David Mourns for Absalom, by David Diamond (1915--)

"David Diamond has cultivated the art-song more consistently than any other American composer of his standing. Between 1940 and the early 'fifties he published about forty songs whose quality is high throughout." So wrote Hans Nathan, back in 1960, in his chapter on American song of the modern period, in Dennis Steven's classic A History of Song. Just why the passing decades have not treated Diamond's efforts well, I cannot say. The current neglect of his excellent songs, most of them written to superb poetry by Joyce, Melville, Shelley and the like, is impossible to explain.

I agree that the quality of Diamond's catalog is indeed high but, contrary to those who most admire his elegiac manner, I believe this intensely emotional lamentation shows the composer at his very best. It uses an Old Testament text, from the Second Book of Samuel, 18:33, that tells the story of a father's grief at the tragic loss of a particularly beloved son. This, even though the son had openly rebelled against his father, and it was in the defining battle of the rebellion that he lost his life.

David the King was grieved and much moved. He went up to his chamber over the gate, and there he wept. And as he went, thus he said; "O my son, O my son Absalom, Absalom my son! Would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son!"

Diamond has employed multiple repetitions of the lamentation phrases to give the text added dimension and heightened intensity, and has used very simple means to create a monumental musical setting. Within a granitic 2/2 meter, the voice and piano alternate in maintaining a basic quarter-note movement. This constant rhythmic motion becomes a driving, nearly obsessive presence and, reinforced with unrelenting open octaves in the piano bass hand, establishes a kind of musical juggernaut that underpins the drama and drives the broadly moving vocal line.

But it is with harmonic modulations that Diamond fashions his most remarkable effects. Each of the major moments in the song is set off by a powerful modulation. After a brief prelude by the piano, the singer sets the story in a strong opening section in D natural minor--a superb evocation of the dark scene and mood. A strong modulation to E-flat then marks the moment David first voices his emotion. Next, as the King sinks to the very depths of grief there is a wrenching move to D major, after which a return to E-flat sets the scene for the brief-but-brilliant climax in C major and the tranquil closure in C minor.

This is a powerful and demanding song with markings such as solemn, much afflicted, and intense  for the singer. The vocal phrases, though of comfortable length, are cumulative and create the effect of being very broad and spanning. The vocal gamut rides from middle C, up to A above the treble staff. An optional note may be taken to avoid the high A, but an unavoidable high G is required for the secondary climax. Yet the truly defining problem for the singer is that powerful dynamic demands (FF  and FFF ) occur at both  extremes of the gamut--a particularly difficult problem for light, lyric voices--as Sergius Kagen correctly observes in his book, Music for the Voice..

Though the text tells the story of two males, I am not persuaded the storyteller need necessarily be male. It has been my experience that any singer with the requisite vocal and dramatic ability can make a powerful effect with this piece, and the most telling performance I've heard was given by a mezzosoprano, an advanced student with a rich tone and a riveting ability to communicate.

Though the text is Biblical, its topic and mood are so specialized it would be a rare sacred service indeed, in which this song would be suitable. This is a recital song and would be a congenial member of any grouping of songs by American composers. It could also be fitted to an interesting variety of recital themes: fathers and sons, 'heavy lies the head...', great biblical characters, etc.

David Diamond's remarkable David Mourns for Absalom  was published by Mercury Music Corporation, New York, in 1948.


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Copyright 1999, John Koopman. All rights reserved. No part of these websites, designated A BRIEF HISTORY OF SINGING and UNSUNG SONGS, or their contents may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means--electronic, photocopying or otherwise--without the written permission of the copyright holder. For information about the use of this material please contact the author through the Conservatory of Music, Lawrence University, Appleton, WI , (U.S.A) 54912-0599. Fax 920 832 6633