Such Sweet Thunder: The musical sonnets in Duke Ellington’s Shakespeare suite

Duke Ellington
Portrait of Duke Ellington, photographed by William P. Gottlieb at the Aquarium in New York, between 1946 and 1948. Library of Congress.

The connections between Shakespeare and almost any aspect of our culture are innumerable, including the special association between Shakespeare and jazz. In 2016, acclaimed jazz pianist Cyrus Chestnut composed “Father Time,” in response to Sonnet 12, for the Folger; he performed it again at the 2021 Folger Gala (it’s at 19:08). Last week, the Folger premiered an extraordinary Folger program, Autumn Leaves, which is available on demand through June 30, 2022. In it, Chestnut joins poets Kyle Dargan and Lenard D. Moore for an intimate improvisation of words and music, exploring the magic that happens when artists collaborate.

In 1957, Duke Ellington premiered and recorded a milestone in the story of Shakespeare and jazz, Such Sweet Thunder. A 12-song jazz suite written by Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, his arranger and writing partner, it includes 11 songs based on Shakespearean characters and a final one about Shakespeare himself. In 2019, on the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast, we talked to University of New Hampshire English Professor Douglas Lanier about Such Sweet Thunder, including its “musical sonnets.” Read the excerpt below and listen to the full podcast episode. Barbara Bogaev interviews Lanier.

BARBARA BOGAEV: How did Ellington and Strayhorn interpret the Shakespeare sonnets? Because they created these “musical sonnets” in this piece, and I’m not sure I know what that means either.

DOUGLAS LANIER: That’s a fascinating one. This wasn’t discovered until really about 10 years later, when Cleo Laine was recording her musical jazz tribute to Shakespeare, Shakespeare and All That Jazz. She decided she was going to sing sonnet number 40 over the music for “Sonnet to Hank Cinq.” She discovered that the words of the sonnet fit exactly the melody that Ellington had written, which means that what Ellington had done was to create a melody line that mirrors exactly the 14 line iambic pentameter that Shakespeare has. In other words, what he did was, he wrote 14 small melodies that were of 10 notes each.

For example: iambic pentameter is 10 syllables in the line. That’s what it means. Typically, those syllables are arranged in the da-dum, da-dum, da-dum, da-dum, da-dum rhythm. Ellington doesn’t always accord with the iambic rhythm, but what he does hit is the pentameter part. That is 10 notes—10 musical syllables—to the line. If you take the very first line of “Sonnet to Hank Cinq,” it’s 10 syllables. And each of those lines are put together in the course of that. They are 14 of them, arranged so that it corresponds exactly to the 14 lines that are in a Shakespeare sonnet. You don’t hear this when you first hear it. In fact, many people heard this and didn’t pick up on it. It was only when somebody tried to sing it with lyrics that they realized, Oh my God, this is the rhythm that he was using.

BOGAEV: We have to talk about probably what is the most famous and most enduring part of the suite, which is, “Up and Down, Up and Down (I Will Lead Them Up and Down).” That’s the sixth part and it’s considered one of the masterpieces. What’s the Shakespeare inspiration for it, and why does it stand out?

LANIER: Well, this is a case where we are fairly secure we know where it’s from. This is Midsummer Night’s Dream. In the liner notes we’re told this is act 3, scene 2. At times, it’s almost musically experimental. The lovers are represented by four different instruments that are out of tune and sort of chatter with one another. And at the end of the piece, you have almost the most single recognizable moment where you know it’s Shakespeare. On one of the takes, Clark Terry, in a little section at the very end of the song, basically uses his trumpet to say, “Lord, what fools these mortals be.” At the end, Terry’s high-pitched trumpet whines a musical phrase that sounds unmistakably like the line from Midsummer. Later takes of this don’t have that, so it’s important to sort of search out the right take of this particular piece.

BOGAEV: Do you think Ellington is thinking in terms of personalities, as opposed to instruments, while he was composing this suite? I also read somewhere that he used soloists in his band like characters in a play, and that he sometimes called himself an amateur playwright.

LANIER: Yeah, I think that’s exactly right. There’s an interesting analogy to be struck between how Shakespeare is working and how Ellington’s working. When Shakespeare’s writing his plays, he has in mind particular actors of the company that he’s going to assign the parts to. Sometimes that allows him to have elements of self-parody. Bottom is a parody, for example, of Burbage’s bluster. I think the same thing is true of Ellington. When he’s writing, he’s writing for particular voices and he knows what those people can do, but he can also treat them as characters, at least for this particular project.

The easiest analogy that I can come up with for this would be what happens at the end of “Madness in Great Ones,” which is about Hamlet’s madness. He knows that Cat Anderson, who’s playing the trumpet, can go crazy high. That ability, to almost go higher than is humanly possible, becomes a metaphor for Hamlet’s own capacity for pretending to be mad.

To learn more, check out the full podcast episode, Duke Ellington, Shakespeare, and Such Sweet Thunder, and read an excerpt on our blog from Douglas Lanier’s essay, “Jazzing Up Shakespeare.”