Music: Diamond in the Rough

Last month, I wrote about the rough treatment American composer George Rochberg received from the artistic “community” when he turned away from systematized cacophony toward tonality in the 1970s. “Why is George writing beautiful music?” asked one shocked colleague. “That’s already been done.” Rochberg felt an arctic blast familiar to many other American composers who, from the outset, had rejected Arnold Schoenberg’s musical gear-stripping. They were hammering at the wall of organized dissonance from its western side, trying to break through and speak to those captured east of it. Despite the difficulties of the time, these composers produced works of great beauty of which most Americans are unaware.

One of the best of these composers is David Diamond (b. 1915), a contemporary of Rochberg’s who never wandered from tonality and suffered for it. “It began in the 1950s,” Diamond said, “when the twelve-note technique became popular. Steven Wolpe told me I’d have to accept the music of the future, and Milton Babbitt said I’d have a very difficult time if I didn’t.” Even during his years in the desert, Diamond had the pluck to declare: “I do not believe there is any such thing as atonal music.” His credo is that “music that does not nourish you spiritually is not music, only aural sensations.” Diamond did not give in because, as he said, “I hated all that avant-garde stuff; it was all wrong. They don’t write out of love. They write out of the brain. It’s all intellectually geared music.” Looking back from the vantage of the early 1980s, he coined a diagnostic epitaph for the avant-garde: “It was ego. Ego plus opportunism.” Diamond concluded, “I think they know their game is up.”

If the kinds of recordings now being issued are any indication, Diamond is right. Though he paid the price for his views, Diamond has lived to see his work vindicated. Many of his twelve glorious symphonies have been recorded (on indispensable Delos CDs) and also some of his chamber music. Albany Records, a good source for previously forbidden music, has released a marvelous recording of Diamond’s Flute Concerto, written in 1987, accompanied by other flute works by Antal Dorati, Bernard Rogers, and Ernst Krenek.

The half-hour-long Flute Concerto is a rich, effervescent work very much in the style of Diamond’s early to mid- period symphonies, with long-lined melodies punctuated by syncopated rhythms. It is essentially a buoyant, joyous work with shades of bitter-sweetness in the wistful musings of the flute. Overall, it exudes Diamond’s typical generosity of spirit and taps into the deep yearning at the bottom of the American soul. The Bohuslav Martind Orchestra, under Charles Anthony Johnson, does not seem to have had any problem capturing the quintessentially American character of this work. Flutist Alison Young plays ravishingly.

There is another intriguing Diamond chamber music release that contains five works—four of them world-premiere recordings—performed by excellent Polish musicians, on the Dux label (DUX 0142), which also appears to be Polish (It is good to see that Diamond’s music travels so well—especially since he is partly of Polish ancestry.) The first piece on this CD is the 1951 Trio for Violin, Cello, and Piano. In listening to it, I was reminded of an anecdote Diamond recounted during a Crisis interview several years ago (he has been a faithful subscriber since then). Diamond said that when Aaron Copland was looking over the piano score of Diamond’s Fourth Symphony, he said, “David, it would be so nice if every now and then there were black notes somewhere,” referring to the black keys on the piano keyboard, a professional’s shorthand for chromaticism. Diamond found them for this dense, spiky work, which shows a tougher side to his art.

The two sonatas on this CD show his more accessible style. Although written some 40 years apart, the Sonata No. 1 for Violin and Piano (1943-1946) and the Sonata No. 2 for Cello and Piano (1987) are nonetheless of a piece. The First brims with youthful energy; the Second is slightly more mellow. Both are gorgeous and display the French elegance and clarity that Diamond, like so many American composers, learned at the feet of Nadia Boulanger. The Canticle for violin and piano is a sweet lament, and the Perpetual Motion for violin and piano, also written in 1946, is an exhilarating tour de force of the American spirit.

Two of Diamond’s American predecessors in the école de Boulanger, Walter Piston (1894-1976) and Virgil Thompson (1896-1989), are also benefiting from new releases. Like Diamond, Piston was a major American symphonist, and the Delos and Albany labels have also been principally responsible for making his works available. Yet Delos stopped short before making his great Third Symphony available. Now Albany Records has stepped into the breach, with the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra, under James Yannatos. This performance may not eclipse memories of the premiere recording, under Howard Hanson for Mercury, but it is so good to have this work available again that I can’t complain about a regional orchestra that is playing its heart out over its head.

The CD also contains a real surprise in the accompanying works by conductor-composer Yannatos: the Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra, and Prisms (Symphony No. 3). I was stunned by these two beautiful works, thinking that I had come across the American equivalent to English composer Michael Tippet in his most attractive and florid period. In an attempt to “link past tradition to present practice,” Yannatos incorporates melodies from Bach and Beethoven but in a completely integrated way. Seldom have I heard past and present communing in such a blissful, non-anachronistic way. In these works, the orchestral playing is superb. Surprise yourself with this CD.

Piston is also the beneficiary of two budget Naxos releases featuring his two Violin Concertos, Fantasia for Violin and Orchestra, and several chamber works. The violin works, performed by the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine, under Theodore Kuchar, with violinist James Buswell, are immensely attractive and beautifully presented. Only in America, where the yahoos of both left and right think our only culture is agriculture, could works like this lie dormant. Listen to the exuberant Allegro energico movement of the First Violin Concerto as it bursts forth with life, and ask yourself why we had to wait for a German entrepreneurial genius, Klaus Heyman, founder of Naxos, to bring us our own musical patrimony.

It is the 1999 Australian Festival of Chamber Music to which we are indebted for the Naxos CD featuring Piston’s chamber music: the Quintet for Flute and String Quartet; the String Sextet; the Piano Quartet; and the Piano Quintet. Of these finely wrought works, the first and last are especially and immediately attractive.

Thomson was almost more renowned for his music criticism than he was for his music. Naxos’s new CD of his Symphonies Nos. 2 and 3, Pilgrims and Pioneers and Symphony on a Hymn Tune, should help right the balance in favor of his music. These works are as quintessentially American as music can be, since some of them are based on real folk tunes and the rest of them might as well be. Thomson was able to make simplicity an art—in fact, it is the most difficult art—and play straight to the American heart without condescension. James Sedares and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra play these works as to the manor born. Start with the wonderfully vivacious Symphony No. 3, to which you will be dancing since it is largely based on dance forms. Lastly, you should turn to what was to me a completely unknown side of Thomson on a CD of sacred and secular choral music by him and his friend, Copland. Gloriae Dei Cantores, under Elizabeth Patterson, has issued, under the label of the same name, a beautiful collection containing Thomson’s Hymns from the Old South and the best eleven-minute Mass for Two-part Chorus and Percussion I have heard. I will save for another time a discussion of the slightly longer masterpiece on this CD, Copland’s In the Beginning, based on the book of Genesis and so beautifully sung here. On this biblical note, one is tempted to say of the recent recovery of modern music: As in the beginning, so in the end. Amen.


  • Robert R. Reilly

    Robert R. Reilly has written for many publications, including The Wall Street Journal, Reader's Digest, The American Spectator, and National Review, and is the author or contributing author of over 20 books. His most recent book is America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding (Ignatius Press).

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