Remembering Composer David Diamond

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Tribute to Diamond

'Performance Today' presents a musical tribute to David Diamond:

American composer David Diamond has died at the age of 89 in his hometown of Rochester, New York. He leaves behind 11 symphonies, which combine complexity and lyricism. From member station WXXI in Rochester, Brenda Tremblay has this appreciation.


American composer David Diamond never attracted the spotlight that's shone on some of his contemporaries, but he leaves behind an important body of work; 11 symphonies which combine complexity and lyricism. David Diamond has died at the age of 89 in his hometown of Rochester, New York. From member station WXXI in Rochester, Brenda Tremblay has this appreciation.


When former President Clinton presented David Diamond with a National Medal of Arts in 1995, he was honoring a man who wrote his first symphony when FDR was in the White House.

(Soundbite of music)

TREMBLAY: Born in Rochester in 1915, Diamond was the only son of immigrant parents. In a recent interview, he said his mother recognized his talent on the piano and violin.

(Soundbite of previous interview)

Mr. DAVID DIAMOND (Composer): Oh, yes. My mother, `Practice, practice.' Always in German, (German spoken), `Practice makes the master.'

TREMBLAY: Diamond approached writing music with the same discipline, studying in Paris with the famous composition teacher Nadia Boulanger. He poured over scores by Maurice Ravel and he marveled at concertos by Bach. Like Bach, he sought to produce mathematically complex and emotionally engaging pieces, such as his Concerto for Small Orchestra.

(Soundbite of Concerto for Small Orchestra)

TREMBLAY: By the 1940s, Diamond's symphonies were being premiered by leading orchestras and hailed by critics. He befriended composer Aaron Copland and conductor Leonard Bernstein. But throughout his life, their fame eluded him. Music critic John Pitcher.

Mr. JOHN PITCHER (Music Critic): When Leonard Bernstein gave the world premiere of Diamond's ninth symphony, at the end of the concert, everyone was congratulating Leonard Bernstein for the magnificent job he did conducting Diamond's symphony, and Diamond, of course, was in the background, fuming.

TREMBLAY: He was ignored in part because of his prickly temperament. He was also absent much of the time, living in Europe when he might have been promoting himself in the US. Conductor Gerard Schwartz says that when the composer finally returned to America, things had changed.

Mr. GERARD SCHWARTZ (Conductor): The musical atmosphere in the '60s was one of serialism. And that style of writing was not David's style, and he was, therefore, old-fashioned.

TREMBLAY: Serialists were no longer using traditional harmony to compose. But rather than use new strict rules about which notes could be used when, he let the melodies themselves shape his music. David Diamond's ability to write beautiful tunes is especially apparent, critic John Pitcher says, in "Brigid's Song," based on a text by James Joyce.

Mr. PITCHER: He has this very soulful melody supported just right by the piano in such a way as to make the words seem to almost float.

(Soundbite of "Brigid's Song")

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) My coffin shall be black, six angels at my back, two to sing and two to pray and two to carry my soul away.

TREMBLAY: Toward the end of his life, Diamond's music was rescued from obscurity by conductor Gerard Schwartz and the Seattle Symphony, who recorded about a dozen CDs of his music. In an interview in the fall of 2004, the composer said the most fulfilling moments of his life were spent hunched over a big white sheet of paper writing new music.

(Soundbite of 2004 interview)

Mr. DIAMOND: It's enriched my life because I feel the ideas come from somewhere far bigger than I am, and I guess one can call that inspiration.

TREMBLAY: David Diamond leaves no immediate family. His 11 symphonies were his children, he said, miraculous creatures that emerged after a time of labor, loneliness and intense joy. For NPR News, I'm Brenda Tremblay in Rochester, New York.

(Soundbite of music)

ROBERT SIEGEL (Host): You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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