Appreciation for Composer David Diamond

Composer David Diamond died Monday at age 89. Diamond's works have been compared to those by Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein. Blair talks about Diamond's life and about his composition Rounds.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

American composer David Diamond has died. He was 89 years old. He traveled in the same circles as Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein. George Gershwin once praised the way David Diamond wrote for orchestra. The composer never enjoyed the fame that some of his contemporaries did. Nonetheless, he was an influential figure in classical music. NPR's Elizabeth Blair takes a closer look at David Diamond's best known work, "Rounds," for string orchestra.

ELIZABETH BLAIR reporting:

"Rounds for Strings" begins like any other round. Think "Frere Jacques." Gerard Schwarz, conductor of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, was a close friend of David Diamond's.

Mr. GERARD SCHWARZ (Conductor, Seattle Symphony Orchestra): It starts with a single instrument or a single group of instruments playing a melody...

(Soundbite of "Rounds for Strings")

Mr. SCHWARZ: ...and then someone else picks up the melody. It carries on like that.

(Soundbite of "Rounds for Strings")

Mr. SCHWARZ: It is almost like a sporting event in the sense that these melodies are being tossed around from the violins to the violas to the cellos to the basses.

(Soundbite of "Rounds for Strings")

BLAIR: David Diamond wrote "Rounds for Strings" in 1944 in the midst of World War II. Conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos asked Diamond to write a happy piece that would somehow distract people from the misery of the war. Mitropoulos wrote, `These are distressing times. Most of the difficult music I play is distressing. Make me happy.'

(Soundbite of "Rounds for Strings")

BLAIR: "Rounds for Strings" became a hit. Almost all of the major conductors performed it: Mitropoulos, Leonard Bernstein, Serge Koussevitzky and David Diamond's close friend, composer Aaron Copland. In a radio interview, Diamond said Copland envied the piece.

Mr. DAVID DIAMOND (Composer): He would conduct my rounds a great deal because he seemed to find that there was something very much like what he would like. He used to say, `Oh, I wish I had written that piece. It really works for the audience very well.'

BLAIR: Soon after "Rounds" premiered, music critic Olin Downs wrote in The New York Times, `There is laughter in the music and no waste notes.' Music writer Michael Steinberg calls "Rounds" economical.

Mr. MICHAEL STEINBERG (Music Writer): It says what it has to say and nothing more which is always a welcome virtue.

BLAIR: Michael Steinberg has written a number of books on classical music, including "The Symphony: A Listener's Guide." He met David Diamond in Italy in the 1950s when both men were there on Fulbright scholarships. Steinberg says in some ways it's unusual that Diamond wrote such an exuberant piece.

Mr. STEINBERG: Because that was not, I think, really his temperament. He was more of a dark kind of character. I hear that at least in quite a lot of the music, mainly the symphonies, and it's something I remember about him as a person.

BLAIR: David Diamond was born in Rochester in 1915 to Austrian and Polish immigrants. His father was a carpenter and his mother a dressmaker. When he was a little boy, Diamond taught himself violin and started composing tunes. Michael Steinberg says Diamond was something of an outsider. In 1933, Diamond attended the prestigious Eastman School of Music, then run by composer Howard Hanson.

Mr. STEINBERG: Hanson disliked Jews and he disliked homosexuals and he disliked modernists, and David Diamond qualified in all of those categories. And it must have been a pretty unhappy year, and I think it's significant that Diamond left the place after a year.

(Soundbite of "Rounds for Strings")

BLAIR: David Diamond suffered bouts of depression and once said he used music to help work through his emotions. Even in his happy piece, "Rounds for Strings," there's a yearning quality to the second movement. Diamond said he shared some traits with the conductor who commissioned the work, Dimitri Mitropoulos.

Mr. DIMITRI MITROPOULOS (Conductor): He said, `We are so much alike. We are always alone. We like to live alone. We like--our work comes through as our work,' he said. And he said, `We will always suffer.' He had this kind of masochistic thing and I didn't. I fought that. I didn't like that about myself. I was not going to give into that despair, you see?

BLAIR: Conductor Gerard Schwarz says the David Diamond he knew was wholly immersed in music and very particular about how his work should be played. When Schwarz first recorded "Rounds for Strings" with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, he says Diamond gave him the third degree.

Mr. GERARD SCHWARZ (Conductor, Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra): He said, `Oh, really? How large is the string? How many first violins do you have?' I said, `Well, we have seven.' He said, `Oh, only seven? Firs--this is meant for a big orc--you can't do that with seven.' Well, then he's going to do it with the New York Philharmonic. He promised me he was going to record it this year. And I said, `Well, we're going to do an album of American string music, including some other wonderful pieces, and I really want to include this.' He said, `Well, if you must, fine. Go ahead and do it.' And so I did, and he loved the record, but he always wanted me to do one with a big orchestra. So as soon as I got the opportunity, I did it in Seattle with the full strings, with 16 first violins. And when he heard that, he was so thrilled. He said, `That's the sound that I envisioned.' He was from that generation where big was wonderful. Not that he didn't like great chamber music, but in a symphonic repertoire, he wanted big sound and he loved that big sound.

(Soundbite of "Rounds for Strings")

BLAIR: In interviews, David Diamond sometimes lamented that his "Rounds for Strings" overshadowed his other work. With its hints of folk music, it is one of Diamond's most accessible works. Unlike some of his contemporaries, David Diamond wasn't that concerned with creating a distinctly American sound in classical music, but he did want to shake people up. He once said, `If the listener is neither upset nor pleasantly moved, nothing much artistically has been achieved.' With "Rounds for Strings," he needn't have worried.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: You can hear a tribute to David Diamond and listen to the late composer discussing his Symphony No. 4 at our Web site, npr.org.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

(Soundbite of "Rounds for Strings")

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