Diamond String Quartet no. 1

performed by the Potomac Quartet

So the first quartet really is a work inspired by Mr. Broch’s great novel called The Death of Virgil. he was working on it, finishing it then… and so when I finished the quartet, I knew it was going to be dedicated to him because somehow the book itself, The Death of Virgil, inspired me.

The composer, as cited here

(cover image by Ergyn Meshekran)

The next featured composer in the Editor’s Choice series is David Diamond, who we first saw in the American symphony series last year. I was deeply impressed by his first symphony, and as we shall see, it doesn’t stop there.

Diamond checks all the boxes for the series, with a large output of both symphonies and string quartets. He’s a 20th-century composer who’s appeared on the blog before, but most notably, his music has been downright jaw-dropping. The first symphony is a superb work, and he was one of the earliest to be decided upon for the series, and I’m glad that we’re finally getting around to a bit more of his work.

Diamond’s first quartet dates from 1940. As both of my readers may remember from (especially) either the English or American symphony series, the two World Wars played a significant part in people’s lives, and it’s reflected in the music. As mentioned in the opening quote, Diamond’s inspiration, or at least a large influence on it, was the book The Death of Virgil (Der Tod des Vergil in the original German), by Hermann Broch, to whom the piece is dedicated. 

You can go do some of the reading on your own, but Wiki tells us:

The narrative reenacts the last hours of life of the Roman poet Virgil, …Virgil’s heightened perceptions as he dies recall his life and the age in which he lives. The poet is in the interval between life and death, just as his culture hangs between the pagan and Christian eras.

The work has been interpreted by some to be an anti-Nazi novel, which brings the import of the story back to a place where most of us can reach it or relate to it. Diamond had been involved in some of the translation work on the book into English, and it must have been very much in his mind. (You may find this confusing, as the book is stated as having been published in 1945, but he’d begun writing it as early as 1936, and finished it during his time in America, which began in 1940, I think.)

Without any of the backstory, in listening to this piece, I had a strong impression that this piece feels like what the grieving process must be like, that almost unbearable processing of conflicting but related emotions. The work is in a single movement and lasts not quite 17 minutes. There’s an assumption that the work is in sonata form, but I feel like discussing anything like that is pure pedantry when the topic at hand is a piece of such striking emotion.

There are two emotional areas here. I’m sure there are keys and tonal connections and all the rest, but I don’t have a score or any reference material for the work. What’s easy to hear is the dirge-like opening of the work, presenting a large jump of an interval like the opening of the Adagio of Mahler’s ninth. This is established through long, heartfelt lines, melodic moans, up to the point that it’s almost too much, and then things change. And how!

Easily as memorable as the somber, sorrowful atmosphere that’s been presented is the angular, impassioned music that follows, a near-manic change of emotion, the polar opposite, but it seems in that very way to be orbiting around the same center, a tragedy or event with such gravitational pull that these two opposing emotions are united by it.

The second subject is rhythmic, driving, and a powerful pause on occasion adds weight to the music. I know it sounds dramatic to say, but it really is difficult to describe how excitingly superb a composition this is, to me. It’s concise, direct, powerful. We can turn to a pretty famous reviewer on Classics Today, one David Hurwitz, who says of Diamond’s writing in a review of the album on which this piece appears:

David Diamond was a natural quartet writer: his contrapuntal dexterity and feeling for texture make his handling of the four instruments and their ongoing interplay a joy to hear, even when his language turns uncompromisingly chromatic and dissonant…

If you’ve ever read anything on Classics Today, you may have an impression, as do I, of Hurwitz being at least a very opinionated, if not an incredibly critical, even harsh, reviewer, so this praise isn’t given lightly, I’d say.

But back to Diamond and his writing. I totally agree. I feel there’s no formality or pedantry in the form of this piece; its presentation is an organic, genuinely expressive one, rather than fitting into boxes of traditional forms (no matter how much I like those boxes). His handling of the quartet is taut. It’s music of breathtaking richness and detail, but never gets muddy or loses focus. Everything is always crystal clear, which is also a testament to the quality of the recording.

Something else that’s striking to me is how the level of intensity can be so high for so long and not be exhausting. This piece is very much an intense ride from beginning to end because it has such forward motion, a gripping piece, but that doesn’t mean it’s always “fast” or ‘action-packed. The dirge-like passages here are equally as intense, so there’s contrast but never any slack. It’s brilliant, and for a first quartet, a remarkable effort.

There’s a youthful maturity, or a mature youthfulness… in how bold and expressive but polished and refined this work is. I just can’t express how impressed I am with it, but it is a work that gets me extremely excited that we have nine more Diamond quartets to enjoy. I’ll spare you any ‘gem’ remarks about the composer’s last name.

We’ve got two more remarkable pieces coming up next week from Diamond, so do stay tuned for those, and thank you so much for reading.

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