performed by the Seattle Symphony under Gerard Schwarz, first movement below (also available on Spotify)
Dimitri Mitropoulos loved it. Koussevitzky premiered it. The critics compared it to contemporary works by Shostakovich. In its time, the Symphony No. 2 of David Diamond was one of the acknowledged masterpieces of American classical music.
James Leonard, of Diamond’s second symphony
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.
(cover image by Osman Rana)
As I’ve said, Rosenberg’s installments last week were a quick look at an early jumping off point for the composer who’d later become Sweden’s first modernist composer. David Diamond’s earliest efforts, though, are already (as I’ve said) of such outstanding merit that they could easily serve as examples of a composer’s mature work. This second symphony, from just a few years after the posts from earlier this week, is of such magnitude, such powerful grandness and intense emotion, that I really can’t believe it’s so ignored, and I don’t suppose this article will do much to change that. I couldn’t agree more with Leonard (quoted above), who calls Diamond’s symphonies “strong-muscled and profoundly expressive.”
Diamond’s second symphony premiered with the Boston Symphony under Serge Koussevitzky on October 22, 1944, a work written in the midst of the Second World War. The story goes that he was encouraged by Schoenberg or someone to show the score to Koussevitzky and it earned applause from the orchestra during rehearsals. It is a work in four movements, as below, with a duration of a little over 40 minutes:
- Adagio Funèbre
- Allegro vivo
- Andante espressivo, quasi adagio
- Allegro vigoroso
We did the American Symphony series last year, and I included Diamond and his superb first symphony, but this work, to me, in many ways is different. There’s still a sense that it’s an American composer, no doubt, but in this work, a bit of the Copland and unmistakably ‘American’ sound is set aside in favor of focusing on a serious subject. I personally get the sense that rather than trying to be an identifiably American composer (which is not what I’m accusing the first of being), Diamond here crafts a work that expresses more the kind of emotion one might expect from other powerful wartime works, like those from Shostakovich, although not that grim. You may also hear Walton or other large-scale 20th century composers here; Schoenberg apparently even called Diamond ‘a young Bruckner.’ I suppose what I mean to say in all this is that there isn’t a single moment in which any ‘American’ or stylistic agenda gets in the way of writing a powerful, heart-wrenching symphony, one clearly informed by the centuries-long tradition of the form.
The first movement is purely, heartbreakingly elegiac, dripping with both tragedy and elegance. There’s the persistent comparison to Copland, which I don’t much care for, but also to Mahler. It’s funereal (and the movement is so marked), dirge-like, mostly tender with Mahlerian thunder at times, biting moments of power. It’s truly an epic first movement, perfectly paced, but it’s just the beginning of a work that creates a soul-stirring narrative.
The second movement is by far the shortest of the symphony. It’s a scherzo, and in his writing about the piece for Naxos, Steven Lowe quotes the composer as saying that “the basic material [is] a rhythmic figure mockingly tossed back and forth between cellos and one bassoon.” It doesn’t have quite the menace of Mahler’s rondo burlesque, nor is it as frenetic and devilish as Shostakovich, but set against the previous movement, it’s certainly along those lines, with overtones of sarcasm and that ‘American’-esque sound. The movement is actually based on material from the second subject of the first movement, drawing things together. The movement ends quietly.
The third movement, only slightly faster-paced than the opening movement, does return to that mood, sharing some material and most of the spirit, but with a glimmer of hope, or at least the hope of hope. There are passages here that climb and build, not like the heavenly glory of Mahler’s Resurrection, but the climax of the work is bright, at least relative to what’s come before, and it’s refreshing. It’s no time for a peroration, though, and things quiet back down with a trumpet solo, after which follow a number of other solo instruments.
The finale is such an exhilarating surprise. After the gravity of the odd-numbered movements, and the tinge of darkness in the scherzo, the blast of excitement and triumph is like jumping into a refreshing pool of cold water after a hot day. It wakes the listener, almost jarringly, to enjoy what is indeed that iconic ‘American’ sound, but with more symphonic weight than any ballet or something from Copland. It’s got the mass of a Brucknerian orchestra and the past three movements behind it, and it delivers. After such an emotional, somber ride, it’s a stunning gallop, a breathtaking ride to finish this outstandingly powerful, polished symphony.
I’ve found every single piece (okay, all four) of Diamond’s we’ve discussed so far to be absolutely stunningly, marvelously enjoyable, and he’s quickly moving up on the Editor’s Choice list, up there at the very top with Robert Simpson, so prepare to see more of him soon, even if I don’t have much of anything of his scheduled for the entire rest of the year. That could change.
We’re moving on to other things next week, back to some (actually quite a bit of) Beethoven before yet more in our Editor’s Choice series, although not symphonies, so do stay tuned for that and thank you so much for reading.