Monday, May 19, 2014

Corridors of Azure Shells - David Diamond's The Tomb of Melville

While Hart Crane is considered to be far and away one of America's greatest poets, there haven't been nearly as many settings of his poetry to music as other American laureates such as Whitman and Dickinson (or even Sara Teasdale).  The only attempts that came to my mind without research were Elliott Carter's profound setting of the third part of "Voyages", simply called Voyage (dubiously performed here), and Burr Van Nostrand's "setting" of "Voyages" as Voyages in a White Building I.  This lack is easy to divine once you read his work, which is so exotic and dense in its imagery and themes that setting it to music is almost a cheapening tactic.  Some enamored composers have avoided this problem by simply writing absolute music and sticking Cranian titles at the top, such as Anthony Iannaccone with his Woodwind Quintet no. 2: Scenes after Hart Crane and Irwin Bazelon with his Prelude to Hart Crane's "The Bridge" for string orchestra (though he did manage to actually set Crane in his chamber song cycle Legends and Love Letters).  David Diamond's only foray into Crane's world went this direction, though its dimensions are far more intimate at 88 keys* (much like Miriam Gideon's exquisite Of Shadows Numberless) yet manages to out-profound those works by a not-shabby margin, making its permanent vacation in OOP Limbo all the more disturbing.

Despite the fact that Diamond (1915-2005) was once as famous and highly touted as the likes of Copland, Harris and Piston, he is remembered today almost exclusively for Rounds, a string orchestra staple that is far, far away from his most interesting work.  There was a revival of interest in his work in the 80's and 90's due to the tireless performance and recording efforts of Seattle Symphony conductor Gerard Schwarz and his contract with Delos Records, and his late-80's wind band piece Hearts Music gets some play hither and thither.  I have no hesitations in saying that he made an extraordinary case for mid-century American Neo-Classicism, displaying breathtaking creativity and mastery in modal harmony, counterpoint and structured lyricism, and his later, more chromatic works are even more striking.  His piano works span his whole career, from the 30's through the 90's, and I'm quite puzzled as to how nobody has recorded the majority of his pianostuffs (such as his epic first Piano Sonata and beguiling miniatures like A Myriologue and Gambit).  While I've never had the time to plow through the 66-page Sonata I did have time for the 5-page Tomb, and several playings later it firmly remains the best piano work of his I've heard.  Anything less would have been doing Crane disappointed, as the poem he chose for his subject is "At Melville's Tomb":

Often beneath the wave, wide from this ledge
The dice of drowned men’s bones he saw bequeath
An embassy. Their numbers as he watched,
Beat on the dusty shore and were obscured.

And wrecks passed without sound of bells,
The calyx of death’s bounty giving back
A scattered chapter, livid hieroglyph,
The portent wound in corridors of shells.

Then in the circuit calm of one vast coil,
Its lashings charmed and malice reconciled,
Frosted eyes there were that lifted altars;
And silent answers crept across the stars.

Compass, quadrant and sextant contrive
No farther tides . . . High in the azure steeps
Monody shall not wake the mariner.
This fabulous shadow only the sea keeps.

That quote at the top of the page is included opposite the first page of music in the score, and I don't know if he just worked with that fragment or with the whole poem.  I do know he had deep appreciation for Melville at the time of this piece's composition (1944-49), as he set a number of his poems to music in the latter half of the 40's, such as his achingly sad Epitaph.  Tomb was the apex of his Melville pieces both in quality and in chronology, its long gestation period suggesting several attempts at a Melvillian piano piece framed by the Crane poem and his Melville songs, as if each new songs spurred revisions and additions to an obsessive central task.  Considering all the moments of vivid invention the piece offers, it's no wonder he tinkered it into existence across several years worth of work.

A distant hunting-horn motif introduces us to Diamond's keen eye for internal structure, the figure nothing more than mirrored minor thirds but already a nice piece of piano writing.  That minor third is the ground from which Tomb's wildflowers grow, fecund enough for unpredictably modal chords and near-improvisatory variation.  That improvisatory feel is bolstered by the use of odd meters, such as 3/4 + 1/8 and 1/4, not to mention the quickly shifting rhythmic structure, giving the pianist a lot of meat to chew on in performance.  Tiny moments creep in only to deepen the sense of mystery, such as that sf major third interjection at the bottom of the first page, and turning on each dime the mercurial path puts in the way is a rewarding challenge.  The sonorities are alternately lacy and beefy, though moments such as the first measure of line 2 of the third page require a very light touch despite most of the large chords' intention to be played with journeying virility.  As with the best elegiac queries Tomb's primary motivation is wanderlust, its dovetailing lines and harmonies pulling the listener through Diamond's emotional hall of mirrors as he processes Crane's overwhelming imagery.  These kinds of pieces remind us that Death has no answers to uncover, its philosophical significance only to reflect our own fears and no more logical or human than craters on the Moon.  Diamond does find resolution, a profound one to boot, but the themes aren't transformed permanently or definitively and Tomb's final moments are just as lusciously ambiguous as the rest of the piece.  A critic eager to make all art a monothematic spiderweb could see parallels to Melville's more existential fictions, such as Moby Dick and Bartelby the Scrivener, but I'd prefer to let Tomb stand as richly unknowable as it is simply because that's the spice of life.

Tomb's out-of-printedness is depressingly easy to understand; its publisher, Leeds Music Corporation, hasn't existed for decades, while most of Diamonds works were published by the surviving firm Southern Music.  Somebody must own the Leeds back catalog, so if I were an enterprising young artist I'd start sending whoever that is semi-sternly-worded e-mails pronto.  I've made getting the score easier here, but an official reprint would do the work better justice than my low-quality scan.  More justice would be a recording more recent than the warbly old tape below, though the unidentified pianist does a fine job traversing the shifts in mood and tempo.  It was uploaded by this man along with a number of other archival Diamond recordings, so it's a good channel to investigate for those entranced by Diamond's sophisticated language.  As Melville, Crane and Diamond are all passed The Tomb of Melville seems an apt elegy for all three, as powerful and challenging as any memorial I've heard.  I'm sure you've got a spare six minutes in your next evening at the keyboard, so do those great men proud and give in to their wanderlust.


*I hate to keep springing these ivory-ticklers on you, as I'm sure many instrumentalists are sick of the piano's despotic grip on the imaginations of solo rep's audience.  I'll try to squeeze in some different one-offs once they arise and are YouTubed, 'kay?  'Kay.

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