EDWARD K. (“DUKE”) ELLINGTON (1899-1974)
LES TROIS ROIS NOIRS (THE THREE BLACK KINGS), Ballet for Orchestra
I King of the Magi
II King Solomon
III Martin Luther King
Premiered: New York, 1976
The great (if insane) Australian composer Percy Grainger once told Duke Ellington that his music resembled that of Grainger’s friend Frederick Delius, and that he should take himself more seriously. Delius? Maybe not, but Ellington went on to take up where Gershwin had left off uniting the worlds of jazz and “serious” music (an idea he hated – he once said “I don’t believe in categories of any kind”). By the end of his long career, Ellington had written two operas, several concertos and a dazzling array of works that were neither jazz nor “classical” – they were just Ellington.
Les Trois Rois Noirs was intended as an elegy for the fallen Martin Luther King, who was assassinated in 1969; the work took its form and inspiration from the stained-glass window of the Three Kings in Barcelona’s Cathedral del Mar, which Ellington visited in 1970.
Ellington, like many composers, was subject to various superstitions governing how his music was written; one was that he never added the last notes of a piece until the day of the performance. Alas, the composer’s death prevented him from completing Les Trois Rois Noirs for himself; it was completed by his son Mercer, then edited and collated into its present form by Luther Henderson and Marcel Peress.
Three phases of Black history are represented. The first movement, Balthazar, evokes what Mercer Ellington calls “primitivity” with its insistent drumming; King Solomon evokes not only the power of the King but his celebrated erotic exploits, while a Gospel-tinged dirge for Dr. King points not only to the tragedy of Dr. King’s death but his all-important, quintessential “Dream”.