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David Diamond

By Ned Rorem

Many laymen hold the notion that so-called creative artists, even famous ones, are all suicidal alcoholic misfits. But for every Rimbaud or Mussorgsky or Pollock, each of whom died young, there are scores of sober artists who are not especially colorful as personalities; their color is saved for their work. Might one argue that artists are the best adjusted of citizens? They know what they want to do, are able to do it, and are appreciated for doing it, without wasting time on eccentricities. Yet one may also argue that they are the only humans that resist generalities. For example: David Diamond. While being a prolific first-rate composer, he was in many social ways a mess.

He had the saddest eyes I’ve ever seen. I saw them first in 1944 when I was twenty and David thirty. He was sitting with his friend, the painter Allela Cornell, while she sketched dollar-portraits of passersby in Washington Square. I had long heard about him: his morbidity, his profuse gifts, his unapologetic homosexuality, his public obstreperousness. Now here he was, looking as if the world were at an end. A few months later, Allela killed herself, leaving to David an apartment above a garage on Hudson Street. There he lived for the next seven years until the Serial Killers took over our musical world, whereupon he moved to Italy.

During this period I was close to David in a master-pupil arrangement. I worked as his copyist in exchange for lessons in composition and orchestration. I did score-&-parts of the Third and Fourth Symphonies, the Second String Quartet, and sundry smaller works, mostly songs. As his copyist in those pre-computer days, I was accountable, after the fact, for each note in relation to itself and to the thousands of surrounding notes. As his student, I was accountable, before the fact, for each sequence of notes that I would pen. David’s years with Nadia Boulanger had shown him acute communication through both words and music. To this day, I recall his every syllable; he taught me to write perfect music. (As to whether that music could breathe and bleed is beyond anyone’s control.) He was my deepest influence then, both socially and musically.

David dazzled us all with talk of his dear friends like André Gide and Lana Turner, Maurice Ravel and Greta Garbo. If fact and fantasy were confounded, the result was nonetheless intriguing.

Like his friends, the texts for his 200-odd songs were diverse, ranging from the Bible and Shakespeare, through Shelley and Joyce, to Cummings and, yes, Marilyn Monroe. These songs were immediate: they “spoke,” were diatonic, prosodically immaculate, and were featured on every American singer’s program back in the days when American singers deigned to perform in their native tongue. His non-vocal music, including ten string quartets and eleven symphonies, was highly formal, 18th-century in structure, contrapuntal, even fugal. And though he composed no performed operas, he wrote a great deal for dance, especially Martha Graham; for six movies, when Hollywood used real composers; and for the theater where, nightly for years, he conducted his own lavish score to The Tempest. Otherwise, he earned a living teaching and as a violinist in Broadway orchestras.

He was world-famous before turning twenty, a favorite of Koussevitzky, Dimitri Mitropoulos, Munch, and Bernstein. After the eclipse in the 1950s, he experienced a resurgence on returning from Europe. He taught for some time at Juilliard, then retired to his native Rochester where he died last June, four weeks short of his ninetieth birthday.

If David was his own worst enemy (assaulting conductors at a rehearsal, getting assaulted by sailors at midnight), he was also generous and compassionate. In 1945, he was responsible for the publication of my very first songs. Forty-three years later, when my parents died, he sent me these words:

I can write about death and dying but find it difficult to talk about. Your words, ‘so now they’re both gone,’ tell me so much of what you have passed through. But what extraordinary human beings they were! I truly feel I respected them more than anyone else, more than my own parents, more than Dimitri. . .

By this time the wild life was behind him, as it was behind all of us who survived. The reasoning went: anyone can dissipate, but only we can write our tunes. And David Diamond’s greatest work lay just before him. He was a swell cook too, even with his strong death wish. Already at nineteen, he had written a song to a John Clare text that begins: “This world is not my home, I’m only passing through / My treasures and my hopes are all beyond the sky…. Yet his greatest treasure—the vast catalogue of expert music—remains here on earth forever.

Read at the Academy Dinner Meeting on November 10, 2005.

© 2021 American Academy of Arts and Letters