More Than “Tra-La-La”: On Vernon Duke, Igor Stravinsky, and Russian Musical Émigrés

By Harlow RobinsonSeptember 15, 2020

More Than “Tra-La-La”: On Vernon Duke, Igor Stravinsky, and Russian Musical Émigrés

Taking a Chance on Love by George Harwood Phillips
In Stravinsky’s Orbit by Klára Móricz

KNOWN TO MANY as the jazzy American tunesmith of such beloved standards as “Autumn in New York,” “April in Paris,” and “Taking a Chance on Love” (from the Broadway musical Cabin in the Sky), Vernon Duke had another side. As Vladimir Dukelsky (his real name), he composed respectable “classical” ballets, symphonies, concerti, sonatas, oratorios, and chamber music. Born in Russia in 1903 and educated at the Kyiv Conservatory, Dukelsky came to the United States in 1921 and spent most of his restless, sybaritic life in his adopted country, with frequent forays to Paris, London, and Monte Carlo. In these and other fashionable European watering holes, he would enjoy posh accommodations, dine in the finest restaurants, rub shoulders with the rich and famous, and — oh, yes — write music.

Like another Russian émigré composer, Igor Stravinsky, whom he envied and repeatedly insulted, Duke spent his final years in Los Angeles, a city he described in his chatty memoir Passport to Paris (1955) as “a watered-down Riviera on a large scale.” Not long after he arrived from New York in 1951, Duke wrote that he loved Los Angeles’s “uniformly good” weather, but not the car culture. “A stranger with a car has little to do after ten but go boozing or take in a film. A stranger without a car is a dead duck! However, to know the place is to love it.” In Los Angeles, he joined a large and growing community of Russian émigré artists who, like him, had fled the hardships of the Bolshevik Revolution to start a new life in sunny California. A few were in the music business, like his lifelong friend Nicolas Slonimsky. Many others came to work in the movies: director Lewis Milestone, actors Akim Tamiroff, Maria Ouspenskaya, Mikhail Chekhov, and even Fyodor Chaliapin Jr., son of the renowned Russian operatic bass, whose long film career ended on a high note with a memorable cameo alongside Cher in Moonstruck (1987).

Duke’s reputation has faded in recent years, although his songs have remained in the public ear thanks to some fine recordings, especially the 1999 release Dawn Upshaw Sings Vernon Duke. A respected operatic soprano, Upshaw has strong crossover skills that she brings not only to nostalgic hits like “April in Paris” (tossed off in 1932 during a party at a Manhattan speakeasy attended by Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley) and “Autumn in New York” (included in the forgotten revue Thumbs Up! in 1934), but also to lesser-known numbers like “Words Without Music” (1936) and “Ages Ago” (1957). The liner notes declare rather hopefully that “the music of Vernon Duke is hereby officially rediscovered and back in circulation.”

This prediction has proved to some extent true, as evidenced by a well-publicized 2016 New York concert performance of the 1940 musical Cabin in the Sky. And today, in the Black Lives Matter era, director Vincente Minnelli’s 1943 film version of Cabin in the Sky, the first major Hollywood feature with an all-Black cast, is attracting renewed interest — not all of it positive, considering that the creators of both show and film were all white men, with the sole exception of dancer/choreographer Katherine Dunham.

The music of Vladimir Dukelsky is another matter, however. It has been almost entirely forgotten, a source of unending frustration and bitterness for its creator, who later ruefully embraced the label of “the Jekyll and Hyde of music” bestowed upon him by journalists. Especially in his earlier years in Paris, Duke expended enormous energy being Dukelsky. He started using the name Vernon Duke for his “lowbrow” music in 1925, at the suggestion of his friend George Gershwin. But that very same year, Dukelsky had perhaps his greatest success as the “serious” composer of a ballet, Zéphyr et Flora, staged in Paris by the powerful impresario Serge Diaghilev and his renowned Ballets Russes.

As these two new books demonstrate, however, the performances of Zéphyr et Flora, a story adapted from classical mythology choreographed by Léonide Massine, proved to be the high-water mark of Dukelsky’s career. As time went on, the financial and social success of Duke’s popular music proved far more seductive. Even with the support of influential patrons like Russian émigré Serge Koussevitzky, who performed several of Dukelsky’s compositions in his new position as conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Dukelsky’s career stagnated, while Duke’s prospered. As Nicolas Nabokov, Duke’s exact contemporary and yet another Russian composer who ended up in the United States (working for the CIA) observed: “Sooner or later, and usually sooner than later, the popular, more lucrative stuff gets the upper hand.” In 1939, Duke himself sealed the deal by becoming an American citizen under his new name.

As early as 1930, Duke’s close friend and very “serious” composer Sergei Prokofiev warned “Dima” that he was endangering his classical reputation. “You can’t hide the excitement you feel because your lousy record is number one in sales. But if I were to ask you what you have accomplished in the last year in the field of real music, then aside from two rather dry piano pieces you couldn’t show me a single thing.” Ten years later, Prokofiev dismissed Duke’s music in another letter (sent from Stalinist Moscow, his new home) as nothing more than “tra-la-la.” Then he twisted the knife deeper: “Have you gotten married, or are you still on the prowl for des petites demoiselles?” A legendary playboy, Duke was finally married only in 1957, at age 54, to singer Kay McCracken, 31 years his junior.

As George Harwood Phillips makes clear in Taking a Chance on Love: The Life and Music of Vernon Duke, the first serious biographical study of Duke/Dukelsky, he was not an easy man to love. His personality was dichotomous in many ways: “[T]he volatile Russian and the self-possessed American, the youthful Dukelsky and the elder Duke, the daring Dukelsky and the practical Duke, and the edgy New Yorker and the mellow Californian.” “Unless one knew him, no one could believe that the two were the same person,” said Anton Dolin, who danced the role of Zéphyr.

Perhaps because he felt he never got the respect he deserved, Duke developed a nasty tendency to argue with friends and collaborators, insisting on speaking his mind when prudence would have called for silence — or at least a bit of tact. The large chip he carried on his shoulder grew from his outsider status: as an émigré forced from Russia and later from Paris, as a latecomer to the powerful circle that formed around Diaghilev in Paris before World War I, and as an apolitical man forced to choose sides in the fierce ideological confrontation between the Soviet Union and the West. In popular music, Duke was regarded with a certain suspicion as a classical “longhair,” and in classical music, as a lightweight panderer to mass taste.

The principal villain in Duke’s life, at least as he saw it, was Igor Stravinsky. This much is clear from Klára Móricz’s In Stravinsky’s Orbit: Responses to Modernism in Russian Paris, an insightful and meticulously researched study of the world of Russian émigré music and culture in Paris in the 1920s. Stravinsky and his music so dominated this scene that all others — Prokofiev, Dukelsky, Nabokov, Arthur Lourié — were shoved aside. It helped, of course, that Stravinsky got there first, with his spectacularly successful ballets produced in rapid succession by the Ballets Russes on the eve of war: The Firebird (L’Oiseau de feu, 1910), Petrushka (1911), and The Rite of Spring (Le Sacre du printemps, 1913). Afterward, Stravinsky had Diaghilev’s ear on musical matters, and the power to make or break a rival’s chances with a few well-chosen words. And Stravinsky chose his words — and his musical direction — very carefully, guarding his own privileged position with shrewd calculation and a nearly infallible artistic intuition. In the highly competitive Parisian musical market, flooded with Russian émigrés of various political and artistic stripes, Stravinsky was always one step ahead. Phoenix-like, he was forever reinventing himself, from the pagan primitivism of The Rite of Spring through the cool neoclassicism of Apollon musagète (1928) to the highly cerebral music of his last, 12-tone period in Los Angeles, where he lived from the early ’40s until 1969.

Perhaps Stravinsky’s most serious rival for Diaghilev’s affections — and for the role of leading Russian composer — was Prokofiev. When he met Diaghilev in London in 1914, Prokofiev was a cocky 23-year-old recently graduated from the St. Petersburg Conservatory and widely perceived as an important new voice in Russian music. Diaghilev immediately commissioned a new ballet from him, but, as so often happened in Prokofiev’s life, momentous world events — this time World War I — got in the way. Chout (The Buffoon), staged in 1921 after repeated delays, achieved only moderate success. Meanwhile, Stravinsky had further solidified his position as Diaghilev’s “first son.” Prokofiev had to settle for “second son.”

Móricz devotes a chapter to Prokofiev’s next, also ill-fated ballet for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes: Le pas d’acier (translated clumsily as The Steel Step). When Parisian audiences finally saw this repeatedly revised modernist celebration of machinery and Soviet life in 1927, Prokofiev had just returned from a triumphant tour to the Soviet Union, his first since leaving in 1918. At the same time, Diaghilev, like all Russian émigré creative artists in Paris, was attempting to negotiate his own relationship with Soviet culture. Le pas d’acier, he thought, would be a convenient vehicle to cash in on the enormous interest in the great communist experiment.

In the end, however, Le pas d’acier failed to fulfill the hopes of either impresario or composer, mainly because of its confused political stance. As Móricz writes, “political neutrality was not an option for Russians in interwar Paris.” The ballet offended both the anti-communist “White” Russians in Paris, and pro-communist French intellectuals. Jean Cocteau, a faithful Ballets Russes follower, denounced the frivolity of turning “something as great as the Russian Revolution into a cotillion-like spectacle within the intellectual grasp of ladies who pay six thousand francs for a box.”

Prokofiev wrote one more ballet for Diaghilev, Prodigal Son (Le Fils prodigue, 1929), but Le pas d’acier’s failure cast him further out of the impresario’s inner circle. And when Diaghilev died in 1929, not long after Prokofiev’s other major supporter, conductor Serge Koussevitzky, left Paris for Boston, he confronted a bleak future in the City of Light, fading in Stravinsky’s huge shadow. So Prokofiev made the fateful decision to return to the Soviet Union, where he anticipated brighter prospects. His life there during World War II and the worst years of Stalinist terror turned out to be far worse than he could have imagined, however.

When Prokofiev met Dukelsky for the first time in New York in 1921, he described him as “a rather detestable young man, and I purposely paid him no attention.” But over the next few years his attitude changed, and they eventually became close friends. Both Phillips and Móricz draw heavily upon their colorful and revealing correspondence.

After Diaghilev’s death, Dukelsky placed his hopes for solidifying his position as a serious composer on an ambitious work, The End of St. Petersburg. Klára Móricz, a musicologist, devotes an entire chapter of In Stravinsky’s Orbit to an incisive analysis of this curious oratorio, complete with copious musical examples that might prove challenging for those who cannot read a score. Apparently inspired by Soviet director Vsevolod Pudovkin’s seminal 1927 film of the same name, Dukelsky created a monumental, dissonant polyphonic vision of St. Petersburg/Petrograd/Leningrad, drawing on a hodgepodge of poetic texts by a disparate group of poets whose work is strongly associated with the city: Alexander Pushkin, Anna Akhmatova, Alexander Blok. A huge chorus proclaims the words of the leading poet of the Bolshevik Revolution, Vladimir Mayakovsky, in a triumphant finale.

Dukelsky spent five years laboring over The End of St. Petersburg, but to his bitter disappointment, Koussevitzky chose not to take it on. Eventually the New York Philharmonic and the Schola Cantorum, conducted by Hugh Ross, gave the premiere at Carnegie Hall on January 12, 1938. It failed to impress most critics. “Mr. Dukelsky’s alter ego, known as Vernon Duke, is much more expert in setting words to music,” wrote Samuel Chotzinoff. Prokofiev was more damning. “But what sort of decadent idea is it to write a monumental piece about dying Petersburg! There I can see the influence of your fraternizing with the fading emigration, this branch ripped from its trunk, which dreams in its decline about the lush springtime of the past.”

This was one of Prokofiev’s last letters to Duke. Their final meeting came during Prokofiev’s 1938 United States tour. In New York, they went shopping together at Macy’s. World War II — and the growing isolation of Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union — would make such travel impossible in the future. Weirdly, Prokofiev, having become a target of official Soviet criticism because of his émigré past, would die on the same day as Stalin: March 5, 1953.

Even after the disappointing failure of The End of St. Petersburg, Duke continued to compose serious classical works. His 1941 violin concerto and the 1946 cello concerto are among his most appealing efforts. But they gained nothing approaching the popular success of amusing entertainments like the musicals Ziegfeld Follies of 1936 and, of course, Cabin in the Sky. Collaborating with veteran lyricist John Latouche, Duke wrote the music for the titular song, “Honey in the Honeycomb,” and, of course, the suave “Taking a Chance on Love.” As Phillips notes, that number was added at the insistence of the show’s star, Ethel Waters, who wanted “a song to uplift the spirits of the character she was playing,” the long-suffering and resourceful wife of a compulsive gambler in danger of losing his soul to the devil.

Despite the musical’s narrative and setting in a Black American community, the stage production of Cabin in the Sky was mostly created by three Russian émigrés: composer Duke, choreographer George Balanchine, and designer Boris Aronson. To his credit, Balanchine did hire innovative Black dancer and choreographer Katherine Dunham and her troupe. Just a few years earlier, Duke’s friend George Gershwin, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants to the United States, had completed Porgy and Bess (1935).

That white men of Russian background brought to the stage the first major musical representations of Black America has stimulated considerable and, especially recently, heated debate. George Harwood Phillips does not venture into that difficult discussion. His valuable, clearly written Taking a Chance on Love: The Life and Music of Vernon Duke describes more than it analyzes, leaning heavily on citations from reviews and interviews. Oddly, Phillips fails to include a catalog of works for Duke and Dukelsky, which would have been a useful resource.

Vernon Duke’s special case as a composer who crosses boundaries between popular and “serious classical” music also raises questions neither of these authors tries to address. Where is this boundary, exactly, and how do we define it? Considering the career of another Russian émigré, Sergei Rachmaninoff, who left Bolshevik Russia in 1917 and went on to achieve phenomenal “popular” success as a virtuoso and composer in the United States, might have been a good place to start. Like Duke and Stravinsky, he also chose to spend his final years in Los Angeles, far away from Paris and St. Petersburg. While somewhat cynical about the United States — the country he dubbed “the dollar princess” in such works as Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (1934) and Symphonic Dances (1940) — Rachmaninoff managed to bridge two musical worlds with relative ease and apparent satisfaction, finding a productive middle ground between the populist Duke and the elitist Stravinsky.


Harlow Robinson is professor emeritus of history at Northeastern University, author of Lewis Milestone: Life and Films (2019) Sergei Prokofiev: A Biography (1987), and Russians in Hollywood, Hollywood’s Russians (2007), and editor/translator of Selected Letters of Sergei Prokofiev (1998).

LARB Contributor

Harlow Robinson is professor emeritus of history at Northeastern University, author of Lewis Milestone: Life and Films (2019), Sergei Prokofiev: A Biography (1987), and Russians in Hollywood, Hollywood’s Russians (2007), and editor/translator of Selected Letters of Sergei Prokofiev (1998). His essays and reviews have appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, The Christian Science Monitor, and other publications. In 2010, he was named an Academy Film Scholar by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.


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