Like that of many monumental artists throughout history, the legacy of Duke Ellington is one of contradiction. As serious, skillful, and ambitious a composer as American music has ever known, he was just as capable of turning out myriad offhand tunes that reveled in their informal charm. If spirituality infuses some of his most personal pieces, sensuality suffuses the wider catalog of his work. He was a natural charmer who could win over any audience; he could also be an aloof and self-serving friend and lover. But a legion of Duke devotees wouldn’t have it any other way. For it’s his embrace of life in all its abundance and inconsistency that feeds his gorgeous command of sound, the tonal elements he transformed into music as vital and communicative today as it was when it was first produced during the past century.
It’s been fifty years since the 1973 performance of Ellington’s “The Majesty of God,” the third in a series of “Sacred Concerts” he initiated in the mid to late 1960s and the last major fully completed work of his lifetime. (Ellington would die less than a year later, in May 1974.) The Third Sacred Concert is an authentic demonstration of his attempt to express the spiritual aspect of his art. Ellington was raised in the warm embrace of family, and religion—if not strict religious practice—remained important throughout his life. He was said to have read the Bible thoroughly numerous times, and to turn to Scripture when in need of consolation. He counted clergymen among his friends and found comfort in spiritual reflection. Important spiritually inspired pieces include his enduring hymn “Come Sunday,” composed in 1942 for the extended work Black, Brown, and Beige, which was heard at the Ellington orchestra’s first Carnegie Hall concert in 1943.
“The Majesty of God” may not be an indisputable high point of Ellington’s career, but it is shaped by many of his trademark musical felicities—more than enough to warrant attention a half-century later. Consisting of seven segments, it includes original lyrics by Ellington along with passages from the Old and New Testaments and the Lord’s Prayer. The basic message is one of ecumenical praise, while “Ain’t Nobody Nowhere Nothin’ Without God” is Ellington’s unabashed testament of faith. Yet from first note to last, this is Duke Ellington music—that is, it doesn’t depart from his characteristic melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, and tonal universe. It delights while conveying deep emotions and it swings. Anyone unfamiliar with the English language yet conversant with Ellington’s music would recognize it immediately as his. You might not steer an Ellington novice straight to “The Majesty of God.” But those already acquainted with Ellington’s work will find it an instructive piece that furthers understanding of how he achieved wondrous effects by utilizing the resources at hand.