A Russian childhood prodigy who went on to become a popular film composer during the 1930s and '40s.
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Vernon Duke Biography

by Jason Ankeny

Vernon Duke was among the most popular composers of the Depression era, scoring a series of hits including the standards "April in Paris," "Autumn in New York," and "I Can't Get Started"; under his real name Vladimir Dukelsky, he also enjoyed a concurrent career in classical music. Born October 10, 1903, in Parafianovo, Russia, he was raised in Kiev, and at age 11 was admitted to the Kiev Conservatory, studying composition under Reinhold Gliere and theory under Boleslaw Jaworski. Civil unrest forced the Dukelsky family to flee Russia in 1919, and after spending some 18 months in Constantinople, they settled in New York City in 1921. There, Dukelsky befriended George Gershwin, who suggested he Americanize his name to Vernon Duke; although he made the change for the Gershwin-inspired pop material he began writing at that same time, the composer retained his given name for his more ambitious musical projects as well as his poetry.

Duke settled in Paris in 1924, receiving a commission from Serge Diaghilev to compose the ballet Zephyr and Flora, which premiered the following year; although his "First Symphony" was performed in 1928 by Serge Koussevitzky and his orchestra, he spent much of the latter half of the decade in London, writing for the musical stage. Duke returned to New York in 1929 and began writing for Broadway, teaming with lyricist Yip Harburg to score his first major pop hit with "April in Paris," from the 1932 musical Walk a Little Faster. He authored his own lyrics for "Autumn in New York," from 1934's Thumbs Up, and that same year also penned "I Like the Likes of You" and "What Is There to Say" for the Ziegfeld Follies, to whom he later contributed "I Can't Get Started," "An Island in the West Indies," and "That Moment of Moments" as well. In the meantime, as Dukelsky he continued working on ballets (1934's Jardin Public, from a scenario by André Gide), concertos ("Dédicaces [Posviashcheniia]"), and oratories ("The End of St. Petersburg," perhaps his most challenging composition).

Duke's greatest commercial success followed with the 1940 Broadway premiere of Cabin in the Sky, an all-black musical choreographed by George Balanchine; Ethel Waters introduced the production's most famous number, "Taking a Chance on Love." Two years later, Duke entered the U.S. Navy, but after the war his career floundered, and in 1946 he returned to Paris before settling in California two years later. In 1952, he collaborated on the musical Two's Company with Ogden Nash, and in 1957 married singer Kay McCracken. Five years later, Duke published his first book of poetry, Epistles; his memoir Passport to Paris appeared several years earlier, and he additionally published dozens of articles in both English and Russian. 1966's "Anima Eroica (Ode to St. Brigitte)" was Duke's last major completed work; he died during a lung cancer operation on January 16, 1969.

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