- The “Adventures and Battles” of Vladimir Dukelsky (a.k.a. Vernon Duke)
In the late 1930s, the New York World Telegram identified the Russian American composer Vladimir Dukelsky as “probably New York’s most versatile musician.”1 Trained in composition at the Kiev Conservatory, Dukelsky escaped the Russian Revolution in 1921 and eventually immigrated to America. Because of a suggestion from his close friend George Gershwin, in his early twenties he began to write popular songs under the pseudonym “Vernon Duke.” His wide polarity of talent resulted in contact with a strangely diverse list of artistic figures from Ginger Rogers to Roger Sessions. Few other musicians would be an eyewitness to, let alone a participant in, such varied artistic history.
Despite his work as songwriter Vernon Duke, Dukelsky maintained a steady output of serious concert scores as “Vladimir Dukelsky.” Although a handful of his popular songs—the ones by Vernon Duke—have become firmly established in the great American songbook, his serious music has been condemned to live in its shadow. Those who know of Vernon Duke generally know nothing of Vladimir Dukelsky.
By 1925 the twenty-two-year old composer’s ambitions were becoming golden realities. He was poised for a major career as Diaghilev’s next Russian discovery, following directly in the modernist footsteps of Stravinsky and Prokofiev. Diaghilev considered him their immediate successor.2 Already established with Diaghilev, Dukelsky would soon become a favorite of Koussevitzky, the era’s tireless champion of new symphonic music. [End Page 297] That same year, Dukelsky’s ballet score Zephyr et Flore was garnering rave reviews and gathering attention from European society as well as leading composers. Poulenc made the strongest statements by writing in the Paris Herald Tribune: “This score, so new and so alive, seems to me, next to the gigantic production of Stravinsky’s, one of the most significant works of modern music, and Russian music in particular.”3 After this success, he signed a publishing contract with Edition Russe de Musique.
This explosive rise to fame was not permanent. By the late 1920s Dukelsky’s stardom began to wane, and he never fully regained the recognition he had enjoyed in his early twenties. In an unpublished document that originally was to serve as the author’s biographical sketch to Listen Here!, Dukelsky wrote with a rare melancholy and introspective tone:
When I look back on my many careers, I wonder why I went off in so many directions and tried to reach so many goals; I didn’t reach any of them, in reality, and, as for my achievements, raised eyebrows is about the only thing they achieved. . . . I’m a Jack-of-all-Trades and master of some—although my mastery is certain to be questioned by many.4
With so much evidence of a promising career, why has Dukelsky’s serious music remained so obscure?
Seeking Advocates: Koussevitzky, Prokofiev, and Diaghilev
Like most artists, Dukelsky avidly pursued sponsors. However, he was not always as discreet as would have served him best. A pointed depiction appears in Ira Gershwin’s diary from 1928. George Gershwin told Dukelsky about a reception he had gone to in Paris, hosted by Mr. and Mrs. Alexander Tansman. Dukelsky apparently immediately dismissed the host as a “second rater who will never amount to anything.” Dukelsky then asked about the other guests:
“Rieti,” George told him, “the Italian.”
“E. Robert Schmitz.” [Schmitz was a French concert pianist, who actively performed new music.]
“[Raymond] Petit, the critic.”
“Not important, third rate.”
Dukelsky then stated, “You shouldn’t have gone to that party. It will hurt you, people like that. A dozen people there, but only two really, Rieti, and Schmitz.”5 [End Page 298]
An opposing view, though, comes from Dukelsky’s old friend from the Kiev conservatory, Nicolas Slonimsky.6 In his 1988 book Perfect Pitch—a Life Story, he recalls the composer:
Koussevitzky was constantly besieged by young (and not so young) French Russian expatriate composers. Among the youngest, the most talented, and perhaps the most arrogant of these Russians was Vladimir Dukelsky, whose music possessed a certain “Parisian” charm. He...