Composer Vivian Fine wrote ballet scores for Martha Graham and José Limón, as well as a significant body of orchestral, vocal, and chamber music—140 compositions in all. “Ms. Fine composed in a style that evolved gracefully over the years,” Allan Kozinn wrote in the New York Times. “Her early works, with their expressive dissonance, inventive counterpoint, and sharp rhythmic edges, reflect both the influence of her teacher, Roger Sessions, and the practical demands of writing for modern dance groups.”
Born on September 28, 1913, in Chicago, Illinois, it was almost immediately obvious to Fine’s Russian-Jewish parents that she was a piano prodigy. Her parents took her often to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and encouraged her interest in new music. From the age of five, when she earned a scholarship to the Chicago Musical College, she enjoyed “many more musical awards and honors leading to a virtually uninterrupted career composing music until old age,” according to her biography on the Schirmer music website. She began her studies with Djane Lavoie-Herz, a student of Scriabin, in 1924. Ruth Crawford Seeger and Adolf Weidig were among her first teachers of composition in Chicago. Crawford was impressed with Fine’s ability to compose, even as a child. Lullaby was her first written composition.
Fine left high school in 1928 to focus her energies on her music studies, and she became a student of Henry Cromwell, whose own experimental work was considered shocking at the time. Her style was avant-garde and dissonant—it belonged to an emerging genre called ultramodern music. “Most of her music from this period was atonal,” according to Schirmer, “and her captivating sense of innovation and youthful genius intrigued numerous new music mavens in Chicago.” Her Solo for Oboe debuted at the Pan American Association of Composers in 1930.
Fine moved to New York City in 1931 and continued her piano studies with Abby Whiteside. She also caught the attention of legendary composer Aaron Copland, who took her under his wing as a member of his “young composers group,” many of whom went on to famous careers. In 1934 she became a student of renowned composer Roger Sessions, who, according to Schirmer, shaped her “trademark dissonance, her sometimes startling, Wunderkind juxtapositions of musical structures” into “tonal structures, but with a new sense of complexity foreshadowing the great music dramas of her later work.” She married sculptor Benjamin Karp in 1935.
Fine made her living as a rehearsal pianist for New York dance companies in the mid-1930s. She eventually began composing for them as well, and became associated with the emerging modern dance movement. Her work was shaped by the demands of choreography, and she became synonymous with modern dance. Among her acclaimed works for dance are The Race of Life (1937) for Doris Humphrey, Opus 51 (1938) for Charles Weidman, and Tragic Exodus and They Too Many Are Exiles (both 1939) for Hanya Holm. She later composed Alcestis (1960) for Martha Graham and My Son, My Enemy (1965) for José Limón.
Her symphonic works include Elegiac Song for muted strings (1937) and Meeting for Equal Rights 1866 for soprano, baritone, narrator, and chorus (1976). The concert piece, which required three conductors, was funded through the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), as were several of her other compositions. Fine published her first orchestral work, Concertante for piano and orchestra, in 1944, while she was a studying orchestration with conductor George Szell.
Fine was a champion of American music and a founding member of the American Composers Alliance in 1938; she served as the group’s vice president from 1961 to 1965. A feminist as well, she rejected the notion that composers could be defined by their sex. “I hope the term ‘woman composer’ will be dropped soon,” she told New York Times. “I think we are in a better place than we were 20 years ago. Women are accepted in literature, painting, and sculpture. We don’t talk of ‘poetesses’ anymore. And women performers as soloists—singers, pianists, violinists—have been accepted for a long time.”
One of her best-known works, the 1978 opera The Women in the Garden, features an imagined conversation between writers Virginia Woolf, Isadora Duncan,
Born on September 28, 1913, in Chicago, IL; died on March 20, 2000, in Bennington, VT; married Benjamin Karp (a sculptor), 1935; two children. Education: Attended Chicago Musical College, c. 1918.
Studied with Djane Lavoie-Herz, Ruth Crawford Seeger, and Adolf Weidig; moved to New York City, 1931; became a rehearsal pianist for dance companies, c. 1935; helped found the American Composers Alliance, 1938; taught composition as an adjunct professor at New York University, 1945-48; taught at the Juilliard School of Music, 1948; taught at State University of New York at Potsdam, 1951-87.
Gertrude Stein, and Emily Dickinson, using quotations from their writings. The work was funded by an individual grant from the NEA. Her last major work, a multimedia opera called The Memoirs of Uliana Rooney (1994) explored the life of a female composer through the twentieth century and featured a libretto by writer and filmmaker Sonya Friedman. The work is clearly autobiographical, loosely reflecting her own experiences, but includes aspects of the lives of Alma Mahler and Ruth Crawford Seeger as well.
When electronic recording became possible in the 1960s and 1970s, Fine characteristically embraced the new technology. With the ability to record different tracks, Fine developed “her innovative ‘layering’ style” for Missa Brevis, according to Schirmer, as well as to her later acoustic works.
Fine also enjoyed a distinguished teaching career, teaching composition as an adjunct professor at New York University from 1945-48 and at the Juilliard School of Music in 1948. She was an adjunct professor at the State University of New York at Potsdam in 1951, and parlayed a part-time teaching position at Bennington College in Vermont into a full-time faculty position in 1969 that lasted until her 1987 retirement.
Fine was elected to membership in the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1979 and won a Guggenheim Fellowship for composition in 1980. The San Francisco Symphony honored her with a “Vivian Fine Week” retrospective of her work in 1983. The Symphony commissioned Drama for Orchestra for the occasion, a work that was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. The city of Boston followed suit in 1989 with its own “Vivian Fine Week,” and presented the composer with a key to the city.
Fine died on March 20, 2000, at age 86 at the Southern Vermont Medical Center in Bennington, Vermont, the result of injuries sustained in a car crash. She was survived by a sister, Adelaide Fine, and two daughters, Peggy Karp and Nina Karp.
Solo for Oboe, 1930.
Elegiac Song (strings), 1937.
Prelude (string quartet), 1937.
The Race of Life, 1937.
Opus 51, 1938.
Too Many Are Exiles, 1939.
Tragic Exodus, 1939.
Concertante (piano, orchestra), 1944.
Guide to the Life Expectancy of a Rose, 1956.
Alcestis (ballet), 1960.
My Son, My Enemy, 1965.
Flicker (flute solo or piano right hand), 1973.
Meeting for Equal Rights 1866 (soprano, baritone, narrator, chorus), 1976.
Romantic Ode (violin, viola, cello, string orchestra), 1976.
Momenti (piano solo), 1978.
Quartet for Brass, 1978.
The Women in the Garden (opera), 1978.
Piano Trio, 1980.
Drama for Orchestra (opera), 1982.
Toccatas & Arias for harpsichord (keyboard), 1986.
Emily’s Images (flute, piano), 1987.
The Memoirs of Uliana Rooney (opera; multi-media), 1994.
Chicago Tribune, March 26, 2000, p. 8.
New York Times, March 24, 2000, p. 9.
Opera News, June 2000, p. 81.
“Vivian Fine,” All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (January 15, 2003).
“Vivian Fine,” G. Schirmer, Inc. and Associated Music Publishers, http://www.schirmer.com/composers/fine (January 15, 2003).
Fine, Vivian, American composer, teacher, and pianist; b. Chicago, Sept. 28, 1913; d. Bennington, Vt, March 20, 2000. She became a scholarship student in piano at the age of 5 at the Chicago Musical Coll.; she studied piano with Djane Lavoie-Herz, harmony and composition with Ruth Crawford and Adolf Weidig, and composition with Cowell; in 1931 she went to N.Y., where she studied piano with Whiteside, composition with Sessions, and orchestration with Szell; she also appeared as a pianist. She held teaching positions at N.Y. Univ. (1945–48), the Juilliard School of Music in N.Y. (1948), the State Univ. of N.Y. at Potsdam (1951), the Conn. Coll. School of Dance (1963–64), and Bennington (Vt.) Coll. (1964–87). In 1980 she received a Guggenheim fellowship and was elected to the American Academy and Inst. of Arts and Letters. She was particularly adept at writing vocal and instrumental works in a dissonant but acceptable style. In 1935 she married the sculptor Benjamin Karp.
DRAMATIC Theater : The Race of Life (1937; N.Y., Jan. 23, 1938); Opus 51 (Bennington, Vt., Aug. 6, 1938); Tragic Exodus (N.Y, Feb. 16, 1939); They Too Are Exiles (1939; N.Y., Jan. 7, 1940); Alcestis (NY., April 29, 1960); My Son, My Enemy (New London, Conn., Aug. 15, 1965). Opera : The Women in the Garden (1977; San Francisco, Feb. 12, 1978). ORCH.: Elegiac Song for Strings (1937; Lenox, Mass., Aug. 8, 1971); Concertante for Piano and Orch. (1944); Romantic Ode for Violin, Viola, Cello, and String Orch. (Bennington, Vt., Aug. 28, 1976); Drama for Orchestra (1982; San Francisco, Jan. 5, 1983); Poetic Fires for Piano and Orch. (1984; N.Y., Feb. 21, 1985, composer soloist); Dancing Winds (1987); After the Tradition for Chamber Orch. (1988). CHAMBER: String Trio (1930); Prelude for String Quartet (1937); Capriccio for Oboe and String Trio (1946); Violin Sonata (1952); String Quartet (1957); 3 Pieces for Flute, Bassoon, and Harp (1961); Dreamscape for 3 Flutes, Cello, Piano, and Percussion Ensemble (1964); Chamber Concerto for Solo Cello, Oboe, Violin, Viola, Cello, Double Bass, and Piano (1966); Quintet for String Trio, Trumpet, and Harp (1967); Brass Quintet (1978); Piano Trio (1980); Quintet for Oboe, Clarinet, Violin, Cello, and Piano (1984); Cello Sonata (1986); also piano pieces; other works for solo instruments. VOCAL : The Great Wall of China for Medium Voice, 2 Violins, Viola, and Cello (1947); Psalm 13 for Baritone, Women’s Chorus, and Piano or Organ (1953); Valedictions for Soprano, Tenor, Chorus, and 10 Instruments (1959); Epitaph for Chorus and Orch. (1967; Bennington, Vt., Nov. 5, 1983); Sounds of the Nightingale for Soprano, Women’s Chorus, and Nonet (1971); Meeting for Equal Rights, 1866 for Soprano, Baritone, Narrator, Chorus, and Orch. (N.Y, April 23, 1976); 3 Sonnets for Baritone and Orch. (Bennington, Vt., Dec. 12, 1976); Ode to Purcell for Medium Voice and String Quartet (1984).
H. Von Gunden, The Music of V. F. (Lanham, Md., 1999).
—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire