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JOHN DUKE (1899-1984)

Three Songs

May 15, 2016: James Morris, bass-baritone; Ken Noda, piano

After early music training from his mother, a talented singer, John Duke attended the Peabody Institute where he studied composition with Gustav Strube and piano with Harold Randolph. He continued his studying composition in New York with Howard Brockway and Bernard Wagenaar and furthered his piano skills with Franklin Cannon. He gave his piano debut piano recital in New York’s Aeolian Hall in 1920 in a program of Chopin, Debussy, and Liszt, among others, and performed the Grieg Concerto with the New York Philharmonic on tour in his hometown of Cumberland, Maryland, the following year.

Fully aware of the challenges of a career as a concert pianist, he joined the faculty of Smith College in 1923, where he taught piano until his retirement in 1967. He furthered his musical training on sabbatical in 1929–30, studying composition with Nadia Boulanger in Paris and piano with Artur Schnabel in Berlin. He also spent a summer at Yaddo, the renowned artists’ community in Saratoga Springs, New York, and many summers at the Seagle Colony, a school for singers in Schroon Lake, New York.

Though Duke composed a handful of orchestral and chamber pieces, the vast majority of his output features the voice—265 songs, several stage works, and a few choral pieces. His family background no doubt fostered his interest in song, though he himself said he was amazed at the way his career turned out. “In my early days, my ambition was to be a great pianist, and I could not have believed anyone who told [me] I was destined to be a song composer.” He came to believe that “vocal utterance is the basis of music’s mystery. The thing that makes melody a concrete expression of feeling and not just a horizontal design in tones is its power to symbolize the pull, the tension of our feeling of duration.”

Duke was particularly interested in setting texts by American poets and he corresponded with many, among them Archibald MacLeish, William Rose Benet, Mark Van Doren, and Richard Nickson. Just as this correspondence attests to his choice of texts, his correspondence with prominent musicians—among them Roger Sessions, Aaron Copland, Walter Piston, Daniel Gregory Mason, Mack Harrell, Ross Lee Finney, Roy Harris, Arthur Fieldler, William Warfield, and Douglas Moore—reflects the neo-Romantic orientation of his style.

This afternoon’s selections, “Richard Cory,” “Miniver Cheevy,” and “Luke Havergal,” feature three of four songs that Duke set to poems of Edwin Arlington Robinson in 1945. Duke creates a perfect musical description of the elegant saunter of Richard Cory as a man about town with his jaunty accompaniment in 6/8 meter. The shocking suicide moment he treats bare of accompaniment, followed by a brief dissonant piano comment.

Duke sets “Miniver Cheevy” as “a satire in the form of variations.” The nine colorful variations following the presentation of the theme are labeled Melancholy, Sprightly, Dreamy, Dolorous, Grandiose, Indignant, Puzzled, Tipsy, and Epilogue, all describing someone who thought himself born too late, said to be Robinson’s skewering of his own anachronistic tendencies and referencing his alcoholic brother.

“Luke Havergal,” in which a voice from the grave encourages Luke Havergal to join his dead lover, follows a ternary form in which the rich outer sections flank a chilling central section and the final section becomes positively majestic before ebbing. The poem might bring to mind Aeneas of classic lore being led by Sibyl to Queen Dido, who has died by suicide, but coupled with Duke’s music the result especially embodies the nineteenth-century Romantics’ theme of an intense yearning for death so as not to have to endure grief-stricken loneliness.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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