Diamond in the Rough
David Diamond studied at the Eastman School with Bernard Rogers, in New York with Roger Sessions and in France with Nadia Boulanger; while living in Paris, he also befriended Gide, Roussel, Ravel, and Stravinsky. He was a superb artisan whose neo-classic works grafted intense lyricism with a neurotic and deeply felt hyper-contrapuntal compositional style. He became a star in the compositional firmament quite young, and spent the rest of his career beguiling and reviling performers and colleagues.
A serious drinker when he chose to be, he preferred very cold, very dry champagne and excellent vodka, if it was available, followed by brandy. He loved good food, arguments, and books. Those he deemed pretentious infuriated him. It seemed to me that he felt that Society had short-changed him; it had contradicted his hopes. While his default mien was grave, he could be pixyish and ebullient. Posterity was important to him: he left behind meticulously crafted ballets, eleven symphonies, concertos, ten string quartets, numerous chamber works, and many admirable songs.
Bernstein famously referred to David as "a vital branch in the stream of American music," while Virgil (for whom David briefly worked) wrote, "Composers, like pearls, are of three chief sorts, real, artificial and cultured. David Diamond is unquestionably of the first sort; his talent and his sincerity have never been doubted by his hearers, by his critics, or by his composer colleagues."
Our every conversation ultimately circled back to the three intertwined things we had most in common: anger, depression, and chronic insomnia. Were the causes chemical, or the result of pathological narcissism? Were they darker, more Nixonian?
"When I was younger," David told me once, "I rarely slept, always worried about money. My anger and my hostility drove me to extremes of behavior that must have seemed theatrical to some. Sessions, for example, when I confessed to him in a lesson that I intended to kill myself by jumping out of the balcony at Carnegie Hall, admonished me to jump from the second tier, as jumping from the first would leave me with broken legs, while the latter would guarantee a split skull, or at least a broken neck."
I identified acutely.
A superb raconteur, David's reminiscences of the 30s and 40s were peppered with vivid character sketches of Greta Garbo, Clifford Odets, Carson and Reeves McCullers, Copland, Bernstein, and Blitzstein, among others. A compulsive diarist, the shelves in his Rochester home contained dozens of books filled with his graceful, athletic handwriting. He confided to me over the years—usually in dark asides after some perceived slight—that he was writing an autobiography that would settle this or that person's hash.
After David's death, Gerard Schwarz, who genuinely loved him and continues to champion his music, loaned me a copy of an unpublished manuscript.
Having read it, I understand now why he chose never to complete it: the first fifty pages ring with his feisty voice, and promise a memoir as pleasurable and captivating as an evening spent drinking champagne with him and listening to him tilt at windmills, lacerate colleagues, and fearlessly describe the old days. Sadly, the document loses its way, tells rather than shows, never progresses far beyond the 60s, and becomes a circular argument, exactly the sort of self-justifying document that David, as an avid and careful reader, disliked.
David could change in a heartbeat from needy to imperious. Consequently, he made many enemies during the course of his career; not just his enemies questioned the accuracy of his memory. I believe that David tried hard to be truthful, and that the extraordinary intensity of his feelings (he was as brutal with himself as he was with others) sometimes distorted the way he perceived the world.
Lessons could be grueling, especially if he had gotten it into his head that you had betrayed him. I used to write music reviews for EAR, a downtown new music magazine. For a (rave) review of David's Symphony No. 10 (premièred a few weeks earlier by Bernstein with the American Composers Orchestra), I had created what I thought was a pretty spicy lead: "Diamond's Tenth looms over the audience like an enormous tombstone." Someone had gotten a copy into David's hands. "You have a deep-seated subconscious desire to destroy me," he raved. "Get out of my sight!" I had gotten my first taste of David's legendary temper. In my case, at least, it was always as fleet as it was quick. David's apologies, when they did come, were always sincere. I admired him, and I always accepted them.
For Ned I composed three art songs each week for three years—one on a poem of my choice; one on a poem of his choice; one of a poem he had set. For David I crafted two fugues (each more elaborate than the last) a week for two years—one on a fugue subject of his choice; one on a subject of my own devising. Ned's regimen helped me to learn how to access my emotions and express them fluently with musical notes. David's regimen helped me to learn how to explore the relationship that those notes have with one another on the abstract, purely musical level.
David's obsession with fugue as a compositional procedure mirrored his lifelong effort as an intellect to make sense of the world in which he lived. His fury, when Bernard Rands innocently asked at the end of a composition seminar what the point of writing fugues was at the end of the twentieth century, was not comical, it was existential.
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