John Woods Duke (July 30, 1899 – October 26, 1984), an American composer and pianist born in Cumberland, Maryland, became arguably best known for his art songs.
John Woods Duke was the oldest child in a large musical family. After teaching him to read music at an early age and starting him on piano lessons at age 11, Duke's mother (a talented singer herself) enrolled him in the Cumberland, MD Allegheny Academy. By age 16 he had won a three-year scholarship to the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore.
While at Peabody, Duke studied composition and theory under Gustav Strube and piano with Harold Randolph (whose own tutors had included Hans von Bülow, Clara Schumann, and Franz Liszt). He graduated in 1918, and, in the midst of wartime, volunteered his services to the Student Army Training Corps at Columbia University.
Duke fell in love with the city of New York and decided to remain there after the war. His maturation as an artist continued as he debuted as a concert pianist in Aeolian Hall and wrote his first art song. Within a few years he began playing as a soloist with the New York Philharmonic. He married Dorothy Macon, who would bear him two children and collaborate with him as a librettist on several art songs.
In 1923, Duke accepted a position on the music faculty at Smith College in Northampton, MA. He gained a full professorship at Smith in 1936, and remained at the institution until 1967 when he received the Peabody Alumni Association Award for Distinguished Service in the field of music following his retirement. His prodigious output of art songs continued, including such well-known pieces as "I've Dreamed of Sunsets" and "Lullabye". Pursuing compositional studies, Duke took a year's sabbatical in 1929 to work with Nadia Boulanger in Paris and Artur Schnabel in Berlin. Returning to the United States, he spent a summer at the Yaddo artists' colony in Saratoga Springs, NY.
Professor Duke's lectures, particularly those on his own work (which would eventually total approximately 260 art songs) became very popular. His pieces were later selected for inclusion in such classic anthologies as Music for the Voice by Sergius Kagen and The Singer's Repertoire by Berton Coffin.
Although Duke's work covered a wide range of styles, it showed the particular influence of 19th-century German Lieder. Like those who influenced him, Duke had a passion for setting poems in his native language to music. Though he himself trained in piano, John Duke wrote almost all of his compositions for voice. When asked why, the composer replied, "I think it is because of my belief that vocal utterance is the basis of music's mystery."
Some critics have characterized John Duke's music as lacking substance and relying on shallow charm for its appeal. Duke himself opposed avant-garde music and preferred to write in the diatonic idiom that came naturally to him. Though his work assures him prominence in the world of the twentieth-century art song, articles on the subject which appear to focus on modernism have sadly neglected his career.
However several of Duke's songs, including "Loveliest of Trees" (based on a poem by A.E. Housman) have become classics: essential to a young singer's art-song education. He has 11 song cycles composed of 46 songs in total. Amateurs and professionals who continue to record and perform the Duke art songs published in "Singer's Guide to the American Art Song" often recognize their timeless quality and warmly appraise this American classic work.