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Background:

"Take 5" by Paul Desmond (and famously recorded by the Dave Brubeck Quartet) 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 sexophones 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, and I must mention I've heard some refer to Huxley's "sexohones" as "saxophones", but I doubt it makes much difference overall]

Phrases like "alto and tenor registers", "a diminuendo sliding gradually, through quarter tones", and "a faintly whispered dominant chord" prove undoubtably that Huxley has had some non-trivial experience with music and music theory (apparently, these phrases aren't proof enough for everyone, but I'll stick to my guns)

This book was originally published in 1932, way before Desmond and 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!

So, my musical 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.

  • I have cross-posted this to MusicFans, just in case it's better there or off-topic here. I also posted this on Literature. – user45266 Feb 22 at 21:27
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    Since it "is one of the more famous jazz standards out there", you might as well mention the correct composer: Paul Desmond. – Eric Duminil Feb 23 at 12:46
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Add to the list of well known 5/4 music Mussorgsky's Promenade from Pictures at an Exhibition. But really I think you need to also consider authentic folk music which can use odd meters or mixed meters.

...The saxophones wailed like melodious cats under the moon

Early Duke Ellington would have the saxophones, so this description isn't out of the blue.

But, notice the mocking tone: like melodious cats under the moon ...deturgescence. I don't think that is meant to be complimentary. Apparently Huxley liked jazz when he first heard it, but then later came is despise it. This page has a quote from Huxley about jazz in Do What You Will (1929)...

It was the first time, I realised, that I had ever clearly seen a jazz-band. The spectacle was positively frightening…

Oh, those mammy-songs, those love-longings, those loud hilarities! How was it possible that human emotions intrinsically decent could be so ignobly parodied? I felt like a man who, having asked for wine, is offered a brimming bowl of hog-wash. And not even fresh hog-wash. Rancid hog-wash, decaying hog-wash. For there was a horrible tang of putrefaction in all that music. Those yearnings for Mammy of Mine and My Baby, for Dixie and the Land where Skies are Blue and Dreams come True, for Granny and Tennessee and You – they were all a necrophily. The Mammy after whom the black young Hebrews and the blond young muffin-faces so retchingly yearned was an ancient Gorgonzola ; the Baby of their tremulously gargled desire was a leg of mutton after a month in warm storage ; Granny had been dead for weeks ; and as for Dixie and Tennessee and Dream Land – they were odoriferous with the least artificial of manures.

My memory of Brave New World includes other negative comments about popular music, stuff about lyrics written by machines.

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?

I don't think the question is about how prevalent 5/4 meter was - enough answer here show it was used - but what was the attitude about the meter.

Huxley was not being a music visionary in that passage by combining saxophones and 5/4 meter. He was combining various elements and descriptions of things un-pure both in the literal sense - 5/4 can be seen as a mixed meter - and the moral sense - 5/4 is wild, exciting, exotic, irregular, etc. It likely was conflating an odd meter like 5/4 and syncopation, both being kinds of metrical irregularities.

The funny thing about comparing to The Dave Brubeck Quartet is they represented a certain level of respectability. The album Time Out - with 5/4 and other meters not in common time - is a technical and intellectual display. Quite a different image of jazz and attitude about irregular meter than the picture Huxley tried to paint in that description!

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    Great quote! it sounds like poor Aldous found himself at a really corny gig. He should have gone to hang out with Hoagy in Harlem to watch the young Armstrong! – danmcb Feb 25 at 12:19
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    Last night I was wondering how much of what Huxley heard was the white variety of "race" music? Stuff from the Stephen foster & Al Jolson lineage. Those "mammy" and "Dixie" references are a bit suspicions. – Michael Curtis Feb 25 at 13:43
  • @MichaelCurtis I think you are on the right track but keep in mind that the famed Cotton Club was whites only. Certain conceits were expected from the performers for such audiences that would not be acceptable in mainstream culture today. – JimmyJames Feb 25 at 15:18
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    It's so complex... I can't tell if "...black young Hebrews..." is a reference to Jewish performers in black face, or African Zionism! But even if we give Huxley the benefit of the doubt re. racisism, his attitude about jazz is clear. He thought it indecent. – Michael Curtis Feb 25 at 16:24
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Brubeck's exploration of 5-beat and other asymmetrical meters was revolutionary for jazz, but it had been going on for decades in classical music, largely inspired in the late 19th century by the identification of such meters in folk music. Prominent along these composers were several Russians. Wikipedia attributes Brubeck's interest to his studies with Darius Milhaud (Quintuple meter).

I note that Huxley does not mention jazz. The saxophone was far less narrow in its application in those days, being used not infrequently in classical orchestras. But the dance hall context probably does imply popular music. I suspect that Huxley chose the five four meter precisely because it would be unusual in that context; it's a dystopian story, after all, so unusual details abound. But such meters would be familiar to someone who followed classical music. Furthermore, they will have been associated with Russian music, if not exclusively, just as Lenina's name evokes the leader of the Soviet Union.

For more context, Take 5 appeared on the Dave Brubeck Quartet album Time Out. It was composed by Paul Desmond, the quartet's saxophonist. The album is devoted to unusual time signatures. Rather than attributing this interest to Brubeck's study with Milhaud, this article says, with citations, that it arose during a tour of Eurasia. Another song on the album, Blue Rondo à la Turk, used a meter that Brubeck heard in Turkey, a 9-beat pattern with three groups of two followed by one group of three.

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    Russia was not the only place they were found; Hungary had Bartók, the second movement of Chopin’s first sonata is in 5/4, people like Boulez and Messiaen had already abandoned meters altogether by the 1940s and I would be very surprised if there weren’t any examples from the Spanish national style (Albéniz, De Falla, Granados, Turina) – 11684 Feb 23 at 8:29
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    In fact iirc the instrument in the novel is a 'sexophone' not a saxophone. As you say - 'unusual details abound' – peterG Feb 23 at 17:51
  • @EricDuminil I'll put it in my question, thank you for bringing this to my attention. – user45266 Feb 24 at 17:39
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    @EricDuminil please tell me what you think of the changes I have made. Thank you. – phoog Feb 24 at 22:13
  • @phoog: the whole answer looks very good now, thanks for editing! – Eric Duminil Feb 24 at 22:21
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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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1914-1916 was when Holst was writing his Planet Suite. That included Mars, in 5/4 time. So Huxley would maybe have heard that. He was writing about slightly improbable, unusual happenings, so a 5/4 dance would slot right in.

In fact, it would be shorter to list periods and composers that didn't use 5/4, dating from ancient Greeks to modern times. It's just that Take Five is the best known piece in that time signature.

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Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony's second movement is in 5/4 time. It has been called a "limping waltz."

There are others (folk songs from everywhere), ancient Greek music, several mass movements, some others. It's not unusual.

I don't know how one might dance a 5/4 but perhaps rock-rock-1-2-3 (a traditional rock step pair followed by the waltz 1-2-3). This pattern alternates feet like many dances.

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  • A lot of dances use a three-beat pattern over a duple meter. So in theory the number of steps for a five-beat meter could be something other than five. – phoog Feb 23 at 8:23
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Perrot and Cellarius' Valse à Cinq Temps (1846) is a five-step waltz composed by balletmaster Jules Perrot for the ballet Catarina in 1846 and published by Henri Cellarius in 1847.

At the time that Aldous wrote there were theatrical interpretations of 5 step in swing and brass that were being written about by press critics.

https://www.libraryofdance.org/dances/five-step-waltz/

https://www.streetswing.com/histmain/z3fivstp.htm

Aldous was from a very academic family, and would very probably have studied a musical instrument with a very good teacher for some time.

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Holst's Mars brought War in 5/4 time in the 1910s, pre-dating Brave New World by almost two decades.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Planets

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brave_New_World

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As many have mentioned, 5/4 was well established, though infrequently used.

Jazz players, often lacking formal musical education, often gleefully reinvent wheels long known to the musical mainstream.

Huxley strung some musical words together. I'm not at all sure he demonstrated that he knew what they mean :-)

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    "Jazz players, often lacking formal musical education, often gleefully reinvent wheels long known to the musical mainstream." twitch – isanae Feb 23 at 8:50
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    What an obnoxious little remark! I see no reason to doubt that Huxley knew what his words meant. – TonyK Feb 25 at 11:23
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    Art Tatum, Earl Hines, Armstrong, Benny Carter - lacking formal musical education ... I'm not even going there. The exchange of musical ideas and innovation between the classical and jazz worlds is well documented. Look up the interaction between Charlie Parker and Igor Stravinsky @LaurencePayne – danmcb Feb 25 at 12:23
  • 'Often' does not equate to 'always'. – Laurence Payne Feb 26 at 1:06

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