The following is a guest post from Music Division Archivist Janet McKinney.
Explore the life and work of accomplished composer Dana Suesse (1909-1987) through a collection of her papers, newly available in the Music Division!
Dana Suesse (born Nadine Dana Suesse, 1909-1987) was a child piano prodigy who began performing in vaudeville shows at the age of five. During her performances she would precociously ask the audience for themes and adeptly improvise new melodies based on whatever was suggested. In 1926, she left her hometown of Kansas City, Missouri, for New York City with the intention of becoming a classical composer. Suesse studied piano with Alexander Siloti (a pupil of Franz Liszt) and composition with Rubin Goldmark (a teacher of George Gershwin). When publishers rejected her classical compositions, Suesse quickly discovered she could make a living by writing popular music. She published piano novelties such as “Syncopated Love Song” (1928) and “Jazz Nocturne” (1932) and teamed up with lyricists Leo Robin, Yip Harburg, and Edward Heyman to write popular songs. It was with Heyman that she wrote the hits “Ho-Hum” (1931), “My Silent Love” (1932), and one of her most enduring tunes “You Oughta Be in Pictures” (1934).
The young composer also found success writing music for the theater. Audiences heard Suesse’s songs in stage shows such as The Ziegfeld Follies (1934) and in films such as Sweet Surrender (1935). Suesse partnered with theater impresario and lyricist Billy Rose, becoming a mainstay composer for Rose’s revues including Sweet and Low (1930), the Fort Worth Centennial Casa Mañana (1936), and the Cleveland Exposition Aquacade (1937). The lavish Aquacade spectacle starred Olympic swimming champions Johnny Weissmuller and Eleanor Holm, and also involved hundreds of other swimmers, divers, and showgirls who performed to an audience of 5,000 people.
A 1932 recording of “Jazz Nocturne” by Nathaniel Shilkret and the Victor Concert Orchestra caught the attention of the enterprising bandleader Paul Whiteman. In 1924, Whiteman had introduced George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue during a famed concert he billed as an “Experiment in Modern Music.” At her publisher’s suggestion, Suesse wrote her own jazz piano concerto in a mere ten days and traveled to Chicago to audition for Whiteman. He agreed to feature her in his “Fourth Experiment in Modern Music,” and Suesse premiered her Concerto in Three Rhythms as piano soloist with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra at Carnegie Hall on November 4, 1932, just as Gershwin was the soloist for his own Rhapsody premiere. The following year, The New Yorker described Suesse as “‘the girl Gershwin’ because she was good at both Tin Pan Alley and the symphonic stuff.”
Suesse had proven herself as a brilliant pianist and versatile composer, able to traverse classical, popular, and jazz idioms. Despite her many achievements, she still desired to further her studies in classical composition. Nadia Boulanger, the venerated French music educator, accepted Suesse as a student upon recommendation of orchestral arranger and former pupil, Robert Russell Bennett. Suesse moved to Paris in order to study with the preeminent teacher from 1947 to 1950. After returning to America, she continued to write for theater, including incidental music for The Seven Year Itch (1952), as well as music and lyrics for Come Play With Me (1959). Notable concert works Suesse composed in the 1950s include Concerto Romantico (1955), and the Concerto in Rhythm, later renamed Jazz Concerto in D (1956).
During the 1960s, Suesse turned her attention to writing plays and books for musicals; her attempts to get these works produced, however, were unsuccessful. In the early 1970s, pianist and historian Peter Mintun contacted Suesse regarding some of her early songs. Inspired by his interest in her career, Suesse produced a retrospective of her work, creating new arrangements and orchestrating some of her previous compositions. Frederick Fennell led the American Symphony Orchestra with Cy Coleman as the piano soloist in this special 1974 concert at Carnegie Hall.
The Dana Suesse Papers contain an impressive overview of her life and career through photographs, programs, and newspaper clippings. The project files document her attempts as a playwright, and the biographical materials reveal her childhood dream of becoming a fashion designer. The correspondence shows a vast network of prominent figures she interacted with in the music, literary, and arts scenes of New York City. Most revealing of Suesse’s personality is a sizable cache of letters she wrote to her mother, Nina Quarrier, detailing her life and activities—and much of the food she ate!—in New York City and Paris. The largest portion of the Dana Suesse Papers consists of scores, including many manuscripts in Suesse’s own hand, from her earliest childhood works to the 1974 orchestral arrangements. These scores are promising in their potential for research, publication, and performance.
Although Dana Suesse was a well-regarded composer in the first half of the 20th century—the press often singled her out as one of the few women composers in the male-dominated music industry—she is not well known today. Thanks to the generosity and care of Suesse authority Peter Mintun, the Music Division was able to complete our holdings of her personal manuscripts, and it is our hope that this collection will encourage scholars to learn more about the importance of her role in the history of American music. We are thrilled that the Dana Suesse Papers are now open to research!
Mintun, Peter. “Suesse Main Biography.” Unpublished manuscript, June 1, 2022, typescript.
Orr, Clifford, Harold Ross, and Charles Cooke. “The Talk of the Town,” The New Yorker, December 16, 1933, p.12.