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8.559154 - DIAMOND: Symphonies Nos. 2 and 4
David Diamond (b. 1915): Symphonies Nos. 2 and 4
“It is my strong feeling that a romantically inspired contemporary music, tempered by reinvigorated classical technical formulas, is the way out of the present period of creativity chaos in music…To me, the romantic spirit in music is important because it is timeless.”
These words by the Seattle Symphony Honorary Composer in Residence David Diamond capture the essence not only of the composer himself, but of an entire generation of American composers whose heartfelt music was born during the Great Depression and World War II. Yet rather than merely characterize a past era, the romantic spirit has been re-kindled during the past quarter-century. For some thirty years following World War II, the apostles of post-Webernian serialism and its offshoots determined the course of contemporary classical music. Diamond, and other such neo-Romantic voices as Roy Harris, Samuel Barber, Howard Hanson, William Schuman and Walter Piston, to name only American composers of that persuasion, was dismissed with an imperious wave of the academic hand and a curt “irrelevant” from the lips — or pen — of the ideologically purist Pierre Boulez.
David Diamond lived in Italy during the 1950s, returning to the United States for his fiftieth birthday in 1965. “I lived in Italy for close to sixteen years,” he confided, “and the entire Italian musical establishment was dominated by the advanced twelve-note avant-garde. Everywhere I submitted music it was turned down because it was considered old-fashioned.”
While in no way demeaning the many fine works that have come from Boulez and gifted composers who trod the chaste path of serialism, time has proven them wrong in consigning Diamond and his gloriously unrepentant Romantics to the trash bin of music history. In music, as in life itself, there are many roads to truth, many different drums whose rhythms attract some and repel others. One thing is very clear: Many composers and audiences have either re-embraced the Romantic spirit or never left its enveloping warmth in the first place.
Diamond’s patience and determination have served him well, and it is a blessing that he has survived attack and neglect for many decades. He is now considered, with ample reason, to be a national treasure whose music taps into an American psyche hungering for a musical experience analogous or equivalent to spiritual satisfaction.
Diamond composed his Symphony No. 2 in 1942-43, a period of anxiety for the composer as an American whose country was at war and as an artist in lacking a solid financial underpinning. Encouraged by conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos, Diamond sent the score to the Boston Symphony conductor Serge Koussevitzky, renowned for his ongoing support of contemporary music. After a read-through of the symphony, that is to say, not a public performance, the Boston musicians responded with an outpouring of spontaneous applause. The actual première concert performance followed on 22nd October, 1944.
The first movement begins quietly, even sombrely, with soft-spoken timpani and strings. As the dynamics gradually increase, the upper strings present in unison a lovely and expansive first theme. More strings enter, enriching the texture. An elegiac quality permeates the entire movement. The prevailing textures recall the “American” sound of Copland, yet at times evoke the spare-textured beauty of the Adagio finale of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. A poignant second theme emerges, played by a solo oboe over trilling violas. Menacing timpani darken the atmosphere from an elegiac mood to one of ominous anxiety. The two themes and material from the introductory measures are developed and mutated, and the movement ends with a brief coda.
The composer says of the scherzo-like second movement, “the basic material [is] a rhythmic figure mockingly tossed back and forth between cellos and one bassoon.” As a unifying device, this figure derives from the second theme of the first movement. The overall mood is one of almost unbridled ferocity, at great remove from the inwardly grieving tenor of the opening Adagio funebre. Having recovered from this energetic Allegro vivo, the composer obliges with another slow movement marked Andante espressivo, quasi adagio, that blends new thematic material with echoes from the first movement’s opening motif. A solo clarinet tune emerges followed by a chorale-like paragraph for strings. The clarinet theme returns as a fitting subject for a fugato passage for horns and strings in unison, playing to the composer’s authentic gift for contrapuntal writing. The elegiac nature of the first movement is countered by the optimism of the concluding, lively rondo, which is based on a jaunty, unmistakably “American” theme that binds the movement together.
In the final year of the war, 1945, Diamond composed Symphonies 3 and 4. Once again, the Boston Symphony music director proved his mettle by persuading the Koussevitzky Foundation to commission the Fourth Symphony. Diamond graciously dedicated the new work to the conductor’s late wife, Natalie Koussevitzky. The première took place 23rd January, 1948 with the Boston Symphony, but under Leonard Bernstein, who replaced an indisposed Koussevitzky.
A compact but probing work, the Fourth Symphony was created in an atmosphere fraught with thoughts of mortality on the part of the composer. Diamond reflected that “the entire symphony was created with the idea of…[Gustav Theodor] Fechner’s theories of life and death as, I – a continual sleep, II – the alternation between sleeping and waking, and III – eternal waking, Birth being the passing from I to II and Death transition from II to III.”
The opening Allegretto begins with swirling motion before a modal theme emerges from the primordial nebula of sound. An engaging, pensive two-part pastoral theme is given voice by muted strings, clarinet and bass clarinet before yielding to a variant given by upper strings without mutes. A second theme introduced by solo oboe promises a lighter mood. At a climactic moment, the two themes merge in conversational counterpoint before a brief coda brings the movement to a comparatively gentle close.
The Adagio—Andante second movement introduces itself through a “chorale-like theme of religious and supplicating nature”. Rather stern in its initial appearance, its demeanour is softened by restatement by strings. A long-breathed second theme, modal and august in understated grandeur, unfolds in two parts, the first entrusted to winds, the second to first and second violins. A coda restores the initial chorale-like theme and the movement ends delicately in the hands of the violins.
The brash and assertive finale, impelled by percussive piano, barking brass, scurrying woods and hammering drums carries one along on waves of manic exuberance. The music breathes the fresh air of the American outdoors, be it of real or imagined geography.
© 2004 Seattle Symphony
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