John Duke was one of America's foremost composers of art songs, and an accomplished pianist. His compositions enjoyed great popularity in the middle of the 20th century, and at the end of the century they attracted renewed attention. His catalog contains 265 art songs.
Photo: John Duke, Courtesy of the Library of Congress
Duke was born in Cumberland, Maryland, on July 30, 1899, the eldest of six children of literarily and musically inclined parents. Duke learned to read music from his mother, Matilda Hoffman, who was a singer of some accomplishment. He began piano lessons at age 11; and at 16 he entered the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, where he studied piano with Harold Randolph and composition with Gustav Strube. During World War I Duke served as a volunteer with the Student Army Training Corps at Columbia University in New York City, and he chose to continue his musical studies in that city when the war ended. His New York mentors included Howard Brockway and Bernard Wagenaar, both of whom were then publishing significant art songs.
In 1920 Duke debuted as a concert pianist. In 1922 he entered into a long and satisfying marriage with Dorothy Macon of Virginia, who sometimes wrote libretti for him, and in 1923 he accepted a professorship at Smith College in Northhampton, Massachusetts, where he taught piano until his retirement 44 years later. 1923 also marked G. Schirmer's publication of Duke's first songs, "I've Dreamed of Sunsets" and "Lullaby," as well as a piano work, The Fairy Glen. Duke settled into college life, availing himself of his first sabbatical in 1929-30 to study abroad with Boulanger and Schnabel, whose influences could be felt in the works he composed in the 1930's. Throughout his quiet academic career at Smith and at the Seagle Music Colony summer vocal camp, Duke continued to concertize and to compose over 265 songs, as well as a few chamber operas, choral pieces, and orchestral works. As a pianist, he made American composers a special programming interest, premiering works by Sessions, Piston, and Wagenaar, including Sessions's first Piano Sonata at one of the historic Sessions-Copland concerts of contemporary music. As a composer, Duke was fascinated by the "strange and marvelous chemistry of words and music," and in his master classes and writings he devoted a great deal of thought to the art of song and singing.
He believed that in a good song the words became assimilated with the music, and he wrote lovingly and knowledgeably for the voice, as well as for the piano accompaniment. In his choice of texts, he frequently gravitated to American poets, among them Frost, Teasdale, cummings, Van Doren, Millay, and E. A. Robinson, and his range of mood runs the gamut from sprightly wit ("Hist...Wist") to biting irony ("Richard Cory") to unabashed Romanticism ("Luke Havergal") or meditative reflection ("Be Still as You Are Beautiful").
Asked why, as a pianist, his compositions included so few piano works and so many songs, Duke replied: "I think it is because of my belief that vocal utterance is the basis of music's mystery."
--Thomas Hampson and Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold, PBS I Hear America Singing