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Background:

The song "Take 5" by Dave Brubeck is one of the more famous jazz standards (famous jazz songs) out there, and one thing any musician would point out immediately is the tune's 5/4 (five beats in a measure) shuffle, which from what I remember was quite a departure from the normal 4/4 (four beats to a measure) 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 in 5/4 (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" prove undoubtably that Huxley has had some non-trivial experience with music and music theory. (If you're not a musician, take it on faith that these are terms that are hard to use correctly without knowing a lot about music.)

This book was originally published in 1932, long before Brubeck's jazz standard; 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!

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References to Huxley and his views on music are easy to find. E.g. this article "Aldous Huxley and Music in the 1920s", Music & Letters 64 (1/2), 25-36, 1983, hosted at Jstor where I can only access the free preview:

THE IMPORTANCE of music in the writings of Aldous Huxley has always been recognized, yet it is not often remembered that the confidence of his musical judgements had its foundations in a period that he spent, in 1922-3, as music critic of the Weekly Westminster Gazette. This remains one of his least-known ventures, and his criticisms have not been reprinted.

The article goes on to say:

Gervase Huxley, his cousin and Oxford contemporary, remembers that at that time Aldous discovered jazz and the delights of syncopation:'he was always picking up something new-and this was certainly brand new to us'.

Huxley was later to despise and pillory the vulgarity, cheapness and sensuality of jazz.

I can’t speak to the details of 5/4 time, but Huxley knew music.

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  • I've checked the full text of that article, which I can access at Jstor. Couldn't see any mention of 5/4 time specifically, but Huxley was certainly a fan of Russian/Slavic music, even in the 1910s, which supports the speculation in Peter Shor's answer. (In the 1940s and onwards, he even became a good personal friend of Stravinsky.) – Rand al'Thor Feb 23 at 13:43
  • Another notable work employing 5/4 time was Holst's Planets suite, which received its first complete performance in London in 1920 and was recorded shortly afterwards. – mikado Feb 29 at 14:00
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Russian folk music (and other Slavik folk music, as well) has lots of strange rhythms in it. Tchaikovsky, probably taking his cue from folk music, wrote the second movement of his 1893 Symphony Pathétique in 5/4 time. He wasn't the only or the first Russian composer to have done this, but it's probably the most famous piece of 5/4 music that Huxley might have listened to.

And Aldous Huxley seems to have appreciated music quite a lot, judging from the quotes you give in your question. Surely it's possible that he listened to Tchaikovsky's Symphony Pathéthique and recognized that it was in 5/4 time, and included the unusual time signature as a future innovation for dance music in Brave New World.

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  • Two further points to support this answer, in case you want to edit them in: Huxley was a fan of Russian/Slavic music specifically (as discussed in the article that Spagirl found in her answer); and there are certainly other Russian/Slavic references in Brave New World, most notably the names Marx and Lenina, so this might fit the theme. – Rand al'Thor Feb 23 at 14:33
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Traditional folk dances in 5/4 time were common in Eastern Europe, the Balkans, the Middle East and elsewhere. So were 7/8 folk dances, especially in South-Eastern Europe (Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia).

People had been ballroom dancing in 5/4 time since the middle of the 19th century. (I assume we're allowed to use Google.) According to libraryofdance.org, "Five-Step Waltz is a family of couples dances from the mid to late 19th century that is danced to music in 5/4 time."

The third movement of Chopin's First Piano Sonata is in 5/4 time.

Still, 5-beats-to-a-measure popular dance music was a peculiar enough concept when Huxley wrote "Brave New World" for his image of 400 couples five-stepping round a polished floor to be science fiction.

Brubeck's "Take Five" was a breakthrough for jazz, not - in the age of Stravinsky, Bartok, etc. - for "serious" music.

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