The writings and art songs of John Duke : 1917-1945
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The purpose of this study is to examine the writings of the American composer John Woods Duke (1899-1984) from the years 1917-1945, to extrapolate topics of importance from these writings, and to assess their relevance to the development of the composer’s compositional style during the same time period. Duke’s writings are important because they reflect the intellectual development and aesthetic views of a lesser-known American composer who chose to base his evolving contemporary compositional style on traditional musical structures. Leading figures of the avant-garde movement received greater attention for their more radical musical idioms that represented a departure from the familiar musical language. Duke’s views are worthy of attention because he represents an overshadowed stratum of professional musicians active in the first half of the twentieth century who were not using radical compositional techniques and were therefore largely neglected in musicological studies. The John Duke Papers held in the Smith College Archives contain unpublished sources including correspondence, lecture and essay drafts, private journals and newspaper columns, all written between 1920-1945. These writings have never been discussed at length in any venue, and they provide a rare opportunity to explore the views of a lesser-known American composer who actively questioned the aesthetics of more prominent, avant-garde musicians. The basic principles that emerge from Duke’s writings include his opposition to experimental techniques in music that alienate the listener; his advocacy of a modern musical language built on familiar and traditional harmonic idioms; his belief in the primary importance of comprehensible content in contemporary music; and his conviction that the composer must rely on his innate sense of beauty and art instead of popular compositional theories or trends. While Duke is primarily known for his large output of art songs, his intellectual achievements as reflected in his writings merit recognition. This study places his compositional works in the contents of his written words: he wrote about his commitment to beauty and truth in music; he composed with the strength of character to adhere to that commitment.