Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: Vladimir Aleksandrovich Dukelsky, AKA “Vernon Duke”

Vladimir Aleksandrovich Dukelsky/Vernon Duke
Vladimir Aleksandrovich Dukelsky/Vernon Duke (1903-1969)

We mark the birth on October 10, 1903 – 119 years ago today – of the Russian-American composer of concert music Vladimir Aleksandrovich Dukelsky.  As a composer of popular music, and as a major contributor to the Great American Songbook, he is known as Vernon Duke.

The Great American Songbook

The Great American Songbook refers to neither a book nor a specific list of songs.  Rather, the phrase encompasses the repertoire of American popular song, written between about 1915 and 1955 that are today collectively referred to as the “standards.”  According to what should be the unimpeachable source, the “Great American Songbook Foundation”: 

The “Great American Songbook” is the canon of the most important and influential American popular songs and jazz standards from the early 20th century that have stood the test of time in their life and legacy. Often referred to as “American Standards”, the songs published during the Golden Age of this genre include those popular and enduring tunes from the 1920s to the 1950s that were created for Broadway Theater, musical theater, and Hollywood musical film.”

Irving Berlin circa 1935
Irving Berlin (1888–1989), circa 1935

Now, you didn’t have to be born in America to be a contributor to the Great American Songbook.  In fact, some of the greatest contributors to the “Song Book” were not born in America.  For example, among the “greatest” of them all was Irving Berlin (1888-1989), whose catalog as both a composer and lyricist includes not just hundreds of songs but songs that have become virtual American anthems, including: God Bless America; White Christmas; Alexander’s Ragtime Band; Cheek to Cheek; Puttin’ on the Ritz; and There’s No Business Like Show Business.

Irving Berlin was born “Israel Beilin” in the Siberian city of Tyumen, where his father was an itinerant Jewish cantor.  The family emigrated to the United States when Berlin was five, arriving on Ellis Island (where they were quarantined) on September 14, 1893.  Berlin grew up on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and he learned his life lessons (and presumably his music, as well) on the streets and in the cafes, saloons, and restaurants of the Lower East Side.

The point: to be a recognized composer of the Great American Songbook, you don’t have to be American by birth; you just had to be living and working in America at the time you wrote your hit song (or songs) to be so included.

Vladimir Aleksandrovich Dukelsky (1903-1969)

Dukelsky was born on October 10, 1903 – 119 years ago today – in the Belorussian town of Parafianovo, near Minsk, in what was then the Russian Empire.  His family was of the minor nobility, specifically the “small gentry class”, which meant they could own and hold hereditary land.  (Dukelsky’s hereditary ties to the Russian “nobility” might well have been more impressive than that.  According to the 1954 edition of Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians, his paternal grandmother, who was born as “Princess Tumanishvili”, was “directly descended from the kings of Georgia.”  We’d observe that the most recent edition of Grove’s Dictionary – in an article updated in 2010 – makes no such mention.)

Dukelsky remembered:

“My parents were well-to-do people in the sugar business. I was slated for a diplomatic career, so at age 4 I started the study of languages.  But before I was 7, I was trying to compose.”

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