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Duke Ellington: Privilege of Writing Music

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Throughout history, a multitude of defining courses have shaped the way the world perceives specific circumstances and items; war, famine, death, rebirth, and a myriad of other general things. Among those general things, is music. Music has been a way of emphasizing and defining the time period of when it was written and composed. A song from the twentieth century would be so uncharacteristically different and contrasting compared to a song from the era of the Crusades. Take for instance, Hildegard von Bingen, a nun during the Crusades, who created Gregorian Chants, and Duke Ellington, a famously known composer of the twentieth century, who wrote for the ballroom, to the nightclub, to parties, and everything in-between.

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Hildegard von Bingen claimed to see “visions”, starting at the age of three; when she was forty-two, she experienced one that changed her life and led her to request of the church the privilege of writing music, which the church allowed. Bingen’s, arguably, most influential composition is “Ave Maria, O Auctrix Vite”, which means “Hail Mary, O increase life,” which on its own title shows itself into being a religious artifact of its time. It, along with many of Bingen’s other works, is a Gregorian Chant. Duke Ellington, (real name Edward Kennedy Ellington), began his music career at the age of seven, learning to play piano. He was given the nickname “Duke” for how polite and well-mannered he was, leading him to use it as his stage name. His most known song is “Take the A-Train,” a jazz song written about the fastest way to Harlem, a bustling area for intoxication and parties; it was written right after the American Prohibition Amendment was repealed and it was legal to consume alcohol again.

Hildegard von Bingen was particularly fond, it seems according to her music, of Gregorian Chants and religious poetry set to music. She felt as if it was to honor God and the results are magnificent. She wrote in the plainchant tradition of a single vocal melodic line, common of the time; she had vivid descriptions of color and light in her music. Bingen’s music is monophonic, common, yet unique for the time, considering how she emphasized certain things and dulled out others. Duke Ellington’s creative uses of orchestration and texture are emblematic of his sound-color synesthesia. He didn’t limit himself, being a master of gospel, jazz, blues, classical, and film, he described his music as “American”.

Ellington’s versatility helped him receive many chances to play his piano with a very limited repertoire, even in segregated areas of the cities he played in. He found he could play the same thing more than once if he changed the tempo throughout the evening. His playing was integral to his rhythm section, and he used it to galvanize his band. At the piano, Ellington would set the tempos, signal his band members, and usually established the tone and/or the color of his songs with the beginning of them, playing dramatically and emphasizing certain things. While he almost always only wrote and composed for his orchestra, he wrote “A Single Petal of a Rose,”in 1958 to honor Queen Elizabeth of England. It, along with all his other music, was beautiful and well-established in his place of music.  

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