The Kennedy Center

Music for Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet

About the Work

David Diamond Composer: David Diamond
© Richard Freed

This symphonic suite was composed in 1947 for the Little Orchestra Society of New York and its conductor Thomas K. Scherman, who gave the premiere on October 20 of that year. The National Symphony Orchestra has performed excerpts from the suite, with Leonard Slatkin conducting, at Wolf Trap on July 14, 1995, and in its subscription series on May 12, 2001, but this week's performances under David Zinman are the orchestra's first ones of the entire suite.

The score, dedicated to Thomas K. Scherman, calls for 2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes and English horn, 2 clarinets and bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, tuba, timpani, snare drum, chimes, glockenspiel, triangle, xylophone, harp, and strings. Duration, 23 minutes.


David Diamond, whose 90th birthday occurs this year, was barely 20 when his early works, performed in New York and Philadelphia, attracted interest and encouragement from Aaron Copland and the critics Olin Downes and Paul Rosenfeld. He has been steadily and significantly productive ever since, receiving commissions, performances and prestigious recognition in many forms in the course of an active career spanning some seven decades. As musical fads and fashions have come and gone, Diamond has retained what Virgil Thomson described in writing about him as ?artistic integrity and real thought.? Diamond himself is on record as stating, ?It is easy to write unthinking music, but I don't think it's a good idea to write less than good music in a world that's full of a lot of indifferent music.?

Diamond has composed in virtually every genre?symphonies, string quartets, film music, incidental music for plays, opera, ballet, songs, choral pieces. He studied at the Cleveland Institute of Music, with Bernard Rogers at the University of Rochester's Eastman School of Music in his hometown, and with Paul Boepple and Roger Sessions at the Dalcroze Institute in New York. While in Paris later for study with Nadia Boulanger he made the acquaintance of numerous influential composers, performers and writers, and when he returned to New York his music was taken up by conductors, orchestras and chamber ensembles throughout America. After World War II he lived in Italy for 14 years; his return in 1965 coincided with his 50th birthday, which was celebrated with numerous performances and new commissions. He eventually returned to the family house in Rochester, from which base he commuted to teaching duties at the Juilliard School.

Shakespeare was a productive stimulus for Diamond: he composed a ?symphonic portrait? of Timon of Athens , a set of incidental music for Tempest , and both a concert suite and incidental music for Romeo and Juliet . While Cervantes's Don Quixote is said to be the single literary work that has given rise to the greatest number of musical ones, Shakespeare's various works combined have inspired a still greater number, and of them all Romeo and Juliet is far and away the one that has generated the greatest number of musical works. Diamond, however, may be the only composer to have responded to this single play with two entirely different works.

Four years after the premiere of the concert suite, which recorded at the time of its premiere, the producer Dwight Deere Wiman and the director Peter Glenville presented the play on Broadway. Olivia de Havilland, the Juliet in that production, had the recording of Diamond's suite and suggested using that music in the stage production. In an interview published with the Delos recording of the suite, Diamond recalled that the stage music turned out to be ?a completely independent work,? using no material from the concert suite:

When I got to rehearsal, they started talking about chopping up the long, sustained movements I had written, and I said, ?Nothing doing?if it's agreeable to you, I'd prefer to write a whole new score.? So there is a separate Romeo and Juliet suite, which is not published but is sometimes rented out to accompany productions of the play.

The concert suite of 1947, while laid out in five separate movements, might be regarded as a five-part tone poem comprising impressions of the drama's major characters and some of its specific scenes: 1. An Overture , setting the general mood. 2. Balcony Scene, with prominent passages for violin and viola representing the two lovers; Romeo and Friar Laurence ; 4. Juliet and her Nurse ; 5. The death of Romeo and Juliet .