Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Vernon Duke

with 5 comments

Just happened across a nice profile of Vernon Duke. It begins:

THERE is something so improbably consoling about the sadness at the heart of the best Vernon Duke melodies. This redemptive afterglow could be a consequence of sheer melodic sophistication. Duke knew how to construct a song, elegantly, with surpassing craft and harmonic flair. Yet the earned wisdom behind the sadness in his music transcends flair and craft and goes beyond sophistication.

It’s not that the songs are even inherently unhappy. ”Autumn in New York,” ”April in Paris” and ”I Can’t Get Started” — to name Duke’s most identifiable trio — inhabit an emotional realm uncommon in the American popular song canon, that of dry-eyed ballads of unusual poignancy. The melancholy induced by these songs, while hauntingly seductive, is never glum.

Nor was Duke remotely a sad kind of guy. An aristocratic White Russian emigre turned Broadway songwriter, he seems to have had a rather good time of it all, dressing with notorious dash and, in a polyglot of languages, charming chorus girls and theatrical producers alike. Duke knew everybody, from his dearest friend, the Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev, to Picasso and Chanel, Balanchine and Jean Cocteau, and even an antic young serviceman whom Duke discovered during World War II, Sid Caesar.

Moreover, alongside his prodigious Broadway output, from the 1920’s into the 1960’s, Duke enjoyed a parallel career as a classical composer. Under his given Russian name, Vladimir Dukelsky, he turned out ballet scores, concertos, sonatas, art-song cycles and at least three symphonies for the world’s most celebrated orchestras and conductors.

Continue reading.

Later in the article:

Vernon Duke, the Broadway songwriter, also found success after he returned to New York in 1929, but in sporadic bursts. Even his biggest Broadway hits were inconclusively received at first. ”April in Paris,” written with Harburg for a 1932 revue called ”Walk a Little Faster,” bombed so badly initially that Harburg harangued his collaborator in a Times Square restaurant, raging that Duke’s melody for the song was only ”all right for decadent Europeans.” ”Autumn in New York,” composed on a whim by Duke in 1934 (both the music and the stunning, pensive words) as a ”pendant to ‘April in Paris,’ ” was interpolated later that year into a flop revue titled ”Thumbs Up.” Finally, even Duke’s peerless ”I Can’t Get Started,” an old unused ”trunk tune” refurbished with an ideal Ira Gershwin lyric for the 1936 ”Follies,” was dismissed by Duke himself as just one component of ”a dead score,” until the jazz trumpeter Bunny Berrigan put ”I Can’t Get Started” on the Hit Parade to stay.

On her album ”Dawn Upshaw Sings Vernon Duke” (Nonesuch), Ms. Upshaw restores to ”April in Paris” and ”Autumn in New York” their sly original verses, each an understated contrast to the heights of rapture and depths of ennui that the songs present. In fact, Ms. Upshaw may be Duke’s ideal interpreter. The only opera diva on the scene today with a classic pop singer’s gift for phrasing and a torch singer’s emotional fearlessness, she possesses the craftsmanship and the soul to take on the full range of Duke’s songwriting talent. His bittersweet chromaticism, unexpected key modulations and dense harmonies are all sung with a crystalline simplicity that eloquently illuminates Duke’s darker side.

Written by Leisureguy

22 April 2008 at 4:42 pm

Posted in Music

5 Responses

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  1. Very good biographical material. It is a pity that no one remembers his pop songs any more. I requested “Autumn in New York” while eating dinner in Maine, and all the flustered pianist could play was “Autumn Serenade”! I would love to have a CD of his songs.


    Robert Cruickshank

    19 September 2008 at 8:53 am

  2. A search on Amazon Music for “Vernon Duke” finds a handful of CDs of his work.



    19 September 2008 at 8:57 am

  3. I’ll pretend people are still reading this post and add that the original writer somehow forgot to name an extremely important friendship in his list of Duke’s associations, that with George Gershwin. Gershwin was absolutely instrumental in bringing Duke to the “dark side” of composing (that would be songwriting, folks) and making important opportunities available to him — from paying him to firm up the final draft of the Rhapsody in Blue for publication, to providing Duke with a most macabre virgin stint in Hollywood: taking George’s place as composer of a Sam Goldwyn musical upon Gershwin’s death in 1937. And it was Gershwin who gave him his Anglicized name to help him along the more profitable lowbrow track. However, Duke’s forging into the lowbrow (necessary to support his family) may very well have kept him from devoting himself to his serious ambitions; his attentions on all levels was divided. I disagree with the writer on another point: while handsome, well-bred and well-versed, Vernon Duke was NOT a charmer of producers, many of his colleagues or perhaps even of chorus girls (he persisted in pursuing upper crust maidens with scant appreciation for his craft). He was remembered as being difficult to work with, arrogant about his superior composing talents and too vocal in his opinions to make for pleasant company for very long. Ira Gershwin’s wife called him “a rich dish”: one could only take so much of him before he became unappealing. Yet none of this is a surprise when one considers Duke’s background — he was born to have high expectations of both the world and of himself, and could believe no less than that his hard work would result in well-earned acclaim. He DID work hard, feverishly so, and a dizzying collection of quality work remains unheard and unpublished. As well, he was endowed with an abundance of intellectual and creative gifts, all of which one would only feel compelled to pursue. One might say he was temperamentally programmed to be self-defeating, but the final conclusion seems simpler: the dark Russian, who really did have a lot to give, was simply unlucky.

    Let me recommend a CD of Vernon Duke tunes (sans lyrics) for jazz piano enthusiasts: Andre Previn Plays Songs By Vernon Duke (1958 Contemporary). Previn’s first solo piano recording, it was issued on CD in 1991. Vernon Duke was present in the studio and wrote the liner notes. It’s a treasure. Check out eBay and


    Shelley Finke

    2 September 2009 at 12:30 pm

  4. Terrific comment! Many thanks. I’m getting that CD.



    2 September 2009 at 1:57 pm

  5. His given Russian name was “Vladimir,” but he goes by “Vernon.”



    24 November 2014 at 11:24 am

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