"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.




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