David Diamond

The American composer and teacher David Diamond (born 1915) wrote in a wide variety of styles and in virtually every medium. The strength of his music lies in its imposing formal design and its serious expression, which is, however, not without lyrical warmth and romanticism.

David Diamond was born in Rochester, New York, on July 9, 1915. He was the son of Austrian-Polish Jewish immigrants who could not afford to cultivate the musical aptitude that he showed from about the age of six. Fortunately, the young boy's abilities also impressed others who were in a better position to help him. At a public school in Rochester he received a violin and free lessons, and in 1927, when the family moved to Cleveland, André de Ribaupierre taught him violin and theory without remuneration at the Cleveland Institute of Music.

Upon returning to Rochester in 1929 Diamond entered the preparatory department of the Eastman School of Music on a scholarship and studied violin with Effie Knauss and composition with Bernard Rogers. He continued at Eastman as an undergraduate after finishing high school in 1933, but left after one year to move to New York. Again on a scholarship he studied the Dalcroze method of Eurhythmics with Paul Boepple and composition with Roger Sessions at the New Music School from 1934 to 1936 and continued privately with Sessions until 1937.

Diamond made three trips to Paris in the mid-to-late 1930s (the last through funds from the first of three Guggenheim Fellowships), where he studied with the famous French teacher, Nadia Boulanger, and met many of the great artists then living in Paris, such as Albert Roussel, Igor Stravinsky, Maurice Ravel, André Gide, and Charles Munch. Important compositions from these Paris years include: the first of his three violin concertos (1936, 1947, and 1967); Psalm (1936) for orchestra (his first work to receive wide attention and also the Juilliard Publication Award in 1938); Elegy (1937) for strings and percussion in memory of Ravel; a cello concerto (1938); and Heroic Piece (1938) for small orchestra.

Germany's declaration of war on France in 1939 brought Diamond back to the United States for most of the next 12 years. During this time he composed prolifically both chamber and orchestral works. Among the former are the first three of his 11 string quartets (1940, 1943, 1946, 1951, 1960, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1966, 1966, and 1968); a piano quartet (1938) for which he won the Paderewsky Prize; a concerto (1942) for two solo pianos; a sonata (1947) for piano; and a Chaconne (1948) for violin and piano. Orchestral works of the period include the first four of his eight symphonies (1940, 1942, 1945, 1945, 1964, 1951, 1959, and 1960—note that the fifth symphony was completed after the eighth); The Dream of Audubon (1941), a ballet; music for Shakespeare's The Tempest (1944) for orchestra; Rounds (1944) for string orchestra; music for Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet (1947) for orchestra; and a piano concerto (1950).

Diamond lectured on American music in Salzburg during the summer of 1949, and two years later went to Italy on a Fulbright Fellowship. He stayed, first in Rome and then in Florence, for 14 years, returning to the United States on two occasions (1961 and 1963) to teach at the State University of New York at Buffalo as Slee Professor of Music. The years in Italy proved productive as evidenced in the large amount of music written, including: The Midnight Meditation (1951), a cycle for voice and piano; a piano trio (1951); string quartets 4-8; symphonies 5-8; sonatas for solo violin (1954) and for cello (1956); Sinfonia Concertante (1954-1956); The World of Paul Klee (1957) for orchestra; a woodwind quintet (1958); The Sacred Ground (1962) for baritone, chorus, children's chorus, and orchestra; and Elegies (1963) for flute, English horn, and strings.

Returning to the United States in 1965, Diamond became chair of the composition department at the Manhattan School of Music; he resigned in 1967. A position as composer-in-residence at the American Academy of Rome drew him back to Italy during 1971 and 1972. After 1973 he was professor of composition at the Juilliard School of Music in New York. Some of his better-known compositions of the years 1964 to 1984 are: We Two (1964), Hebrew Melodies (1967), and The Fall (1970), cycles for voice and piano; Music for Chamber Orchestra (1969); The Noblest Game (1971-1975), an opera; a piano quintet (1972); and Ode to the Morning of Christ's Nativity (1980) for a cappella chorus.

Several writers have suggested that the early 1950s marked a rather abrupt change to a dissonant and nontonal style, some even stating that Diamond had taken up the 12-tone method. Diamond himself refuted this last statement in an article appearing in the New York Times (August 22, 1965), saying, "I am not now and never have been a twelve-tone composer." While his music became gradually lest tonal in later years, he always commanded a variety of styles, which he used according to the function of the music. The music for Broadway productions of Shakespeare plays, for instance, is quite lush and tonal, while the more absolute works, such as the fourth symphony, frequently involve a more complicated language (here polytonality).

The 1980s and 1990s saw works such as the ninth symphony in a series Diamond began nearly 45 years before. The symphonies were introduced steadily from 1940 until 1965, but it was not until 1985 that Diamond finally unveiled the ninth. In 1996 Juilliard Orchestra performed the world premiere of Diamond's Concerto For String Quartet and Orchestra, which the Juilliard School commissioned from Diamond in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Juilliard Quartet. The performance met high praise, notably from the Village Voice's Leighton Kerner, who wrote, "American music boasts no composer more brilliant or more melodically imaginative, and this new concerto bears out the fact." Even at 81 years of age, Diamond seemed to have boundless reservoirs of creativity and energy, rising from his seat in the balcony to honor the Juilliard Quartet with a standing ovation.

New York publishers dismissed his 1936 Sonata for Cello and Piano as being avant-garde and "not suited for our purposes," but such luminaries as Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg praised this same work. Fortunately, an editorial board for the publishing house of Theodore Presser, including Henry Cowell, Nicolas Slonimsky, and Charles Ives, also recognized its value and saw it through publication. Adhering to traditional formal structures, Diamond often cast his movements in sonata-allegro, rondo, or variation form. Contrapuntal textures and forms, such as fugues and passacaglia enhance the strength of his expression, which is, however, frequently softened by romantic, lyrical writing. Modern rhythmic complexities also energize later compositions such as Warning (1973) for chorus and tubular bells. While thus embracing some of the innovations of the 20th century, Diamond rejected others, most emphatically the aleatoricism of John Cage and his followers. Reflecting on his career, Diamond once commented, "one hopes the future will bring my music to a larger audience, one not interested in Trends and The Now, but music for All Time, for all humanity. …."


Further Reading on David Diamond

Biographical information in David Ewen's American Composers:A Biographical Dictionary (1982) supersedes that which appears in Ewen's Composers Since 1900 (1969). Other biographical information appears in Contemporary Composers (St. James Press, 1992). Young readers might enjoy Madeline Goss's somewhat fancified biographical account in Modern Music Masters (1952). "From the Notebook of David Diamond," Music Journal (April 1964) is a strong statement of his artistic credo, as is Richard Freed's article in the New York Times, "Music is Diamond's Best Friend" (August 22, 1965). Other sources include Village Voice (October 22, 1996).