5

Background:

"Take 5" by Dave Brubeck is one of the more famous jazz standards out there, and one thing any analyst would point out immediately is the tune's 5/4 shuffle, which from what I remember was quite a departure from the normal 4/4 swing at the time. The piece was first recorded in the late 1950s, and it's possibly the most famous piece of music ever to be written with five beats to a measure (next to the Mission: Impossible theme).


Recently, I have been reading a book (a fictional work unrelated to music) by Aldous Huxley titled Brave New World (1932), containing a passage that interested me:

"Four hundred couples were five-stepping round the polished floor. Lenina and Henry were soon the four hundred and first. The saxophones wailed like melodious cats under the moon, moaned in the alto and tenor registers as though the little death were upon them. Rich with a wealth of harmonics, their tremulous chorus mounted towards a climax, louder and ever louder–until at last, with a wave of his hand, the conductor let loose the final shattering note of ether-music and blew the sixteen merely human blowers clean out of existence. Thunder in A flat major. And then, in all but silence, in all but darkness, there followed a gradual deturgescence, a diminuendo sliding gradually, through quarter tones, down, down to a faintly whispered dominant chord that lingered on (while the five-four rhythms still pulsed below) charging the darkened seconds with an intense expectancy."

[Emphasis mine]

Phrases like "alto and tenor registers", "a diminuendo sliding gradually, through quarter tones", and "a faintly whispered dominant chord" (all terms that come from the related field of music theory) prove undoubtably that Huxley has had some non-trivial experience with music.

This book was originally published in 1932, way before Brubeck's smash hit; clearly, the concept of moaning jazz saxophones paired with 5/4 time signatures had not been inspired by "Take 5".

But if 5/4 time signatures were so revolutionary in the late '50s, how on Earth would Huxley have put these ideas together? I haven't even found any reference to Huxley ever being involved with music at all, let alone able to understand such complicated ideas as irregular meter and quarter tones!

If this isn't too much theory, a good related question: To what extent had 5/4 time signatures been a part of the music predating the '60s, and is it possible that Huxley could have drawn influence from those pieces? The same question could be applied to the quarter tones, but I'll stick to one question at at time - this one's complicated enough as is.

  • This has been posted on Music: Practice and Theory as well, due to the somewhat theoretical nature of the question. I also put this on Literature. – user45266 Feb 22 at 21:30
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    Actually such multi-posts are not very well received here. This page covering a five-step waltz from 1846 disproves your assumption thoroughly. – guidot Feb 22 at 22:34
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    So does this one: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quintuple_meter. His description isn't convincing. He's been told there are alto and tenor saxes, and produces "...moaned in the alto and tenor registers". It's awful! "Rich with a wealth of harmonics" is laughable. "Thunder in A flat major"? Why? A "dominant chord"? Why? it would have been better to say, "Thunder", and "A faintly whispered chord". A little learning is a dangerous thing! I'll have a go: "With dark malevolence the pianist played a C major scale: its white notes rising up and up. And then - a pedal!" (Ian Banks is as bad!) – Old Brixtonian Feb 23 at 7:30
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There are examples of Five-Step Waltzes danced to 5/4 time from the 19th century from about 1846. These are also known as "Valse à Cinq Temps". There are descriptions of some of theses at the Library of Dance. It's quite possible that Huxley might have heard of these.

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