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New World A-Coming, for piano and orchestra

New World A-Coming takes its title from a 1943 social history of Harlem by the prominent journalist Roi Ottley: New Day A-Coming: Inside Black America. Ellington was a voracious student of the African American experience, depictions of which laid the foundations for his large-scale works.

Composition and premiere: Ellington wrote the “tone parallel” New World A-Coming in 1943 and premiered it on December 11 of that year at Carnegie Hall. In 1983, on commission from Ellington’s son Mercer, the conductor Maurice Peress created a score from the 1943 Carnegie Hall recording of New World A-Coming. Peress also created the present version for symphony orchestra. This is the first Tanglewood performance.

Duke Ellington had already begun to push the structural and expressive limitations of blues and song by the end of the 1920s, when his orchestra was the house band of New York City’s exclusive Cotton Club. The club’s all-white patronage expected not only dance numbers but also music to fill an entire evening: transitional numbers, theatrical revues, overtures, and illustrative effects such as the evocative faux-African “jungle style” that Ellington, in the U.S. anyway, helped invent. Along with such songlike hits as Mood Indigo were more extended numbers, including the seven-minute, multipart Creole Rhapsody (1931) and Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue (1937), made possible by Ellington’s exploratory harmonic language and the flexibility and creativity of his players, who included the great saxophonist Johnny Hodges and later the composer, arranger, and pianist Billy Strayhorn. The band toured the U.S. and Europe, capitalizing on the worldwide fame of their recordings.

Returning from a two-year working sojourn in California and seeking to reclaim his New York City reputation, Ellington followed his agent’s advice and booked a benefit concert for the Russian war relief effort in Carnegie Hall for January 23, 1943. Ellington premiered one of his most ambitious works at that concert—the forty-five minute, three-part orchestral suite Black, Brown, and Beige. The successful performance led to further engagements at Carnegie Hall and several other long-form pieces that Ellington wrote for these concerts. New World A-Coming, a single-movement work for piano and ensemble, was among them.

New World A-Coming takes its title from a 1943 social history of Harlem by the prominent journalist Roi Ottley: New Day A-Coming: Inside Black America. Ellington was a voracious student of the African American experience, depictions of which laid the foundations for his large-scale works. Ellington categorized many of these as “tone parallels,” a phrase analogous to the more broadly used music history terms “symphonic poem” and “tone poem” designating works by, for example, Strauss or Sibelius. In Ellington’s conception, the musical experience he creates “parallels” the real-world phenomenon he set out to illustrate. In the case of New World A-Coming that phenomenon is everyday life in Harlem in the 1940s.

New World A-Coming is a single movement in several sections, each of which starts with a theme or mood proposed by the piano soloist. The solo part includes repetitive left-hand chordal textures, sparkling, quasi-improvised runs and scales, and full, thick chromatic chords that have their roots in Ellington’s own playing style. The rapidly shifting musical and expressive ideas in the piece reflect the vibrancy and variety of Harlem, from dancing exuberance to soulful melancholy and poignant spirituality. On occasion, Ellington also performed New World A-Coming as a piano solo without accompaniment.

Robert Kirzinger

Composition and premiere: Ellington wrote the “tone parallel” New World A-Coming in 1943 and premiered it on December 11 of that year at Carnegie Hall. In 1983, on commission from Ellington’s son Mercer, the conductor Maurice Peress created a score from the 1943 Carnegie Hall recording of New World A-Coming. Peress also created the present version for symphony orchestra. This is the first Tanglewood performance.

Duke Ellington had already begun to push the structural and expressive limitations of blues and song by the end of the 1920s, when his orchestra was the house band of New York City’s exclusive Cotton Club. The club’s all-white patronage expected not only dance numbers but also music to fill an entire evening: transitional numbers, theatrical revues, overtures, and illustrative effects such as the evocative faux-African “jungle style” that Ellington, in the U.S. anyway, helped invent. Along with such songlike hits as Mood Indigo were more extended numbers, including the seven-minute, multipart Creole Rhapsody (1931) and Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue (1937), made possible by Ellington’s exploratory harmonic language and the flexibility and creativity of his players, who included the great saxophonist Johnny Hodges and later the composer, arranger, and pianist Billy Strayhorn. The band toured the U.S. and Europe, capitalizing on the worldwide fame of their recordings.

Returning from a two-year working sojourn in California and seeking to reclaim his New York City reputation, Ellington followed his agent’s advice and booked a benefit concert for the Russian war relief effort in Carnegie Hall for January 23, 1943. Ellington premiered one of his most ambitious works at that concert—the forty-five minute, three-part orchestral suite Black, Brown, and Beige. The successful performance led to further engagements at Carnegie Hall and several other long-form pieces that Ellington wrote for these concerts. New World A-Coming, a single-movement work for piano and ensemble, was among them.

New World A-Coming takes its title from a 1943 social history of Harlem by the prominent journalist Roi Ottley: New Day A-Coming: Inside Black America. Ellington was a voracious student of the African American experience, depictions of which laid the foundations for his large-scale works. Ellington categorized many of these as “tone parallels,” a phrase analogous to the more broadly used music history terms “symphonic poem” and “tone poem” designating works by, for example, Strauss or Sibelius. In Ellington’s conception, the musical experience he creates “parallels” the real-world phenomenon he set out to illustrate. In the case of New World A-Coming that phenomenon is everyday life in Harlem in the 1940s.

New World A-Coming is a single movement in several sections, each of which starts with a theme or mood proposed by the piano soloist. The solo part includes repetitive left-hand chordal textures, sparkling, quasi-improvised runs and scales, and full, thick chromatic chords that have their roots in Ellington’s own playing style. The rapidly shifting musical and expressive ideas in the piece reflect the vibrancy and variety of Harlem, from dancing exuberance to soulful melancholy and poignant spirituality. On occasion, Ellington also performed New World A-Coming as a piano solo without accompaniment.

Robert Kirzinger