One of America's foremost composers of art song, John Duke's compositions
enjoyed great popularity in the middle of this century and, thanks to recent recordings, concert performances,
and publications, they are attracting renewed interest.
Duke was born in Cumberland, MD, 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; began
piano lessons at age eleven; and at sixteen entered the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, where he studied piano
with Harold Randolph, who had been a pupil of Hans von Bülow, Clara Schumann, and Franz Liszt, and composition with
Gustav Strube, Reinecke's student. During World War I he 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 he 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, MA, where he taught piano until his retirement forty-four years later. 1923 also marked G. Schirmer's
publication of his 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 Colony summer vocal camp, Duke continued to concertize
and to compose over 265 songs, as well as a few chamber operas, choral and orchestral works. As a pianist, he made
American composers a special programming interest, premiering works by Sessions, Piston, and Wagenaar, among them
Sessions' PIANO SONATA # 1 at one of the Sessions-Copland historic concerts of contemporary music. As a composer, he
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 by the music, and he wrote lovingly and knowledgeably for
the voice, as well as for the piano. 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."