About this Recording
8.559157 - DIAMOND: Symphony No. 1 / Violin Concerto No. 2 / Enormous Room
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David Diamond (b. 1915): Symphony No. 1 • Violin Concerto No. 2


“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 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 rekindled 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, were dismissed with an imperious wave of the academic hand and a curt “irrelevant” from the lips - or pen - of the ideologically purist Pierre Boulez.

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.

Like Anton Bruckner (with whom he was favorably compared by no less than Arnold Schönberg), David Diamond’s symphonic canon began before his first-numbered essay in that hallowed form. Two student symphonies “now sleep very comfortably in the Free Library in Philadelphia,” the composer once wrote. “I don’t allow performances!”

In 1939, as the Nazis were invading France, Diamond returned to the United States after studies with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. Motivated and confident after spending two years with the legendary teacher, the composer was eager to get down to the business of writing his first “real” symphony, as he put it. Upon completion of the score, Diamond wired three conductors, hoping to secure a performance. The first to respond was Dimitri Mitropoulos, who conducted the New York Philharmonic-Symphony Society in the première on 21st December, 1941.

The composer’s note details the structure of the Symphony:

“I. Allegro moderato con energia (4/4): An E minor introduction by the full orchestra exploits a rising three-note motif (B, D, E) that leads to the Exposition of the principal subject, a theme in D minor (poco meno mosso) shared by the oboe and violins freely extended and accompanied by the three-note motif in stretto. The first climax follows, which exhausts the principal theme for the moment. The subsidiary theme follows in B minor, an angular subject punctuated by staggered chords that the solo trumpet rounds out and the strings develop sostenuto. A short Development section based on the sub-theme becomes a transition to the Recapitulation of the principal subject with another climax, then further development of the motif, the principal, and subsidiary subjects. The introduction returns, modified as a coda, to close the movement.

“II. Andante maestoso (4/4): This long-breathed melodic movement is cast in three-part song form by turns polyphonic and homophonic. Strings present the first section, with solo winds and brass adding intensity to peaks in the melodic line, which uses the three-note motif (it also has an accompanying rôle in the contrapuntal sections). The middle part (in D) is introduced by the English horn, and features winds and brass on a cushion of strings, after which the first section returns.

“III. Maestoso-Adagio-Allegro vivo (chiefly in 3/4 and 4/4): A magisterial opening crystallizes the three-note motif into a rounded melodic phrase, a kind of alleluia by unison brass. This is developed at length by strings and woodwinds with a horn accompaniment based on a figure from the climactic passages in I. An acceleration leads to the rhythmically vigorous allegro vivo with its descending scale of 16th notes. They unify sections of the movement, which is a kind of rondo in A-B-C-A-B-A form. A final brass statement of the opening phrase in augmentation launches a two-part coda. This incorporates the Introduction from I and then a build up of the three-note motif in brass, strings and percussion to end the work.”

Diamond’s Violin Concerto No. 2 dates from 1947, the result of a commission (arranged through conductor Artur Rodzinski) by Arthur Percival for his wife, violinist Dorotha Powers. The composer’s comments convey the challenges attendant to the work’s performance history. “The Concerto had its first and only performance to date by Ms. Powers with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, Jacques Singer conducting, on February 29, 1948. Difficulties with the Percival estate prevented any further performances until Gerard Schwarz arranged for its United States première [May 6, 1991].”

Diamond also provided an explication of the musical ‘text’: “The first movement (Allegro aperto) is an extended sonata-allegro, highly lyrical and expansive, with broad, singing lines. The Adagio affettuoso that follows is an even broader singing movement, by turns affectingly lyrical and dramatically plangent, in A-B-A form. The third movement (Allegro vivo) is the most virtuosic - rhythmically bouncy and syncopated, but with steadier pulses for contrast, and an Andante section, again lyrical in character, that brings back material from the earlier movements in varied forms. The whole finale may be considered a kind of Rondo, with a short cadenza as another resting point, before the high spirits return.”

Dating from 1922, E.E. Cummings’ first published book, The Enormous Room, describes the author’s incarceration in a French detention camp during World War I when his loyalty had been questioned while serving as an ambulance driver in the French army. The title refers to the eighty-by-forty-foot room at La Ferté Macé, where the poet spent three months in the fall of 1918, along with some five dozen men of various nationalities. In 1948, Diamond, inspired by Cummings’ words and deeds, composed this instrumental work in which he “tried to interpret literary ideas in musically programmatic terms,” he wrote. “I have allowed a natural lyric flow to express qualities in feeling that are spiritually kindred to Cummings’ moving words.” And, “It is a book about the human spirit, about the individual and his private garden of Love.”

The score quotes from E.E. Cummings’ book: “The Enormous Room is filled with a new and beautiful darkness, the darkness of snow outside, falling and falling and falling with the silent and actual gesture which has touched the soundless country of my mind as a child touches a toy it loves…”

Diamond describes the work as “…a free fantasy form. In the unfolding of the material there are two main themes. The unfolding is more or less developmental in leading to a climactic big moment at the end of the piece…it’s really a free-form fantasia in many ways…”

Steven Lowe
© 2003 Seattle Symphony

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