David Diamond (b. 1915)
Suite from the Ballet TOM This Sacred Ground SymphonyNo. 8
\It is my strong feeling that a romantically inspiredcontemporary music, tempered by reinvigorated classical technical formulas, isthe way out of the present period of creativity chaos in music...To me, theromantic spirit in music is important because it is timeless."
These words by Seattle Symphony Honorary Composer inResidence David Diamond capture the essence not only of the composer himself,but of an entire generation of American composers whose heartfelt music wasborn during the Great Depression and World War II. Yet rather than merelycharacterize a past era, the "romantic spirit" has been re-kindled during thepast quarter-century. For some thirty years following World War II, theapostles of post-Webernian serialism and its offshoots determined the course ofcontemporary classical music. Diamond--and other such neo-Romantic voices as RoyHarris, Samuel Barber, Howard Hanson, William Schuman and Walter Piston, toname only American composers of that persuasion--was dismissed with an imperiouswave of the academic hand and a curt "irrelevant" from the lips--or pen--of theideologically purist Pierre Boulez.
While in no way demeaning the many fine works that have comefrom Boulez and gifted composers who trod the chaste path of serialism, timehas proven them wrong in consigning Diamond and his gloriously unrepentantRomantics to the trash-bin of music history. In music, as in life itself, thereare many roads to truth, many different drums whose rhythms attract some andrepel others. One thing is very clear. Many composers and audiences have eitherre-embraced the Romantic spirit or never left its enveloping warmth in thefirst place.
David Diamond's patience and determination have served himwell, and it is a blessing that he has survived attack and neglect for manydecades. He is now considered, with ample reason, to be a national treasurewhose music taps into an American psyche hungering for a musical experienceanalogous or equivalent to spiritual satisfaction.
Diamond's ballet TOM had to endure a difficult and confusinggestation period that could have profited from a printed cast of characters. In1935, the twenty-year-old composer was still a student of Roger Sessions butwas nonetheless approached by the writer Cary Ross to compose music for TOM,e.e. cummings's scenario for a "ballet in four episodes" based on the famousanti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, among the mostinfluential writings in American history. Ballet impresario Lincoln Kirsteinhad asked cummings to produce the scenario in 1933, and approached Stravinsky,Virgil Thomson and Paul Bowles to provide the music. Each composer turned downthe request. On top of that series of rejections, George Balanchine, who was tochoreograph the proposed work, begged off, as did Kirstein, effectively leavingthe project up in the air. Diamond wrote to cummings and asked for permissionto go ahead with the composition. The poet acceded to Diamond's request andsuggested that the composer go to Paris to discuss the project with LeonideMassine, newly chosen as choreographer. Disagreements ensued and ultimately TOMwas never performed as a ballet. In 1937, Diamond extracted music from thecomplete score and produced this suite. Despite interest shown by Copland andBernstein, the music had to wait 44 years for its first performance underGerard Schwarz on 4th July, 1981 at the Waterloo Festival in New Jersey.
In twelve sections that relate to both action and characterportrayals of the protagonists, one could easily take many of theAmerican-sounding tunes to be part of the heritage of our country's folk-music,yet Diamond had fashioned them all from his fertile imagination. LikeDvoﬁak, Tchaikovsky and Bartok in their respective homelands, Diamondthoroughly absorbed the "language" of our culture (the composer referred tothis process as "osmosis"), and the homespun melodies sound utterly natural andfolk-like. cummings was delighted with Diamond's efforts, writing, "DavidDiamond not only did the job, but created--strictly on his own initiative--amusical original which is also a musical equivalent. If you don't consider thatan achievement beyond any mere 'abilities,' read TOM; then get Diamond to playyou a piano version of TOM, stand at the piano, and follow my script which hehas copied over his score."
Like TOM, This Sacred Ground relates as well to our nation'sstill-resonating encounter with the institution of slavery. The eminentconductor Josef Krips had expressed a wish that Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address"be set to music. As a student in Vienna years earlier, Krips had memorized thejustly famed speech and continued to be inspired by its ringing truths andgreat humanity. During his tenure as conductor of the Buffalo Symphony, hearranged for the Buffalo Evening News and radio station WBEN to co-commissionthe score, which received its premi?¿re under Lukas Foss and the BuffaloSymphony on 17th November, 1963. Diamond dedicated his new work to Krips, whowas unavailable to lead the premi?¿re because of scheduled duties with his neworchestra, the San Francisco Symphony (with whom he eventually conducted ThisSacred Ground).
The work is scored for mixed chorus, children's chorus,baritone solo and orchestra. A 43-bar orchestral introduction sets the tone forthe powerful text. As is typical, Diamond's harmonic vocabulary is tonal/modal,with judicious use of piquant dissonances to heighten emotional impact. It isalways a challenge for a composer to set prose, rather than the customarypoetry, in a song cycle, and Diamond's imaginative setting balances therhythmic freedom of recitative with the structured cadence of an aria.
Diamond dedicated his Symphony No. 8 to his friend andmentor, composer Aaron Copland on the occasion of his sixtieth birthday. Thework was completed in November 1960 and received its premi?¿re with LeonardBernstein and the New York Philharmonic on 27th October, 1961. Whileessentially tonal in harmonic language, Diamond incorporated highly chromaticelements and even a twelve-note tone row, not unlike what the Symphony'sdedicatee was doing during this same period in his Connotations, thoughDiamond's work is far less aggressively dissonant in overall sound.
The composer provided these notes for the premi?¿reperformance:
I. Moderato--Adagio--Allegro vivo. The basic row is proclaimedin the very opening bars of the introduction; it is in two halves. The first, aforceful rhythmic theme of five notes (4/4), is thundered out by the orchestratutti. The second, a more lyric theme of seven notes (3/4), is sung softly by asingle clarinet. Thematically, the second phrase is destined to be the moreimportant; in fact, the row is immediately rearranged and presented by a solohorn, which starts with this second phrase in an even more lyric version, and concludeswith a lyric transformation of the thundering five-note opening.
The fast body of the movement, a free sonata-allegrostructure, starts with a heavily syncopated version of the row as presented bythe French horn. This is the principal theme; a contrasting second theme ispresented at a more relaxed tempo by a solo clarinet, ben cantando, over a softcounterpart of strings. Both themes are developed, and return in very nearlytheir original form during the course of this long but highly concentratedmovement. The conclusion is a stunning climax compounded of the essence of boththemes.
II. Theme (Adagio