Among the large-scale works that occupied Ellington's creative efforts - amid constant touring - in the later years of his life were various suites, film scores, the three oratorio-like "sacred concerts," and a ballet, The River. Commissioned in 1970 by American Ballet Theatre for choreographer Alvin Ailey, The River "was to be all water music, and it was to follow the course of this stream through various stages: through a meander, a falls, a whirlpool, and then gurgling rapids. I fell in love with the idea," as Ailey said in a 1983 interview. "… Once he decided that he was going to write this river piece as a ballet, he had all the world's water music on recordings. He had the scores and everything. He had Handel's Water Music; he had Debussy's La Mer; he had Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes. He said, 'I've been listening to this to see what other people have done with water music'."
Ailey had worked with the Duke earlier on Ellington's show My People for the Chicago World Centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation, but he was not prepared for the way the composer worked on this ballet. Ellington would first record the numbers as piano solos, then with his band, create several versions of each piece, and then send them to Ailey individually. The choreographer found himself revising his dances almost daily as the premiere approached.
"The music was just beautiful, but it was driving me out of my mind," Ailey said. "I talked to people who worked with him. They said, 'Well, that's the way he works. You're just going to have to learn how to work with him like that. He'll take 16 bars into a studio, eight bars of this and two bars of that, and come out four hours later with eight fantastic pieces. That's just the nature of the way he works.' He wrote with the orchestra - the orchestra was his instrument. He composed in the recording studio; his band was his Stradivarius."
The premiere did take place as scheduled, at Lincoln Center's New York State Theater, but as "Seven Dances from a Work in Progress Entitled The River." Ellington had created 12 movements (his sketch recordings with his band have been released commercially), but Ailey choreographed only seven, to orchestral arrangements by Canadian composer Ron Collier (1930-2003), who collaborated with Ellington on several projects. (Five of those movements, not in their original sequence, are performed at these concerts.)
Ellington himself wrote detailed descriptions of the events and scenes of the river on its course from burbling spring to the sea. He is quite clearly taken with water imagery in all its forms, but he also sees the course of water - from spring through river to the sea, then evaporating to return as rain or snow - as a spiritual metaphor. When it reaches the sea, he writes, "the river is no longer a river. It has passed its point of disembarkation and here we realize the validity of the foundation of religion which is the HEAVENLY ANTICIPATION OF REBIRTH."
- John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.