In Conversation with Phillip Ramey

  • READ an excerpt from Irving Fine: An American Composer in His Time by Phillip Ramey (published by Pendragon Press in association with the Library of Congress).


    Frank J. Oteri: In the prefatory note to your biography of Irving Fine, you revealed that you never knew him. So, what compelled you to embark on this project?

    Phillip Ramey
    photo by Vittorio Santoro

    Phillip Ramey: His widow, the late Verna Fine, was an old friend who I knew through our mutual friend Aaron Copland. She commissioned the book because she was aware that I admired Fine’s music, and she told me she had implicit trust in me as a writer. We agreed that the book should be readable, which precluded the sort of harmonic analysis favored by the Perspectives of New Music crowd.

    FJO: I was struck by your inclusion of excerpts from Fine’s critical writings about music. His barbs into Martinu and Vaughan Williams seem particularly harsh at times. You also include some harsh criticism of Fine’s music by music critics of the day. You, like Fine, have also navigated the divide between composition and criticism. Has Fine been a model for you in balancing these two frequently antagonistic realms?

    PR: No, because I was composing music and writing program notes and liner essays long before I was familiar with Fine’s music; and I knew nothing about his published criticism until I began to research the book. Insofar as the occasional harshness of Fine’s criticisms, my attitude is that he had the right to be harsh because he was himself a skilled composer and could be trusted to have intelligent reasons for his opinions whether one agreed with them or not. But most critics are not practicing musicians (and some can’t even read scores) and therefore, to my mind, do not have that right. Their opinions cannot be taken seriously, unlike those of Fine, or Virgil Thomson or Arthur Berger, for instance.

    FJO: The level of critical discourse at that time was obviously very different from our own: there were so many opposing viewpoints being published simultaneously. But, do you feel Fine’s criticism was fair? Do you feel the criticism of his work by others was fair?

    PR: I’ve covered most of your points in the previous answer. But now you use the word “fair.” I’ll simply say that, in general, I think it would be better if newspaper criticism didn’t exist. It’s an unnecessary evil, mostly harmful to composers and performers. The public has no idea what dumbbells write for some of the major newspapers, The New York Times not excepted. The pianist William Kapell went so far as to term music criticism “this dirty profession,” and Ned Rorem’s aphorism—”Critics of words use words. Critics of music use words”—would seem to call into question all music criticism. A case, however, can be made for critical studies of music grounded in scholarly methodology. I’ve should stress that I’ve never been a critic, only an annotator, which is a very different thing.

    FJO: A far cry from the typical classical music hero worshipping biography, your book is a frank critical assessment of both his music and his life which is rather candid about his occasional compositional shortcomings as well as his personal foibles (extramarital affairs etc). You also devote a great deal of space to his academic life and problems with tenure etc. What motivated you to create such a frank and complete portrait of Fine?

    PR: Are classical-music biographies typically hero-worshipping? I’m presently reading the second volume of Stephen Walsh’s Stravinsky biography and notice in it a certain amount of the great composer’s warts. That sort of information has validity when imparted in an intelligent, tasteful manner. What I hate are biographies à la Joan Peyser that indulge in psychobabble, books that are vulgar, untrustworthy and useless. Above all, a biographer should stick to facts and, if possible, record the anecdotes and opinions of those who knew his subject—which is what I did, for the most part, in the Fine book. As far as Fine’s affair at the MacDowell Colony, Verna Fine told me about it initially and wanted it in the book, especially as her husband set some of his mistress’s poems. Verna revealed quite a few of his foibles in the two interviews I was able to conduct in late 1999 before her sudden, unexpected death. But even if she hadn’t, I would have questioned Fine’s friends, colleagues and psychiatrist (though the latter was understandably discreet), so as to paint the portrait not just of a musician but of a human being.

    FJO: Though Fine has sometimes been marginalized by critics as a Stravinsky imitator, your book points out that he actually began experimenting with serial techniques before Stravinsky. You also point to the Partita for Wind Quintet as a major contribution to that genre. Ultimately was Fine an innovator or a consolidator?

    PR: I don’t think of Fine as an innovator. Not at all. For instance, even if he did start using twelve-tone technique before Stravinsky (who came to it cautiously and gradually), I’m sure that hearing his friend Copland’s Piano Quartet (which uses an eleven-note row with a whole-tone basis and is far from being atonal) was the deciding factor for Fine insofar as the overt serialism of his String Quartet. And his longtime infatuation with Stravinskian neoclassicism (with which his teacher Nadia Boulanger infected so many of her students) is hardly innovatory.

    FJO: In your narrative, the leap from neoclassicism to serialism seems like a natural progression for Fine and many other composers. But was it really? You state that Fine never completely embraced serial procedures in his music.

    PR: Even Stravinsky eventually got bored with neoclassicism. Fine was a brilliant copycat: you only have to listen to the marvelously Stravinskian Toccata Concertante to realize that. But serialism was in the wind in the late 1940s and early 1950s, aggressively promoted by, especially, Pierre Boulez, and neither Copland, Fine nor Stravinsky was immune to it. In the right hands, aspects of Schoenberg’s system could produce remarkable music by way of style expansion: for instance, Copland’s Inscape, Fine’s Symphony (1962) and Stravinsky’s Requiem Canticles. Fine was worried at the time of the String Quartet that he hadn’t written any important music, that his neoclassic scores were somehow trivial. The dodecaphonic method proved invigorating for him.

    FJO: In the years following Fine’s premature death, we’ve witnessed the rejection of serialism by a wide array of now very prominent composers, the rise of minimalism as well as other forms of tonal music influenced by current popular music forms. There’s also been a critical reevaluation of composers who never embraced atonality. My sense of this history has always been that the schism between tonally-oriented composers and their 12-tone brethren once ran quite deep. Yet Fine continued to create important music works in both idioms up until his death. Might that account for his not quite being fully embraced by either of these partisan camps at this point?

    PR: It’s possible. But I wonder if he was well enough known as a composer during his short lifetime for those partisan camps even to be aware of him.

    FJO: You describe Fine suffering from severe writer’s block several times in the book. Combine that with his composing slowly plus almost always having teaching responsibilities, and the result is that his overall oeuvre was quite small. Might the paucity of Fine’s compositional output be part of why his music is not more widely acknowledged?

    PR: Again, it’s possible. But having a small output is not necessarily a bad thing, for if interest does arise in such a composer it’s easy to focus on him. This is unlike the case of an extraordinarily prolific composer such as Bohuslav Martinu, for all of his qualities; or even my teacher Alexander Tcherepnin, for all of his.

    FJO: The fact that Fine died while still in his 40s is obviously also a factor here. How might his music have progressed had he lived longer? Do you think he would have continued along a serial path or would have ultimately rejected it as did a number of his colleagues?

    PR: I suspect that if Fine had lived longer he would have incorporated some elements of serialism into his essentially tonal, romantic style and emphasized the long-lined lyricism he had previously proved himself capable of producing in a convincing if not always individual manner. I wish he had managed to compose the violin concerto he began just before his death. Although he made row charts for it, the fragmentary sketches are most often tonally based.

    FJO: Fine’s music continues to be performed and recorded more than 40 years after his death, yet he is ultimately perceived by concert music lovers as a peripheral figure, if known at all. In the pantheon of American composers of the 20th century where does Fine rank in your opinion? How about among contemporary composers worldwide or classical music history in total?

    PR: I would rank him high in the American pantheon of his period, not only because of the compelling expressive qualities of most of his scores but due to their careful structuring and detail. Remember, he was a perfectionist, and perfectionists can be their own worst enemies in the matter of quantity. Personally, I think it’s better to leave a small amount of perfected works than to spew scores like Telemann or Villa- Lobos.

    FJO: How is your own music related to the music of Irving Fine?

    PR: It’s not. My main influences were Prokofiev and Bartók early on, before I found what I hope is a personal style. Copland’s twelve-tone procedures may have had something to do with my only serially inflected piece, the Piano Fantasy, but that dates from back in 1972. My Horn Concerto, commissioned by the New York Philharmonic and premiered in 1993, is virtuosic and mildly dissonant but has nothing to do with Irving Fine stylistically or technically: in fact, there is a declamatory motif that was inspired by something similar in the Fourth Symphony of Sergei Taneyev, no less! But, as I’ve said, Fine is a composer I admire, and I think his only symphony is a near-masterpiece despite a few derivations.

    FJO: In some ways this book is much more than a biography of one composer; it’s a time portal into a bygone era in American history, a group portrait of a whole circle of composers including Fine but also Copland, Harold Shapero and Arthur Berger with important cameos by Stravinsky, Bernstein, Foss and others. Ultimately, what do you hope readers of this book will glean from it?

    PR: Exactly what you have just pointed out: I’m told by Fine’s pupil Richard Wernick, who wrote the forward, that no other book has dealt as thoroughly with that group of composers and their interactions during that period. (I was pleased with the reaction of Fine’s close friend Harold Shapero, who sent me an e-mail that read: “You have written a remarkable book and have created Irving’s story very much as I remember it. I don’t know how you managed to do this, considering you didn’t know him. Thumbs entirely up!”) There is also a lot of information now collected in one place about the academic scene then, especially as regards Harvard University and Brandeis University, in the latter of which Fine’s importance is impossible to exaggerate. (I am not an academic type, and researching and writing the Brandeis chapter nearly drove me crazy with boredom, but it had to be done.) What I most hope, of course, is that readers of this book will be curious enough to acquaint or reacquaint themselves with Fine’s impressive musical legacy.