Vernon Duke

1903 - 1969

American

Summary

Working across musical and geographical boundaries, Vernon Duke was born Vladimir Aleksandrovich Dukelsky on October 10 1903 in the Minsk Governorate of the Russian Empire. By his early twenties, Duke had emigrated to New York City, lived in Paris and London, and earned the admiration and support of diverse musical luminaries including George and Ira Gershwin, Sergei Diaghilev, and Sergei Prokofiev.
 
His wide-ranging catalogue includes ballets, three symphonies, chamber and solo music, and multiple scores for film and theater. He is perhaps best remembered for composing enduring and beloved contributions to the Great American Songbook, including April in Paris, Autumn in New York, and I Can’t Get Started. Duke’s musical A Cabin in the Sky premiered on Broadway in 1940 and featured an all-black cast.
 
He began musical studies at age 11 at the Kiev Conservatory, where he studied composition with Reinhold Glière and music theory with Boleslav Yavorsky. His first major work, a Diaghilev commission entitled Zéphyr et Flore, premiered with the Ballets Russes in Paris in 1925. Prokofiev deemed it full of "superior melodies, very well designed," and "harmonically beautiful." His "serious" compositions cultivated a modernist style, while his Broadway and theater writing is indebted to the American popular song.

Biography

Working across musical and geographical boundaries, Vernon Duke was born Vladimir Aleksandrovich Dukelsky on October 10 1903 in the Minsk Governorate of the Russian Empire, present-day Belarus. He was born in a small railroad station, as his mother had been traveling at the time. At age 11 he was admitted to the Kiev Conservatory where he studied composition and music theory. At 16, Duke and his family escaped the civil war in Russia and lived with other refugees in Constantinople. Within a few years, they were able to obtain American visas and traveled to New York on the SS King Alexander.

While living in New York, Duke befriended a young George Gershwin, Also an immigrant , Gershwin suggested that he "Americanize" his name. Duke continued to use his family name, Dukelsky, until 1955. In the early twenties, Duke lived in Paris, where he staged his first theatrical production, Zéphyr et Flore. This production, as well as many to follow, earned the admiration and support of diverse musical luminaries including the Brothers Gershwin, Sergei Diaghilev, and Sergei Prokofiev.

His wide-ranging catalogue includes ballets, three symphonies, chamber and solo music, and multiple scores for film and theater. He is also recognized for composing enduring and beloved contributions to the Great American Songbook, including April in Paris, Autumn in New York, and I Can't Get Started. Duke's musical A Cabin in the Sky premiered on Broadway in 1940 and featured an all-black cast.

He died in Santa Monica. California, on January 16 1969 at age 65.

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