says, “We thought, ‘How cool would it be to hear the Shakespearean dialogue in conversation with the Ellington piece?'” The Festival asked Associate Artist Bruce Longworth to adapt Shakespeare’s text into a theatrical piece. Longworth also directed the performance.
“I knew I wanted to create a narrative with a dynamic arc, rather than a buffet of unrelated pieces of text from Shakespeare,” Longworth wrote in an email:
I wanted the music, the text and the dance to tell a single story… I began by taking text from the plays that inspired the music, and eventually took text from 15 of his plays and half a dozen sonnets to create a story of a couple who fall instantly in love (very Shakespearean), get married, have difficulties in their relationship, and eventually forgive and reconcile, because their love is able to overcome their difficulties.
In the Festival’s production, Rayme Cornell and Ron Himes played Kate and Henry, respectively, in a story that wound its way through Ellington’s music and Dexandro “D” Montalvo’s swing-inspired choreography. “Our main goal was for the choreography, the text, and the music all to feel part of one piece, to be fully integrated and organic,” wrote Longworth.
If you take all of the above and put it in one sentence, it sounds… nuts: Two actors, 16 dancers, a 15-piece jazz band, and four St. Louis institutions came together to create a performance with original choreography and words from 15 plays and six sonnets set to a 12-song jazz suite written by two composers in 1956 inspired by a playwright who, at this point, has been dead for 403 years. Oh, and the show was only an hour long.
“I hope the audience comes away feeling that these three art forms worked together seamlessly, informing and enriching one another, and that the result was both enjoyable and surprising,” wrote Longworth. Ultimately, like Midsummer’s music and discord, sweetness and thunder, Shakespeare Festival St. Louis brought all these elements together to create harmony.
Listen to our Shakespeare Unlimited interview with University of New Hampshire Professor of English Douglas Lanier about Such Sweet Thunder.
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis is a theater partner of the Folger Shakespeare Library.