David Diamond

Prolific, if volatile, composer particularly acclaimed for his 11 symphonies

David Diamond was a prolific American composer who triumphed over obstacles in his early life to become one of the best-known composers of his generation. He received many awards; his music was performed by some of the leading artists; but he never achieved the international acclaim of his seniors such as Aaron Copland and Samuel Barber, although he outstripped them both by writing 10 string quartets and 11 symphonies.

David Leo Diamond, composer: born Rochester, New York 9 July 1915; died Brighton, New York 13 June 2005.

David Diamond was a prolific American composer who triumphed over obstacles in his early life to become one of the best-known composers of his generation. He received many awards; his music was performed by some of the leading artists; but he never achieved the international acclaim of his seniors such as Aaron Copland and Samuel Barber, although he outstripped them both by writing 10 string quartets and 11 symphonies.

He was born in Rochester, New York, in 1915. His parents, his father a cabinetmaker, his mother a dressmaker, were Jewish immigrants from Central Europe who supported radical socialist causes. They struggled to make a living, so the boy had to teach himself the violin. Matters improved when the family went to live with relations in Cleveland and Diamond encountered the Swiss violinist André de Ribaupierre, who found him a patron and arranged for study at the Cleveland Institute.

Back in Rochester Diamond attended the Eastman School and wrote his Symphony in One Movement, which was performed under the school's director Howard Hanson. By the time Diamond left for New York City in 1934 his juvenilia numbered about 100 works, most of which had been performed and would later be discarded. It was at the New Music School in New York that he studied with Roger Sessions, whom he venerated as "one of the great minds of today, either within or without the field of music". He also studied at the Dalcroze Institute, where he had to scrub floors to make ends meet.

All his study was gained through scholarships and Diamond attracted attention through winning a contest named after Elfrida Whiteman, which meant that Paul Whiteman conducted his Sinfonietta with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Then in New York, where he was meeting the artistic élite, Diamond was commissioned by e.e. cummings to write the music for his ballet Tom. In a letter to Ezra Pound, cummings called Diamond "the only living American young composer". The choreographer was to have been Léonide Massine, who was in Paris, so it was a real break for Diamond when a patron funded his trip there for discussions. The project never came to fruition but Paris came to mean as much to Diamond as it did to so many expatriate American artists between the wars.

There he met Milhaud, Roussel and Ravel and writers such as Gide and Joyce. And in 1937, like so many other young American composers, he went to study with Nadia Boulanger, who introduced him to Igor Stravinsky, who looked at the score of his Psalm and made some critical suggestions. These were embodied and the revised version was performed in the United States, was well received and gained the Juilliard Publication Award in 1937.

Diamond loved Paris. It was only after some hesitation that he left at the outbreak of war and returned to New York. His Concerto for small orchestra was given there in 1940 and Virgil Thomson, in the Herald Tribune, considered it was "made with the finest musical materials" and acclaimed Diamond as "a fine jewel in music's crown". Thirty years later Thomson still rated Diamond's output highly - "For all its seeming emotional self-indulgence, this is music of artistic integrity and real thought."

Rounds for string orchestra, one of his best-known works, which gained the New York Music Critics' Circle Award, was commissioned by Dimitri Mitropoulos, who also conducted his First Symphony. The powerful advocacy of Serge Koussevitsky was brought to bear on the Second, but Diamond was still obliged to play the violin in the orchestra for the Carnegie Hall Radio Show for two years to make ends meet. At this time he met Bela Bartók, also living in excruciating poverty in New York, who was able to commiserate.

Diamond wrote several film scores, and particularly enjoyed doing Anna Lucasta (1949) for Columbia Pictures in Hollywood, but in New York he was considered outspoken and, perhaps as a result, found it difficult to obtain a teaching post. He later recalled: "Mine was a miserable life then in the United States. I had no feeling of necessity to live here." In 1951 he spent a year as a Fulbright professor at the University of Rome and after that lived in Florence until 1965. He was on his third Guggenheim Fellowship and explained:

I can make my income last and live extremely well with my own villa and garden at a cost that would provide a hole-in-the-wall, coldwater flat in America . . . There is a spiritual nourishment, too, in that cradle of serious music. There is quiet for concentration that could never be found in an American city.

In this environment he completed four more string quartets, all premiered by leading ensembles in the US. In Italy, Diamond was also glad to escape the atmosphere of Senator Joseph McCarthy's inquisitions, although he was apparently subpoenaed directly from the orchestra pit where he was playing in Bernstein's Candide in New York in 1956.

Diamond's symphonies are regarded as the core of his output on a large scale. The Fourth was commissioned by Koussevitsky but the premiere was delayed through his illness and it was eventually given by Leonard Bernstein, who became an admirer and said, "His music restates, in his own terms, the most lasting aesthetic values." Bernstein, whose concert works have something in common with Diamond's, premiered three more of the symphonies and recorded the Fourth in 1958. Of the Fifth he said that it was "a work that revives one's hopes for the symphonic form". After a period of neglect, five of Diamond's symphonies were recorded in the 1990s under Gerard Schwarz. Only last month Diamond attended a performance of his Fourth Symphony under Schwarz at Seattle, Washington, and was delighted at the warmth of his reception. (Schwarz is now planning a major memorial concert.)

Forty years earlier Diamond had asked Arnold Schoenberg whether he should have studied 12-note technique and was told that he didn't need to since he was "a new Bruckner". Perhaps Diamond's wayward improvisatory style with bursts of counterpoint comes close to what Bruckner might have written if he had been a pupil of Nadia Boulanger.

When Diamond returned to New York in 1966 there were prominent performances of his music and he found it easier to obtain teaching positions. These included the Manhattan School of Music, various posts as composer in residence and in 1973 he was appointed to the Juilliard School, where he continued to teach after formal retirement in 1986, although he returned to live in Rochester. In his later years honours included the Gold Medal of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, an Edward MacDowell Award and President Bill Clinton's National Medal of Arts.

In person David Diamond was much admired in the gay community for coming out at a time well before it became fashionable to do so. But he could be notoriously difficult. He once physically attacked the conductor Artur Rodzinski, who had tried to prevent him from attending a rehearsal of one of his own works. His friends Copland and Bernstein were so upset that they collected funds to send Diamond to a psychiatrist. The diagnosis? Bad temper.

Peter Dickinson

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