John Duke was a distinguished composer, pianist, and teacher of piano. He is best known for his art-songs in English, which were composed between 1920 and his death in 1984. His works also include solo instrumental pieces, instrumental and vocal chamber music, choral and symphonic works, and music for the stage. He composed two operas (“Captain Lovelock,” 1953; “The Sire de Maletroit,” 1958), an operetta (“The Yankee Pedlar,” 1962), a “musical fantasy for children” (“The Cat That Walked Himself”: 1964), and music for numerous Smith College faculty shows and theatre department productions.
John Duke was born in Cumberland, Maryland, on July 30, 1899. He became interested in music through his mother, Matilda Hoffman Duke. “A music lover and a talented singer,” she was Duke’s first music teacher. At age 16 he won a three-year scholarship to the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore. There he studied piano with Harold Randolph and theory and composition with Gustav Strube.
In 1918, following a period of volunteer service in the army, Duke continued his music study in New York City with lessons in piano from Franklin Cannon and in composition from Howard Brockway and Bernard Wagenaar. In 1920 he made his New York piano debut in Aeolian Hall.
On December 22, 1922, he married Dorothy Macon, a writer. The couple often collaborated on musical works and on lecture-recitals. Dorothy Duke wrote the libretto for “The Sire de Meletroit,” “The Yankee Pedlar,” and “The Cat That Walked by Himself,” as well as texts for several Smith College faculty shows.
In 1922 and 1923 Duke was editor of the American Piano Company Recording Labs. He made recordings for them and for the Duo-Art Company. His compositions were first published in 1923, when G. Schirmer, Inc., printed his first two songs, “I’ve Dreamed of Sunsets” and “Lullaby.”
Duke’s long affiliation with Smith College began in the fall of 1923, when he was appointed assistant professor of music. Duke taught piano and in the 1950s and 1960s offered a course in the literature of the piano. In 1938 he was made a full professor of music, a position he held until he was honored with the Henry Dike Sleeper Chair in 1960. Duke was an active performer and lecturer throughout the Connecticut River Valley (and beyond), giving many recitals and lecture-recitals and teaching a number of University Extension Service of the Connecticut Valley courses, mainly in piano literature and pedagogy. He also wrote columns and reviewed concerts for the Daily Hampshire Gazette.
Duke spent his first sabbatical from Smith (1929-30) studying in Europe with Nadia Boulanger and Artur Schnabel. He was a member of the Yaddo Summer Music Colony in Saratoga Springs, New York, in 1936 and 1937, and he served as program chair for the Yaddo concert series of contemporary American chamber music in 1937. In 1941 Duke’s “Carnival Overture” was given its premiere by the Boston Pops Orchestra. His 1944 sabbatical was spent in New York City, where he was chair of the National Association of American Composers and Conductors and arranged a series of four concerts of contemporary chamber music.
Duke’s association with John Seagle and the Seagle Colony, the summer school for singers in Schroon Lake, New York, began in 1951, when his daughter Karen attended a session. From then until his death, Mr. Duke almost always made an annual visit to the colony. His operas, “Captain Lovelock” and “The Sire de Maletroit,” were written for the Opera Guild at the colony and were first performed there. Duke wrote other pieces for the colony (e.g., “Lord, Bless This Food”) and was often present for workshops or performances of his music.
John Duke was honored by this hometown of Cumberland, Maryland, when April 1, 1957, was declared “John Duke Day.” Other honors included the American Society of Composers and Publishers Standard Award to composers, which he received for twenty-two consecutive years (1963-84). The Peabody Conservatory Alumni Association bestowed on him its Award for Distinguished Service in 1969.
John Duke retired from Smith College as professor emeritus in 1967. He remained active as a composer, writing 126 of his 265 catalogued songs after that time. He died in Northampton on October 26, 1984.
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