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The Degas Suite

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Over the last week, we have published articles on Danish Radio’s Ellington broadcasts Nos. 31 and 32. These broadcasts are very much focused on the music Ellington composed and recorded for the art film Degas’ Racing World (sometimes referred to as The Impressionists at the Racetrack. The soundtrack for this never completed film is what is called The Degas Suite.

The film was the brainchild of the American film maker Sam Shaw. He was the producer of Paris Blues and this is how he got acquainted with Duke Ellington.

The idea of Racing World was apparently triggered by a major exhibition of impressionists and post-impressionists works with horse track and horse racing motives, which Shaw saw during his stay in Paris for Paris Blues.

He approached Ellington to write the music for the film, which he accepted. According to Stanley Dance, Ellington even was ”enthusiastic” about it.

The music was recorded on three occasions, November 6, November 23 and December 3, 1968.

”After seeing the Degas material for the first time, Ellington decided to use just four horns and piano” (Dance). However, in the end, Ellington changed his mind and involved himself and 9 of his band members  in the recording of the music.

Before the film projected stopped because of lack of money, a sound track for the film was put together out of the recorded music. Ellington got the rights to it as a compensation for having paid for the studio time and for his musicians.

But he never made use of the sound track and he does not refer to the (unissued) film and The Degas Suite in Music Is My Mistress. This can be interpreted as there was no Degas Suite to him, just a soundtrack of a failed film project.

Instead, the originator of the name The Degas Suite is Stanley Dance. For the fifth volume of the Ellington Private Collection issued in 1987, he selected a set of takes from the Racing World recording sessions based on the soundtrack and issued them under the name of The Degas Suite in the CD album. In his liner notes, he says ”The soundtrack…solves the problem of deciding which takes Ellingtom himself considered definitive”.

His selections and the order of them are slightly different from the one Erik V. Krustrup had in DR 31 and 32.

A comparative list can be found on page 582 in Klaus Stratemann’s ”Duke Ellington Day by Day, Film by Film”

In 1987, the President of the Southern California Chapter of the Duke Ellington Society, William Fawcett Hill, together with the art historian James Dobbs, decided to produce a reconstruction of Degas’ Racing World. They did so without having able to find any of the original film clips and getting only vague information when he interviewed Sam Shaw.

So the ”reconstruction” must be considered as a rather personal interpretation of the original film both as regards the paintings which appears and the order of the music.

It was shown at the Ellington ’88 conference in Oldham and now DESS members can also enjoy it. We apologise for the poor quality of the images.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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