David Diamond: Symphony no. 1

performed by the Seattle Symphony Orchestra under Gerard Schwartz

second and third movements

It speaks a language familiar to most audiences and does so with imaginative new inflections – such sumptuously long-breathed themes, such rhythmic vitality and such crystalline orchestration.

Institute for Studies in American Music, on Diamond’s music

(cover image by Ricardo Gomez Angel)

This could be the first installment of something really exciting. Buckle up and give this work a listen.

David Leo Diamond was born 9 July, 1915 in Rochester, New York. He studied music at both the Cleveland Institute of Music and the Eastman School of Music, and under Roger Sessions in New York as well as with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. Of his compositions, his Wikipedia article, although quite short, says:

He won a number of awards including three Guggenheim Fellowships, and is considered one of the preeminent American composers of his generation. Many of his works are tonal or modestly modal. His early compositions are typically triadic, often with widely spaced harmonies, giving them a distinctly American tone, but some of his works are consciously French in style.

That’s impressive, no?

As I said somewhere earlier in this series, a main point of this American thing is not only to introduce new composers (as it is for all the series I do), but also to do a bit of debunking: people think of the typical ‘American’ sound as being typified by people like Copland and Barber, and they’re great and all, but there’s tons more to American music than just those two composers, and that ‘American sound’ didn’t even necessarily originate with either of them, as we have seen.

It’s really very nice to have access to a composer’s own notes about a work he’s written, and this is one of those cases where we’ve got that. As a result, I think it’s silly for me to speak a whole lot about what’s going on in the work when you could just go read the composer’s comments here, in Naxos program notes written by Steven Lowe.

The work is in three movements, as follows:

  1. Allegro moderato con energia (4/4)
  2. Andante maestoso (4/4)
  3. Maestoso-Adagio-Allegro vivo (chiefly in 3/4 and 4/4)

This work plays for a total of about 22 minutes, and since we have the luxury of the composer’s notes, I’ll spend more time on expressing my feelings about the work rather than regurgitating his own remarks about the piece. But Butterworth is back, and I’ll quote him, on page 137 of his book The American Symphony, talking about the work. He says that the first four of Diamond’s 11 symphonies “speak a modal language, having a kinship with Roy Harris but maintaining a closer contact to traditional forms.”

The first was written shortly after Diamond’s return to America from his tutelage under Boulanger, and Butterworth praises its “economy and rigorous control of material,” which he says the famed teacher would have appreciated herself. He continues, saying it is “the work of a young man, full of muscular energy with heavy scoring for the orchestra.”

In many ways, it reminds me of the first symphony of Robert Simpson, which we discussed nearly a year ago. They’re both in three movements, they’re both relatively short and compact, but contain a compelling, memorable musical force. They are both outstanding first symphonies that show exciting promise from young composers. We may be beginning the discussion of another superbly exciting symphony cycle with this work.

Roger Sessions, who (as we discussed), was also very concerned with the ‘long line,’ the forward motion of his music, and this is a phrase Diamond himself mentions in an interview with Robert R. Reilly in his book Surprised by Beauty. The composer says (on page 456) that:

I think it comes from a technical learning of my craft, which had to do particularly with my studies with Roger Sessions and Nadia Boulanger. They were always talking about the long line. You must develop the long line in your music, try to write very long melodies… I think I’ve always heard long lines. That means not only melodically, but structurally.

“Very long melodies” could come off as a bit shallow, but what he doesn’t mean is “a pretty tune.” We also hear the structural ‘long line,’ as we shall see.

What you notice from the downbeat is the intense pulse of the work, an unmistakably propulsive beginning. As we heard with Harris’s third, it’s this foundation of the work that sets the whole piece in motion. There’s this three-note motif, itself an upward-moving gesture that carries us through to the secondary theme, in B minor. We have our two powerful themes, and a relatively short development section, but even when luscious string lines dominate, there’s a long, unbroken flow of sound, but along with this lyricism is that same sense of forward motion, never stopping. There’s no friction here, just a gliding, ever-progressing narrative. No matter how far we move away from one or the other of our opening elements, they’re never lost, and the tapestry created in this relatively brief movement is captivating. Surprisingly, the movement ends on a quiet note.

The second movement is a more unabashed example of Diamond’s already-clear penchant for long, uninhibited beautiful melodic lines. In contrast with the force of the first movement, the second is tender, somber. Diamond says that “Strings present the first section, with solo winds and brass adding intensity to peaks in the melodic line,” and they do indeed seem to act like color accents over the shape that the strings build, to gorgeous effect. The movement is in ternary form, but there’s something else to be aware of here: the use of that rising three-note motif from the first movement. It’s obviously of a different spirit, but connects this work to the previous. The central portion features English horn and winds more prominently before returning to opening material. For a small, central, mournful adagio, this movement is about as good as it gets.

The finale creates the other bookend that frames the central movement. While its beginning isn’t as explosive as the first movement, it’s not long before we hear the clear relation, more use of the three-note motif, but here in a broader, more regal state at first, in keeping with the movement’s maestoso marking. The use of this motif throughout the work, and the nature of the finale reveal a tightly cyclical structure to this already compact symphony. Once we reach the allegro vivo section, the relationship is even clearer. The end of this work makes for a breathtaking, wind-in-your-face ride of power and lean muscle, but also fluidity, tenderness and really stunning craftsmanship.

This is one of those works that thrills me, not only because it’s a truly outstanding piece of music, but because it holds so much promise, again, as the first symphony from a young composer, his first real success, now back in his home country, and the exciting prospect of ten more symphonies from this very talented man. I’m looking very forward to getting to know them better, and enjoying time and again the satisfaction of discovering gems such as this.

That’s all for Diamond for now, but we have two more really remarkable symphonies lined up for this week before looking at an entirely different side of American music, so please stay tuned, and thank you so much for reading.


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