Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes Vernon Duke and Concert Works

Compositional Bipolarity

Alec Wilder, in his classic study, American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900-1950 (Oxford University Press, 1972), writes:

“Vernon Duke was only one half of his musical self; the other half was Vladimir Dukelsky, a composer of concert works. Unfortunately for all of us, the concert, so-called ‘serious’ side of the man’s talent never, so far as I know, attempted to employ his popular side in a ‘third stream’ fashion [meaning a free mix of popular music and concert music content]. For although he was born in another culture, his absorption of American popular music writing was phenomenal. One never was aware in his songs of his not being rooted in this culture, as I was, for example, when I listened to the theater songs of Kurt Weill.”

Duke/Dukelsky addressed his musical “duality” this way:

“I always feel the duality in myself. My light music [meaning popular music] is decidedly extrovert, my serious music is introvert. There’s my Carnegie Hall self and my Lindy’s self [‘Lindy’s Restaurant’ was a famed Jewish deli in New York City’s Theater District on Broadway between 49th and 50th streets, named for its owner, Leo “Lindy” Lindermann], my Russian heritage and my American influence. Can I help it if two people happen to be inside my body?”

(No, you can’t help it, but like Ray Milland and Rosy Greer in The Man With Two Heads [1972], we imagine that can be, on occasion, confusing, if not downright uncomfortable.)

For better or for worse, it was the “Lindy’s” side of Dukelsky/Duke’s career that garnered his greatest fame. Between 1929 and 1957, Vernon Duke (as Vernon Duke!) composed songs for Broadway show and Hollywood musicals. The two scores that garnered his greatest fame were Walk a Little Faster (1932; which starred Beatrice Lillie), and Cabin in the Sky (1940; which was the Broadway directorial debut of the great dancer and choreographer George Balanchine).

Edgar Yipsel Harburg (1896-1981)
Edgar Yipsel Harburg (1896-1981)

Walk a Little Faster included a tune called April in Paris, with words by E. “Yip” Harburg. According to the contemporary critic and author Isaac Goldberg, April in Paris was:

“One of the finest musical compositions that ever graced an American production. If I had my way, I’d make the study of it compulsory in all harmony courses.”

Okay; he didn’t have things his way. But the point is made. That point? That the composer of songs, symphonies, and concerti that was Vernon Duke/Vladimir Dukelsky had chops, anyway we measure them.

Back to America and Into the Saddle

1929 was a signal year for the 26-year-old Vernon Duke (as we will now exclusively refer to him). On March 24, 1929, the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Serge Koussevitzky premiered Duke’s Symphony No. 1 in Boston and Duke, after living in Paris and London since 1924, returned permanently to the United States (specifically, to New York, New York, where he had lived from 1921 to 1924).

On Duke’s return to the city-so-big-they-had-to-name-it-twice, his bud George Gershwin fixed him up with a lyricist named Edgar Yipsil “Yip” Harburg (1896-1981; pictured above). It was with Harburg that Duke wrote his first hit song, April in Paris, in 1932. Over the course of the next 31 years, Duke worked with a wide variety of top lyricists, including Ira Gershwin, Harold Adamson, Howard Dietz, and Ogden Nash. (On occasion, Vernon Duke wrote his own words, most famously for his 1934 hit Autumn in New York. Not bad for a guy for whom English was his fourth language!)

Duke at work with Ira Gershwin in 1937
Duke at work with Ira Gershwin in 1937, with whom he wrote the standard I Can’t Get Started in 1936

During World War Two, Duke “nominally” served in the Coast Guard between 1942 and 1944. “Nominally” because though he held the rank of lieutenant, his actual “service” consisted of composing the music for the Coast Guard’s recruiting show, Tars and Spars. The show’s star was a then unknown actor, comedian, and saxophone player in the Coast Guard Band, Sid Caesar (1922-2014).…

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