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Vernon Duke

Born: 1903

Died: 1969

Nationality: American

Photo © Kay Ingalls


Working across musical and geographical boundaries, Vernon Duke was born Vladimir Aleksandrovich Dukelsky on October 10, 1903, in the Minsk Governorate of the Russian Empire. By his early twenties, Duke had emigrated to New York City, lived in Paris and London, and earned the admiration and support of diverse musical luminaries including George and Ira Gershwin, Sergei Diaghilev, and Sergei Prokofiev.
 
His wide-ranging catalogue includes ballets, three symphonies, chamber and solo music, and multiple scores for film and theater. He is perhaps best remembered for composing enduring and beloved contributions to the Great American Songbook, including 'April in Paris', 'Autumn in New York', and 'I Can’t Get Started'. Duke’s hit musical A Cabin in the Sky premiered on Broadway in 1940 and featured an all-black cast.
 
He began musical studies at age 11 at the Kiev Conservatory, where he studied composition with Reinhold Glière and music theory with Boleslav Yavorsky. His first major work, a Diaghilev commission entitled Zéphyr et Flore, premiered with the Ballets Russes in Paris in 1925. Prokofiev deemed it full of 'superior melodies, very well designed', and 'harmonically beautiful'. His 'serious' compositions cultivated a modernist style, while his Broadway and theater writing is indebted to the American popular song.
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