John Duke was an American pianist, music educator and a prolific composer of art-songs. During a long career he wrote over two hundred and fifty songs, most of them to verse by his compatriots, such well-known poets as Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, Sara Teasdale and e.e. cummings. But perhaps his best known song is a mellifluous setting of A. E. Housman's Loveliest of Trees, composed in the 1930's and made popular by the noted baritone Lawrence Tibbett.
But because many of Duke's songs were cast in a charming lyric style and were graced with pleasant melodies, critics often dismissed them as lacking substance and being of little import. As a result, Duke's copious outpouring of songs has been spottily documented over the years and the composer wasn't even mentioned in the prestigious History of Song, edited by Denis Stevens, in 1960. Happily, the true quality of Duke's music has come to be appreciated with time, and his name now figures appropriately in such excellent studies as The Singer's Guide to The American Art Song, 1870-1980, by Victoria Etnier Villamil.
Yet the song Central Park at Dusk is one that appears to have inexplicably fallen into obscurity, and I find no mention of it in even the best reference books. This is especially unfortunate, for it is a beautiful song and a particularly fine teaching piece.
It was composed in 1949, to a poem Sara Teasdale (1884-1933) published in her book, Helen of Troy and Other Poems, in 1911. This is one of the 'other' poems, the last in the section Teasdale titled Love Songs:
CENTRAL PARK AT DUSK
Buildings above the leafless trees
Loom high as castles in a dream,
While one by one the lamps come out
To thread the twilight with a gleam.
There is no sign of leaf or bud,
A hush is over everything---
Silent as women wait for love,
The world is waiting for the spring.
The tone is typical Teasdale--pensive and disarmingly delicate. Reading the poem in context with those that surround it (Union Square and the sonnet Primavera Mia ), appears to give it a heightened autobiographical meaning, but there seems little reason to burden these charming lines with more substance than they themselves present
Duke adopts something of an neo-Impressionistic manner for this song, and though his harmonies are always supportive of the singer, they move subtly through a number of tonal centers. The musical movement is easy and unhurried and the dynamics very subdued. The piano has repeated grace note figures that offer a touch of color as they mark the gleam of each lamp coming on. These are so distinctive, in the evanescent landscape created by Duke's liquid tonality, they become something of a unifying device for the work. The vocal line is unusually delicate, and its flowing rhythms and gentle syncopations create a languid, trancelike effect. While his melodic line is essentially conjunct, Duke frequently employs sixths, sevenths and octaves to give it some lift and interest and to paint poetic details.
This is a marvelous song for all lyric-voiced singers and especially for students who are learning to sustain their line, as Duke's phrases--written to be sung one poetic line on a breath--are challenging without being defeating. The subtle, compressed dynamic range will offer an educational experience for some, and those with an undeveloped rhythmic sense will find ample learning opportunities here. All this in a song that will hold a student's interest, has an easily played accompaniment and a vocal gamut that never leaves the treble clef, seems like the answer to a teacher's prayer.
Central Park at Dusk is a relatively brief song that can be fitted to any number of program uses. By virtue of its poetic content and musical style, it would be certainly be welcome in recitals or recital segments built around such themes as famous cities [Klemm's London Fog, Rorem's Early in the Morning, etc.], love songs, women poets or neo-Impressionism. Above all, it is an excellent representative of the art of John Duke.
Central Park at Dusk was published by Boosey & Hawkes, in 1949, in New York.
Return to the UNSUNG SONGS table of contents
Go to the WEBSITE index