America’s Greatest Living Composer: An Interview with composer David Diamond

David Diamond (b. 1915) is the last of several generations of great American symphonists who flourished mid-century. This list—beginning with Roy Harris, Howard Hanson, Aaron Copeland, and Walter Piston—continues with William Schuman and Diamond himself. Of them all, Diamond has created the most substantial body of symphonies, which now number eleven, in addition to ballets, concertos, a great deal of chamber music, and an opera. Diamond’s declamatory, open-hearted, warm and generously lyrical music was on the “forbidden list” during the ignominious reign of the twelve-tone avant garde that now seems to have collapsed as completely as did the Soviet Union.

Thanks to the enterprise of Delos records and the artistry of conductor Gerard Scwarz, five CDs of Diamond’s superb orchestral music are now available in stunning recordings, with more on the way. Also, two CDs of his chamber music have appeared on different labels. These recordings have helped to vindicate Diamond as one of the greatest American composers of this century.

Robert R. Reilly has recently had the opportunity for an extended conversation with Mr. Diamond.

Reilly: I’ll start by saying thank you. Your music has been a source of tremendous joy in my own life. May I ask you about the influences on your work? You knew everyone: Albert Roussel, Maurice Ravel, and Igor Stravinsky, to name a few.

Diamond: That was very fortunate, yes. I began in my early years by studying in Europe. You were bound to meet the great people right there in Paris, and then Rochester was a great center for the theater and the arts.

Reilly: In listening to your music, one could pick out certain influences and say, well I hear a little Copland there. Or, when you self-consciously pay homage, as you do in your Concert Piece for Flute and Harp, one can say, I hear Albert Roussel. But in your own mind, which composers had the biggest impact on you when, as a young man, you heard their works?

Diamond: Well, strangely enough, it was neither of those composers. The composer who meant the most to me when I was a very young boy was Maurice Ravel, and the music I love the most today is his music. It’s a toss-up when I’m bored if I go back to Johann Sebastian Bach, or I take out works of Ravel. They remain as fresh to me as ever. So the combination of Bach’s counterpoint and the beauty of his melodic writing is as important to me as Ravel’s.

Reilly: That’s an interesting background for someone who is thought of as an inimitably American composer.

Diamond: Yes, but there again the connection is interesting because Ravel, even before coming to America during that first 1928 trip, had already had a series of 78s of American jazz. And he used to go to that famous nightclub there, it’s called the Owl on the Roof. And there he heard a good deal of American jazz. Already in the late 1920s, the G Major Piano Concerto had a lot of jazz influence in it. I guess I was attracted to that, too.

Reilly: You dedicated one of your first big successes, Psalm, to Andre Gide.

Diamond: Yes, he was a fairly good pianist, and he began his days playing through some of the preludes from The Well-Tempered Clavier, and that impressed me to no end. He had a fine grand piano in his studio, and when I brought the Psalm to him, he played through it at once.

Reilly: Did you happen to run into Julian Green with Andre Gide?

Diamond: Oh, I went to visit him very often. I looked him up about ten years ago. That was an interesting talk that we had because when I was an adolescent I went through his novel called The Dark Journey. That novel made a tremendous impression on me. It’s a very depressing novel. But I was more or less geared to dark moods and that was exactly the right book for me to read.

Reilly: Let me ask about the inspiration of your own music. I find so much modern music claustrophobic: It constantly collapses in on itself. But your music, Maestro, has such a generous aspect to it. It moves out to fill the space. Even when it’s expressing some heartache, it doesn’t collapse in on itself. I think that the way your music is so generous in its spirit has to—in some way—be a reflection of your spirit and beliefs in life.

Diamond: I’m very happy to hear you say that. I wish all of it really were so. I think it must be so, because others have written about that, but 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 always were talking about the long line. You must develop the long line in your music, try to write very long melodies. We would work for hours on constructing a very fine shape to a melodic line. Of course being a violinist helped too, because everything a violinist practices is on the long line. But I think I’ve always heard in long lines. That means not only melodically, but structurally. Unless you can do that, I don’t think you can be a symphonist.

Reilly: I recall a statement of yours made around the time of your fiftieth birthday that “composers should write music that can uplift the spirits. Music that does not nourish you spiritually is not music, only aural sensation.”

Diamond: I still think that is true. It is one reason so much of the music that was written during the 1950s and part of the 1960s, music which was basically textural in the sense that the sonorities were the important thing, or patterns of sound, have not lived on. In fact, they’ve disappeared. Nobody ever listens to them. It’s because there is a lack of real musical language which communicates. In other words, there is no melodic substance, and there’s no feeling in the sense of emotion, whether it’s lighthearted emotion or whether it’s dark and profound emotion. All the great music of the past and the great music of the present has that. I admire composers like Paul Hindemith so much because he was very much a composer of his time and you could recognize his work as contemporary music. But he also had great emotion and great craft, and that’s why his music lives on. The same for Alban Berg. The same for Prokofiev and Shostakovich. So, when people ask me, are there really great composers in our time? I say certainly, then I rattle off about twenty names and they’re amazed because they never thought of it that way.

Reilly: Well, you know the school of twelve-tone composition infected several generations. What I find curious is that the so-called neo-romantics or minimalists of the current generation, whether it be John Adams, or Arvo Part, all of them began with twelve-tone, and all of them rejected it.

Diamond: Yes. Eventually they saw through it, just as Schoenberg himself did. I remember about two years before he died, I visited him in Hollywood. He was talking about my Second Symphony. I said, “Maybe I can spend a year working with you in twelve-note technique.” He said, “You mustn’t be interested in that at all. It’s not for you, you’re a young Bruckner. You don’t need that.” And then I began reading articles he had written later on in which he felt that, indeed, the twelve-note technique was not a technique for everyone.

Reilly: Do you think you are an American Bruckner?

Diamond: I can see what people mean sometimes about the symphonies, like the Second Symphony and the Eighth Symphony. They are large-structured and they have very long lines. But I don’t think of myself in comparative terms that way. I wish I were a young Bruckner. Right now I feel like Methuselah.

Reilly: Maestro, it seems that the twelve-tone technique or what Robert Simpson, the English composer, called the “coterie of twelve notery,” was diagnosed very well by American composer George Rochberg when he turned against it. He said that it involves a spiritual attenuation. It is not simply a change in technique. There is a metaphysical revolution behind it. That’s why I found so appealing the statements you’ve made about how necessary it is for music to nurture one spiritually and that it can’t do that without all the components of music.

Diamond: Exactly, and if we don’t have other human beings to appreciate what we’re spending our time on earth doing, then what’s the point of composing? I mean, if we are involved in pitches and pitch selection only and color texture only, without melody and without a certain amount of rhythmic energy. There must be radiant melody and urgency of rhythmic impulse. Many composers, even those today, don’t have the pulse sense of rhythm. They write repeated ostinati patterns, repeating a series of pitches over and over again, rather than writing a real, what I call, a good Bach bass line.

Reilly: You’re talking about the centrality of melody. Have you noticed that even though melody has a kind of innate universal appeal, we have a generation or two that seem to have gone deaf to melody because of the music they’re listening to?

Diamond: Yes, and I think it’s also because they’re talentless. There are people who are without talent in terms of what they listen to. They’re not really listening to the art of music. They’re listening for the sensation of sound. Therefore, all this interest among the young in noisy rock. I don’t mind rock when it’s sort of quiet, but when there is no substantial melodic writing, then it just disappears in time as it’s doing already. I’m glad to read that fewer CDs of rock are being sold. Spiritual listening, of course, is something very special. I think there is such a thing. All we have to do is listen to the great Gregorian chants.

Reilly: You made a comment in 1989 in the New York Times, saying about the twelve-tone avant-garde that “it was ego, ego plus opportunism.”

Diamond: Oh, yes. Opportunity and ego. That absolutely is it. Well, can you tell me that’s not what Mr. Pierre Boulez is about? You know, I knew him way back when, in Paris, and I knew this was going to be Mr. Self-Promoter, if there ever was one.

Reilly: You ended your comments in the New York Times by saying, “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. I think they know their game is up.”

Diamond: Oh, yes and that’s why I made enemies of all of them. It’s only in recent years that they have begun to talk to me.

Reilly: Well, do they know their game is up when you talk to them now?

Diamond: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. As a matter of fact, Milton Babbitt and I are such close buddies now, it’s very touching. You know, we’ve been teaching together for a long time. Way back in the ’50s he came to visit me in Florence and he said, “David, you know the kind of music that you write, in a few years there’s not going to be any point in doing it because it’s all going to be electronic.” At that time, he was very much involved in tape. And today, you know, he is allowing a few notes to get into his [twelve-tone] rows.

Reilly: But, Maestro, this must have affected you. It must have been a terribly difficult time. I’m going to read to you something you said that I got out of an American composers’ biographical dictionary published in 1982: “To have felt out of step in one’s first years, confirms one’s invalidism in these last years. A sad story at best, with just a glimmer of hope before the next catastrophe.”

Diamond: Oh, yes. I was in a very bad, depressed period when there was no way of getting my music performed. I lived in Italy for close to sixteen years and the entire Italian musical life was dominated by the advanced twelve-note avant-garde. Everywhere I submitted music it was turned down because it was considered old-fashioned. It was very hard going because I loved living in Italy and I got a lot of work written. But the attitude of men like Luigi Dallapiccola and some of the other twelve-note composers really, really depressed me to no end. The only sympathetic composer, and a much older person than I, was Gian Francesco Malipiero. I’ll never forget when he said to me: “Don’t you worry for one moment. Your day is coming. I waited a long time and my day has come and gone. You will have a great, great, public one day.” And he had known only up to my Fourth Symphony and the Third String Quartet. So, I was very touched that Malipiero felt that way. But it was not easy to return to America and find the same thing going on here. There was no way of getting anything performed. Only Leonard Bernstein, bless his soul, who played the Eighth Symphony and Eugene Ormandy who played the Seventh Symphony broke that spell. Then I began to be hopeful again because the reviews were exceedingly good and critics began saying, “Wow, so there is a composer who is not writing only this very, very dry twelve-note music.” So, with the symphony performances in the late ’50s and ’60s things began to look up.

Reilly: Well, it’s nice to see that Malipiero’s music is back. He’s been vindicated as well.

Diamond: Oh, yes. All of his symphonies have been recorded and they are marvelous works. [Available on Marco Polo CDs.]

Reilly: Also his string quartets.

Diamond: Yes, yes.

Reilly: When I was trying to analyze his marvelous string quartets, I thought, if Janacek had been an Italian and educated by Debussy, this is sort of what you would get.

Diamond: I know what you mean, you’re not far off.

Reilly: Let me ask you more specifically about your own works. It seems that around the time of the Fifth Symphony your vocabulary changed a bit, not in any extraordinary way, but let’s say the music became a little more angular, a little sharper, a little more chromatic. And then, of course, I haven’t been able to hear your Ninth and Tenth.

Diamond: Oh, that’s too bad. I wish you could hear them.

Reilly: But now, of course, I’ve heard the lovely Adagio from the Eleventh. And that seems to be a return to your earlier language. But what was going on around the time after the Fourth Symphony, during the composition of the Fifth, which had such a prolonged gestation and then a revision? Did this reflect a change in your thought, in your life?

Diamond: Oh, definitely a change in my thought. I realized that I could not continue writing strictly diatonic, melodic lines. I felt they were beginning to sound like I was repeating myself. As Aaron Copland once said when we were going through the Fourth Symphony, “David, it would be so nice if every now and then there were black notes somewhere.” And I said, “You’re absolutely right.” Now what’s interesting is that if you go back to my early 1935-36 music, the TOM Suite, that’s very chromatic and at the same time very modal. So, when I began thinking that actually I had written much more chromatic music in my earlier years, I thought now I must bring the two together. And so, I began to introduce more chromaticism into the melodic writing and therefore, into the harmony as well. But I always wanted to control it so that it never seemed arbitrary. I always felt that there had to be, as Hindemith used to say, a point of reference cadentially. That way you knew where you were going to go and where you were going to stop for a while, why you came from a certain place and why you were going to another. And I realized that tonality was just that. And I began to concentrate on that. Therefore, the Fifth Symphony has a combination of both. So, it’s just an extension. I began to extend what was already there in my earliest years.

Reilly: And the Eleventh Symphony?

Diamond: The Eleventh Symphony is the fulfillment of everything. When you hear the entire Symphony, you’ll see that the slow movement is quite chromatic actually, if you see it in score form. It sustains the interest very well because I go between modality and chromaticism: They work together beautifully in that symphony. The work takes on a kind of grandeur, if I may say so, but that’s what I’ve arrived at. And the Ninth Symphony is more of the same. It’s chromatic and diatonic, and has a kind of elegiac quality because it was written in memory of Dimitri Mitropoulos. So, I think once the complete Eleventh is out on CD and the Ninth, I think people will be able to see the connection very easily.

Reilly: What about the role of the eleven string quartets? That’s a huge body of work.

Diamond: Oh, I wish someday somebody would start recording those. I think the story may end up being like Shostakovich’s. Nobody really knew anything about his string quartets until after his death. And then suddenly, just about five years after his death, there began these series of recordings of his quartets.

Reilly: I think it’s his finest music.

Diamond: I think so, too.

Reilly: And how do you place the quartets? In other words, have you composed quartets consistently throughout your compositional life?

Diamond: As consistently as the symphonies, yes. Almost every two or three years. And what is peculiar is I was looking through the dedications. One-half of them are in memory of somebody or dedicated to very close friends for their birthdays. And that tells me something about why they have a kind of elegiac quality, especially the Third, and the Fourth too, the big fugue in the Fourth. It’s going to take too much time, money, and preparation to get eleven string quartets recorded. I don’t think I’ll be around.

Reilly: What are you working on now?

Diamond: I’m really trying to book the Tenth Symphony, which is the unperformed one, because it is for the opening of the new concert hall in Seattle. And then Mr. Gerard Schwarz will do the recordings of the Ninth and the Seventh, and we’re hoping that my opera, The Noblest Game, will be done either in Washington, once the new auditorium is finished, or we’re still hoping that money can be raised to do it at the New York City Opera.

Reilly: Are you contemplating any new orchestral works?

Diamond: No, just trying to finish up orchestrating the opera. I have just finished a new piano quintet, the 2nd Quintet, for the Howard Hanson Anniversary here in Rochester. I don’t know about another symphony. At eighty-two you can’t think the way you did at the age of fifty. I know the creative urge is as strong as ever in me, but I don’t know whether I’m going to have the physical strength—whether my eyes will hold up, whether my hand will hold up. But if they do hold, there may be another symphony. But I am giving up the teaching as of next year, due to ill health. So, I’ve got to watch it.

Reilly: We’re going to be introducing a number of our readers to your music. Which of your pieces would you recommend they go to first?

Diamond: I would say the first Delos CD, the one which has the Fourth and the Second Symphonies. That’s a good one.

Reilly: Maestro, let me finish by asking what do you think your legacy is? What do you think it will leave people with in respect to what David Diamond did for American music or for music at large?

Diamond: Well, a feeling that perhaps the great spiritual values in life don’t always have to be religious spiritual values, that they can be the values which the musical art gives us, the great musical art of the past and the present.

Reilly: That’s a very interesting comment. Does that mean they’re separated from religious values or that it’s just grounded in a more pantheistic view of things?

Diamond: I think that art has its own specific religious spirituality. It is not a theological spirituality and maybe for that reason it will have a longer survival rate because we’re already seeing what is happening to organized religion. Fewer people go to churches now. Catholicism is having big problems. Judaism is having big problems. But what remains very important for me, from the theological standpoint, is that only two great figures hold my spiritual, theological attention. They are, as my father used to call them, Joshua Ben Nazareth, Jesus of Nazareth, and Moses. These two men are going to be always with us in that vast spiritual sense of what their particular contributions were. And once I bring that together with my musical spiritual force, I think that’s what the future will be in sustaining my own music.

Reilly: That almost sounds religious to me, Maestro.

Diamond: Almost, doesn’t it?

  • Robert R. Reilly

    Robert R. Reilly is the author of America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, forthcoming from Ignatius Press.

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