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subsequent works (perhaps most famously the
pas de deux from Swan Lake). Others have tried
withholding pieces from general performance in
order to keep creative control (Wagner wanted
Parsifal performed only at Bayreuth) or for per-
sonal safety (Shostakovich prudently withheld
his song cycle From Jewish Folk Poetry until after
Stalin’s death). At least one, Kaikhosru Sorabji,
banned the performance of his own work because
of its technical difficulty (“No performance at all
is preferable to an obscene travesty”). Then there
are the many works that simply weren’t recorded:
untold numbers of blues artists playing roadside
dives, or jazz musicians like Buddy Bolden un-
furling genius improvisations that were lost the
moment they left the horn. But what Ellington
did with The Queen’s Suite—wishing to limit
so drastically the exposure of such a complete
and unimpeachably lovely work—seems almost
In 1958 Ellington made his way to the Leeds Festival for a command performance for
the royal family. It was two years into the mid-career renaissance he and his band experienced
after the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival, when
saxophonist Paul Gonsalves’ seemingly endless
choruses on “Diminuendo and Crescendo in
Blue” had Newport’s subdued WASPs dancing
so hard that the authorities feared a riot. Not
long after, Ellington was on the cover of Time.
It was also one year after Governor Orval Faubus and the Little Rock Nine, and Louis Armstrong’s interview in which he called Faubus a
no-good motherfucker. Big bands had mostly
died off by then, victims of inflation, television,
the decline of dance halls, and the rise of rock.
But Ellington’s persisted.
When he met the queen he seems to have
been taken with her. Harvey G. Cohen, in his
excellent book Duke Ellington’s America, de-
scribes the meeting:
Various reports confirm that they charmed
each other. She asked when he first visited
her country, and Ellington diplomatically
replied, “1933, your Majesty, years before
you were born.” She expressed regret con-
cerning her inability to attend his concerts
on the tour, at which point, according to
Melody Maker, Ellington’s “face puckered
into a huge smile.” “In that case, your Maj-
esty, I’d like to write a very special compo-
sition for you—a real royal suite.”
Richard Strauss was not just a
renowned German composer of
the late Romantic era; he was
also an eminent conductor, making his debut with the baton in
1884 in Munich. Around 1925
he wrote these tongue-in-cheek
“Ten Golden Rules for the Album
of a Young Conductor,” a humorous list still circulated widely among
1) Remember that you are making music not to amuse yourself, but to delight your audience.
2) You should not perspire when conducting. Only the audience should get warm.
3) Conduct Salome and Elektra as if they were by Mendelssohn: fairy music.
4) Never look encouragingly at the brass, except with a quick glance to give an important cue.
But never let the horns and woodwinds out of
your sight; if you can hear them at all, they’re
still too strong.
If you think that the brass is now blowing
hard enough, tone them down another shade
It is not enough that you yourself should hear
every word the soloist sings—you should
know it by heart anyway. The audience must
be able to follow without effort. If they do not
understand the words, they will go to sleep.
8) Always accompany the singer in such a way that he can sing without effort.
9) When you think you have reached the limits of prestissimo, go twice as fast.
If you follow these rules carefully, you will,
with your fine gifts and your great accomplishments, always be the darling of your