"Prelude to a Kiss" by Duke Ellington

Tish Oney By

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Last month's initial installment of this column opened with an introduction to the concept of analyzing jazz standards for the purpose of adding to our understanding about the structure and elements of great songs having enduring qualities. I did not feel it required mentioning that a song's final structure and the process of songwriting were completely different viewpoints. One purview implies looking back at a final product of art and the other requires looking ahead at a blank page of music that gradually becomes filled. One process does not inherently explain the other. I routinely invite young songwriters to study the structure of standards simply due to the logical connection between thorough knowledge of what has succeeded in the past and the successful creation of art today. Understanding and appreciating music history, musicology (the blending of theoretical with historical concepts) and some reasons why masterfully constructed songs are considered great obviously empower and heighten awareness for those writing tomorrow's enduring songs. The professor of songwriting, composition, theory and history in me will always seek to encourage others to continue learning as much as they can to further their own craft. Whether music or lyrics came first is beside the point—the process of songwriting is not what I am addressing in this column. Who can say what Van Heusen and Burke were thinking about when creating their wonderful songs? That information is more likely to be found in their biographies. Some overlap between songwriting and song analysis naturally occurs, but the processes are intended to be separate.

Many composers throughout history have kept to strict structural plans when crafting music and lyrics. Johann Sebastian Bach used far more than spatial logic alone to create his ingenious works—the cruciform shape and importance of symmetry (clearly shown in several of his most important works including the motet, Jesu, Meine Freude) as well as his mastery of keys and theoretical concepts (The Well-Tempered Clavier) were tools of a beautifully analytical mind. The Golden Mean, known well to scientists and mathematicians, has played a prevalent role in many of the masterworks created by music history's greatest composers, and still marks the locus of the climax of many outstanding poems, novels, paintings, orchestral movements and songs. It can be located intuitively by some, and mathematically by others. In the world of music, it is dangerous to make judgments about the exaltation of one side of the brain over the other (the analytical left vs. the creative right). Both are absolutely necessary, as any accomplished performer/composer knows.

The complicated process of composing outstanding lyrics also cannot be minimized to be accounted for simply by intuition. Mastery of language, syntax, word usage, pun, rhyme, phrasing, text setting and singing skill all contribute to a lyricist's ability to spin a quality lyric. Countless composers of the Great American Songbook worked diligently with collaborative lyricists in an effort to marry the text to the music (or vice versa) and several worked side by side in the same room. Any suggestion that composition of words and music are always approached in one certain way by all or even "most" composers is an incorrect one—there are literally thousands of approaches that composers and lyricists have used throughout the centuries (and still use) to create art, and some actually rely heavily on theory, analysis and structural architecture when making their compositional choices.

Duke Ellington (1899-1974) stands among Great American Songbook composers as a colossus—a highly prolific and influential master whose compendium of masterpieces in a wide variety of styles and genres transcends categorization. Ellington penned over 2,000 compositions widely ranging in genre: orchestral concert works, sacred works, concerti, works strongly evocative of the Impressionist movement, exotic music, instrumental swing music and ballads. Ellington's profound influence upon his peers and musicians who followed is immeasurable. His "Prelude to a Kiss" represents an elegantly written jazz standard which is less well-known than many of his other songs because of its difficulty to perform and classical compositional devices. Its blending of classical and jazz sensibilities contributes to the song's singular originality and aural splendor. It was originally recorded as an instrumental piece in 1938. Weeks later, Ellington recorded it again, adding lyrics by Irving Gordon and Irving Mills.


The form of this song is the common AABA form (having 8-bar phrases for each letter, with A representing the opening theme and B representing a contrasting theme, or "bridge"). Its phrase structure stretches through four-measure phrases, each having two 2-bar sub-phrases. The rhyme scheme for section A rhymes the final word of the first three two-bar sub-phrases ("blue," "dew," you"), ending with the non-rhyming song title. This construction allows for a dramatic and descriptive buildup of energy and descriptive textual meaning which is released with each statement of the title, "a prelude to a kiss..."

Text Setting

The text setting involves lyrics beautifully mirroring the music by reflecting Ellington's two-bar sub-phrases and treating them like independent ideas that each point to the final sub-phrase which, in each A section, is always the song's title. Similarly, Gordon and Mills construct an equivalence among phrases in the first half of the song, using the same text to start every other line: "If you hear a song...that was my heart..." This construct suggests a sophistication of romantic poetry that purely evokes the main thrust of the lyric ("a prelude to a kiss") while maintaining a delightful daydream-like affect so prevalent in the music. The lyricists comically use irony at the start of the bridge to portray one of Ellington's most difficult melodies: "though it's just a simple melody..." They also pour on the romance in the final A leading up to the lyric's consummate, eternal promise: "my love is a prelude that never dies..."


Melodically, this gem requires vocal dexterity and supreme pitch accuracy to pull off well. It opens the first A section with a long, descending chromatic scale over the first two bars. The next two bars (in the manner of a sequence) answer with another descending chromatic scale starting on a lower pitch than the first scale. The next two bars ease the tension built by the tonally challenging chromaticism through a bit of tonal repetition, then a sly chromatic ascent to a pitch from which the melody suddenly dives a sixth, then leaps a ninth. The last melodic pattern traces the outline of a tritone (diminished fifth) resolving upward by half step to the natural fifth scale degree followed by a downward leap to tonic. An easy performance study this piece is not.

The bridge's melody includes many chromatic non-chord tones, wide leaps and an up and down, meandering angularity so infrequently found in the jazz standard repertoire. Again, Ellington uses a 2-bar sub-phrase structure for the angular melodic idea in measures 17-18, followed by two bars of a mostly repetitive tonal melody which provides a necessary release of tension and a momentary break (for both the performer and the audience) in the form of a literal rest in the music. The same weaving melody returns in the next sub-phrase (mm. 21-22) which is followed by tonal repetition for one measure, then an appropriately ascending chromatic scale in m. 24, drawing the listener slowly back up to the precipice from which the final A section begins its gradual descent back down that same chromatic scale.


Harmonically, this piece's chromaticism and melodic angularity give way to beautiful reharmonization, a facet of this remarkable gem which has not been lost on many arrangers. This is beautifully set up by Ellington's liberal use of the circle of fifths beginning in m. 1. He starts the piece on a V13/V chord (being a singer, I aim to always acknowledge the melody note in the chord progression—an arranging rule I wish more instrumentalists consistently observed!). Moving from there to V7-V7/IV-IVMa7, this circle continues with the bass leaping fifths on a string of dominant chords until the end of m. 4 ("dew"). In essence, Ellington keeps the circle moving through exclusively dominant harmony until the end of each 2-measure sub-phrase, for which he uses either a Major or minor chord to establish a moment of pause. After alighting upon a minor ii, he starts m. 5 on that same ii and moves to V7, up a semitone to a diminished seventh built on a sharp five, to vi-II7 (really functioning as a V7/V). He then pivots on that root to a minor ii and finishes the first A section with an easy-on-the-ears, standard ii-V7-I. His iii-VI7 turnaround at the tail end of A takes us back to easily start on the original circle of fifths progression which starts the second A at m. 9.

The second A is a strict repetition of the first A except for the turnaround in m. 16 which leads the listener to a modulation up a major third. The bridge begins in that new key (the third scale degree in relation to the original tonic) and continues through a I-vi-ii-V7 progression for the first three out of four 2-bar sub-phrases in the bridge. This common harmonic choice makes logical sense in this bridge. The melody is so strange, unpredictably chromatic and jagged in shape that the traditional harmony holds steady, keeping the ship afloat. Many outstanding composers recognize the advantage of not abandoning both melodic and harmonic stability at the same time. Often when the melody is challengingly "out," harmony may not be, and vice versa. This helps to create and sustain balance and structural cohesion throughout the song while also providing, in this case, a variety of compositional techniques. The bridge ends with a sub-phrase consisting of a blend of the circle of fifths/dominant harmony in bar 23 followed by an upwardly chromatic string of minor chords that do an about-face to climb back down just two beats ahead of the melody's downturn—in essence anticipating the chromatic descent of the melody in bar 25 which commences the final A. The last A represents a literal presentation of the original A, ending on a well-earned, refreshing tonic.


"Prelude to a Kiss," much like the last song I explored for this column, provides some rather satisfying outcomes for the eager theorist anxious to ascertain balance between creativity and logic, chaos and order. Ellington's elegant balancing of harmony and melody are noteworthy along these lines. The chromatic scale is well-known to obscure a sense of key and can all too readily disorient the less-accomplished soloist. The Duke's extensive use of this scale in every section of the piece (largely throughout each A and briefly at the end of B), with different starting pitches here and there provides little platform upon which a soloist can firmly stand. However, the harmonic stability of the bridge comes as a sweet surprise for the ears amid the equally surprising melodic complexity. A circle of fifths progression often serves to obscure tonic in both classical and jazz compositions (as it does in this case) while also serving to bring the music back around to home base eventually. The lyrics at the end of the bridge even speak literally of the mixture of classical style with jazz so deliciously displayed in this masterwork: "a Schubert tune with a Gershwin touch." The carefully selected lyrics add a perfect sheen to an already outstanding work of art with their gorgeous reflection and respect for the model and mood Ellington already provided in his composition. "Prelude to a Kiss" stands as an outstanding example of melody, harmony and lyrics, each constructed brilliantly as separate entities, yet comprising a transcendent, exquisite diamond of aural pleasure when knit together as one.



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