Irving Fine: An American Composer in His Time
Excerpt (Chapter 7, pp. 61-71) from Irving Fine: An American Composer in His Time by Phillip Ramey (Pendragon Press in association with the Library of Congress). Copyright 2005 by Phillip Ramey. Used with permission of the author and Pendragon Press. No part of this article may be reproduced, photocopied, or distributed through any means without permission.
The year 1944 saw not only Fine’s initial efforts at criticism and the beginning of his friendship with Copland, but also the composition of two new works, one negligible, the other not. In November, he wrote Copland that he hoped to be able to come to New York in the near future, because “I shall soon be in the chips, since the advertising stuff came through. They now want a serenade and an intermezzo.” The reference was to piano music commissioned by the Verney Fabrics Corporation of New York City, for an ad announcing their “Newsong” line of fabrics. According to Verna, under the terms of this odd but obviously lucrative assignment, Fine’s music would be used exclusively for advertising. In an ad in Harper’s Bazaar magazine in early 1945, a partial view of the first page of a Serenade for piano is juxtaposed with a female model wearing a dress and gloves in a pattern of loops, squiggles and squares, the latter possibly meant to invoke music manuscript. The hideous concoction, called “Album Print,” is described as “textured harmonies created from today’s challenging variety of synthetic fibres.” What can be seen of the Serenade (the score seems to have disappeared, perhaps into the Verney Fabrics file cabinets) shows a graceful and melancholy waltzlike piece, harmonically conventional. Considering the circumstances of its appearance, Fine may have felt relief that his music went uncredited.
Fine’s principal achievement in 1944 was the completion on October 23 of The Choral New Yorker, subtitled Four Choral Patterns with Piano Obbligato. He found his texts in The New Yorker Book of Verse, an anthology of poems that had been published in that magazine between 1925 and 1935, and the poets he chose were relatively unknown. His musical idiom is eclectic and has a good deal of variety: tonal, lyrical, but often relatively dissonant. The latter element, as always with choral writing, presents a higher level of performance difficulty than in more consonant music, certainly as compared to the previous Alice in Wonderland settings. In addition, the substantial accompaniment requires a rhythmically alert pianist.
The character of the music in each of the four pieces is quite different, keeping with the nature of the poems, while the part-writing is continually inventive, at times conceptually virtuosic. For elegance and sophistication, especially as regards color contrasts, The Choral New Yorker exceeds even the brilliant Alice, every bar showing Fine to be a master of the choral medium. As one critic put it a few years later, in this work “his remarkable technical equipment came forth to the use of the will to write.”
The first piece, Prologue: “Hen Party” (Moderato ma ben rimato), dedicated to Fine’s father, features a perky and declamatory vocal part that corresponds nicely to Peggy Bacon’s wickedly satiric description of gossiping women. (“The pack gathers on the black Sunday/Mrs. Lathers and Mrs. Grundy give a party for all the witches; In aged ermine, the Queen viper, the Ace of vermin/The Pied Piper overlooked her and Cotton Mather should have cooked her.”) Occasional echoes of Stravinsky and perhaps Poulenc can be heard in this vivacious yet droll music. The choral part is for mixed voices (SATB) with soprano solo.
Scherzando: “Caroline Million” follows without pause, connected by a semitonally dissonant D-natural from the last chord of the prologue. It is set for four-part treble chorus (SSM) with soprano and alto solos. The text, by Kentuckian Isabel McLennan McMeekin, concerns a bloodthirsty, century-old hillbilly woman who sits by her fireplace smoking a corncob pipe and fingering a Bible: “Hot with desire to kill her lumpy daughter and feed her to the crows.” This lively and witty music is jazzily syncopated, subdivision occurring within regular meter (thus, 4/4 divided into 3+3+2). The style sometimes approaches that of a Broadway musical, but never lapses into vulgarity.
Dedicated “to my Parents,” the third number, Concertante: “Pianola d’Amore” (Allegro risoluto), is scored for three-part men’s chorus (TBB). The determinedly silly text, by David McCord, evokes English comic-madrigal style as filtered through Gilbert and Sullivan. (“Sing hey, sing ho, sing heigh-o/For the blue that’s in the sky-o.”) Appropriately, Fine’s music—beginning with a spirited, almost jazzy piano introduction—is tonal, jolly and rhythmic. The syncopated staccato accompaniment chatters along with the chorus, at one point indulging in an assenive little bitonal cadenza. The ending is humorously abrupt.
The finale, Epilogue: “Design for October” (Lento), scored for mixed voices (SATE) with baritone solo, sounds an impressively elegiac note. A simple progression of mildly dissonant chords, used to great expressive purpose, is its foundation. Simplicity is also the hallmark of the poem, by “Jake Falstaff” (pseudonym of Herman Fetzer), a lament for the passing of summer: “Then I heard a voice saying summer is gone!/Gravely I watched the summer die, and the last of the crying geese go by/Summer is ended!” In their American-vernacular, open-air sound, the quiet piano introduction and the initial baritone solo suggest the Copland of Billy the Kid and Our Town; and indeed the influence of Copland prevails throughout, both in harmony and rhetoric. The choral writing is extremely mellifluous, albeit traditional, seeming so even during the dramatic dissonance that occurs in the piano part when set against unison chorus at the words “No more at morning will you hear the crying geese of the dawn.” With its uncomplicated means and direct sentiment, Design for October impresses as the emotional crown of this splendid cycle.
The Choral New Yorker was given its first performance (under the title Four Choral Patterns from The New Yorker) in Cambridge at Sanders Theater on January 25, 1945. The combined forces of the Harvard Glee Club and the Radcliffe Choral Society were conducted by G. Wallace Woodworth, with Fine at the piano. The only newspaper review noted disapprovingly that this was “music of a brittle, cynical quality, consisting of one part jazz and one part ragtime.” Witmark published the score the following year, and, upon receiving a copy) the Argentinian composer Albeno Ginastera wrote to Fine, praising the music as “very attractive and interesting” and citing his “magnificent technique.” Nevertheless, The Choral New Yorker would never rival the popularity of the Alice sets.
Fine continued to be active as a performer in 1945, assuming the conductorship of the chorus and chamber orchestra of the Harvard-Radcliffe Music Clubs and accompanying a soprano at Cambridge’s Fogg Museum that April in a program of songs by Brahms, Bach, Mozart, Faure, Debussy, Ravel, T chaikovsky and Gershwin. His teaching schedule at Harvard remained constant, and on March 25 the Boston Herald announced his promotion to faculty instructor in music, beginning July 1. Verna remembered that after the war the incoming students were older, more mature and serious: “nice, bright kids who had been in the military. They were almost our generation and we enjoyed going out and having drinks with them. They weren’t looking for fraternities and binges, but were interested in studying. Those were Irving’s best music students at Harvard.”
Fine had long been critical of the music department’s indifference, even hostility, to the performance element in education, and in Tillman Merritt, who became chairman in 1942, he found an ally. Verna noted that “Irving had a lot of trouble at Harvard because it was run by musicologists and they weren’t interested in live music. He fought to introduce the Basic Piano course.” According to Daniel Pinkham, it wasn’t until the late 1950s, when pianist Luise Vosgerchian joined the faculty, that “they began to take into consideration that a good performer might somehow nourish and bring insights into musicology.” He remembered “old President Eliot” who, when confronted with a proposal to give academic credit for piano lessons, declared, “But that’s manual labor!” And a faculty meeting during which Merritt praised a student as “a very good scholar and, moreover, a wonderful pianist,” whereupon composer Randall Thompson responded loftily: “Oh, he plays the piano. Why, that’s one of the social graces.” Pinkham described Merritt, who was chairman of the music department from 1942 to 1952, and again from 1968 to 1972, as “a very curious character. Back in the 1940s, he was one of the most popular teachers on the campus from the point of view of the students. Then something happened to him and all the charm and jolliness disappeared. He became bitter and distant.” Thompson, he said, “was probably enslaved by his wife, who owned Union Carbide. They had a beautiful, Federal-style house in Cambridge, but Mrs. Thompson would never let any of Randall’s colleagues come to dinner because she considered them declassé.”
According to Elliot Forbes, in his book A History of Music at Harvard to 1972, “by 1945 a wide-ranging change was in the making…stemming from Merritt’s determination that students should make music as well as read about it.” All candidates for admission as music majors were now expected “to show proficiency on a musical instrument,” and before graduating each student must “demonstrate a minimal ability to play the piano.” Merritt instituted the new Basic Piano program, and he wanted, in his words, “a highly competent pianist and teacher” imbued with “the scholarly ideals of the Harvard Music Department” to direct it. He chose Fine. Basic Piano, said Merritt, “is a real innovation at Harvard.” It was “not for the sake of training piano virtuosi,” but simply to make certain “that every student can use piano as a tool in his work.”
Retrospectively appraising the situation at Harvard in a 1948 article, Fine noted that “in a place with the traditions of Harvard there is the problem of overcoming inertia and prejudice.” Given without fee, the Basic Piano program had grown out of the discovery that some students “were articulate about music, but were musically inarticulate [because] the kind of music education some of our graduates were leaving with was at best two-dimensional, and at its worst superficial.” Merritt’s and Fine’s post-war ideal for Harvard was to produce a “university musician,” meaning “a man of broad interests and sympathies—no narrow specialist [but] a completely equipped musician able to perform on an instrument with competence [and] well grounded in theory [and] familiar with the styles and periods of music history.” Even more important than musicological expertise, however, a student should be “intimately acquainted with a small portion of musical literature.” The two men had decided that “the ability to perform on the piano was a necessary adjunct to most of these activities, and therefore concluded that the piano was an indispensable tool in any serious study of music.”
In his report, Fine deplored the Harvard music department’s continuing conservatism and the tenacious emphasis on theory and history. “Although it moves in the right direction, the  Harvard [applied music] program, in my opinion, does not go far enough. It is inadequate in that it considers performance merely as an adjunct to other things—as a tool for theoretical studies, and as a means of getting at music for the sake of analysis and historical investigation. It makes no direct provision, however, for the enjoyment of music as an art (unless it be through listening).” Stressing performing skills, Fine observed that, though improved, the 1945 program “makes no provision for instruction in other instruments” than the piano. This failure, he felt, “impoverishes the musical life of the university community.” He recommended not only more piano instruction but lessons in orchestral instruments, and concluded his essay on a sour note: “It is apparent today that technological advances are progressively restricting the demand for professional musicians. There is a growing danger that Americans will become a nation of musical spectators.”
The Basic Piano program began in the fall of 1945, and Fine received a five-year appointment to the faculty. Ever doubting, he had written to Copland the previous winter that although the music department had suggested the appointment, he was not sure the administration would approve it, “since I am not distinguished enough to reward in such a way.”
On September 12, just before the start of the term, Fine wrote to Copland that the still-deserted Harvard music building “is a rather noisy place these days. They are putting air- conditioning and sound proofing in the basement for the new practice-rooms that we are installing for our applied-music program.” A few weeks later, he noted that although his schedule involved teaching twenty-five hours a week, he did not find it oppressive. “My only regret is that there is no time for the things I like best. I have had to drop out of the Glee Club and to shelve composition for a while.” The latter allusion was to a work for violin and piano on which Fine had labored during the summer months. With the austerities of the war years a thing of the past, he and Verna spent much of that period in a rented cottage in Centerville, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod: “a little six-room job with three bedrooms, completely furnished with every convenience [including] an oil stove and a fireplace.” Despite such comforts, creative work did not go well, the weather was often bad and he missed seeing other musicians, so that by August he was depressed and frustrated. “This vacation is too long,” he grumbled to Copland, “and I am becoming lazy and jumpy. I suppose that I should be happiest punching a clock at eight every morning and leaving for home, the wife and the kiddies at five in the afternoon. It will be good to get back into some kind of routine.” One of the summer’s rare pleasures was a visit from Harold Shapero: “Harold was down for a few days last month, played his serenade [in D major for string orchestra] for me (his technical grasp is more extraordinary than ever), improvised constantly, went fishing for one afternoon and departed the next day.”
Fine had borrowed a violin and was trying to learn its secrets. “Thus far I can play the first page in Sevcik’s ‘Preparatory Trill Exercises’ [and] the G major scale and arpeggio. Most of the time is spent in figuring out various triple-stop combinations, harmonics, etc. It is probably a great waste of time, and agony for Verna, but seems a good way to pass the rainy days.” He engaged a violin teacher, “a kindly middle-aged lady who is constantly reliving her student days in Berlin.” But on August 13 he wrote that “I am already past shame in admitting that I have done little or nothing.” Nonetheless, on returning to Cambridge in September, he informed Copland that “actually, I have written one movement of a sonata for violin and piano and that needs plenty of retouching. This is my sole achievement during the summer. I don’t think it’s bad.” He remarked that Verna liked the music and then described it as “depressingly piddling.” “In my present scheme of things,” he said, “a minute’s music is a tremendous accomplishment.” Mentioning the “highly neurotic state” of David Diamond, recently described to him by Leonard Bernstein, Fine observed that “my present experience is that nerves and writing don’t mix, but then there are numerous instances to disapprove that theory.”
The only work that Fine completed in 1945 was a three-minute piece in E-flat major and simple A-B-A form for a cappella women’s chorus (SSA) entitled A Short Alleluia. Although gesturally clichéd (similar to most alleluias through the ages), this music is rendered effective and attractive by its frequent meter changes, carefully calculated dynamics and an unexpected modulation at the climax, leading to a stern dissonance that resolves to a pure B-flat-minor chord. It was written for the Bryn Mawr College Chorus, but whether that group ever performed it is not known. A Short Alleluia was published posthumously in 1973. Meanwhile, in late 1945, Fine privately plied his critical skills in a letter to Copland, with capsule evaluations of new works played by the Boston Symphony. “We have had three premieres within the past month,” he reported. “Martinu’s Third [Symphony] (worth about a B+), Menotti’s [piano] concerto (grade C trivia) and Prokofiev’s new symphony [No.5] (exhilarating but not worth all the fanfare it got).” In the same letter, Fine expressed disappointment with a recent Foss piece. “Lukas has played his ‘Song of Anguish’ for us (also for Boulanger, Harold and anybody else he can snare into listening) .It is relatively free of the usual influences, and yet seems less fresh than his ‘Prairie’ or symphony. In spite of some beautiful passages I feel that he falls considerably short of the emotional level of the text (excerpts from Isaiah).” Soon after, at the same time he was writing the harsh appraisal of the Boston Symphony’s mini-festival of British music that would appear in Modern Music, an incensed Fine told Copland: “We have entered upon a desert-like stretch in so far as the symphony concerts are concerned. Sir Adrian Boult is conducting and a more apathetic-rather, dull, individual I have never seen upon a conductor’s podium. And who was it that talked about a Renaissance of English music? Talk about the provincialism of Sibelius. The affected rusticity and antiquarianism of guys like Vaughan Williams is far more obnoxious.” He found “particularly irritating” the “wave of anglophilia gripping Boston Symphony audiences” and denounced the orchestra’s management as “a notorious gang of tories who seem to believe that the British are great artists since they are all great people-brothers of Churchill, so to speak.”
In a January 20, 1946 letter to Copland, Fine noted that he was “copying the fiddle sonata-which means further revisions and delay. It has a cloying prettiness which I delude myself into thinking is depth and passion. There are shades of Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Brahms and a few live snatches of Stravinsky, Copland and Shapero.” In later years he would tend to deprecate his Sonata for Violin and Piano as a kind of sin-of-my-youth effort-an overly severe view that has, nonetheless, some validity. After reading through the sonata in 1955 with Joseph Fuchs, Fine wrote to Verna: “What a funny uneven young piece that is. Full of awfully nice things but so often inept in the way it progresses ftom idea to idea.” In a 1960 program note, he characterized it as “an early work belonging to a manner somewhat remote to its composer [today].” And in a 1958 letter, he stated that he had been “strongly under the influence of composers whom I admired (and still do!). Stylistically it can be related to Stravinsky and Copland; however, there are indefinable personal qualities in the sonata which characterize both it and all my subsequent works.”
In a work so saturated with derivations, it is difficult to know exactly what Fine meant by “indefinable personal qualities.” The sonata is basically a neoclassic score, especially in its lively rhythms and transparent textures. Stravinsky is certainly a strong influence (Arthur Cohn would write that Fine was ”as true a disciple as one could find”), and possibly Piston and Prokofiev, along with Copland and, oddly enough, Brahms, in relation to some of the harmonies and melodic outlines. (Noel Lee, who often performed the sonata, thought of it as “sort of Brahmsian-American neoclassic.”) The piece is well made, with considerable attention to detail, a concern for formal balance and symmetry everywhere evident. It is, at twenty minutes’ duration, a substantial concert work. Musical ideas are mostly diatonic and lyrical (requiring a violinist with good intonation in the high register), except when rhythmic energy, particularly in the piano part, predominates. Recognizing, as did Bartók, that the two instruments are sonically incompatible, Fine seldom allows them to share material but is careful to give them equal roles. The work is cast in three movements, the only time he would employ the standard fast- slow-fast format in any score.
An impartial appraisal of Fine’s violin sonata would have to note that it illustrates the tenet that his problem as a composer was never one of technique but rather of personality. Although some of the romantically soaring violin lines are unlike anything found in any of its avatars, as are occasional harmonic complications, at no point does a clear voice emerge. Yet the sonata’s eclectic virtues go far to make it an attractive and effective addition to the chamber repertory. Soon after it was finished, Fine showed it to Stravinsky, who thought the music “very sympathetic” and complimented “the clean quality of the writing.” Fine himself described the sonata’s idiom as being “essentially tonal, diatonic and moderately dissonant, neoclassic in its formal approach, and (according to some critics) neoromantic in its expressive attitudes.”
The first movement (Moderato; Allegro moderato, giusto) is in sonata form, as is the third movement, both, said the composer, “with one minor modification: the contraction of the recapitulation by omission or elision of the first theme group.” The lyrically poetic opening (marked dolce in the violin part) sets forth the thematic material (ending in a rich minor-second chord), which undergoes extensive development in the subsequent allegro. That section is playfully syncopated, with a pleasing continuity of contrasts between short, restless phrases and more sustained melodic writing that is interrupted by a fugue (the only one in Fine’s mature output). This last is dry and academic sounding and decidedly intrusive, but it should be noted that the first three notes will generate the following movement’s theme and, by slight stretch of imagination, the fugue-subject can be heard as being related to the rhythmic opening of the finale. A sparkling little coda brings the movement to its end.
Fine stated that the structure of the lyrical second movement (Lento con moto) is “more difficult to describe” than the outer movements. “The first part of the exposition contains the initial double theme (or theme with countermelody in the piano), transition and closing theme; the second part omits the transition and adds a brief coda. In the recapitulation, the opening theme is entrusted to the piano, the countermelody to the violin. [Here,] the medium is treated in duo fashion, the two instruments often being treated in free and occasionally imitative polyphony.” The movement begins in Copland’s most seductive, “white-note” style (excepting two saccharine violin glissandi), and then, after some melodramatic rhetoric and a return of the opening lyricism, becomes rather diffuse harmonically. Partaking of variation technique, this curiously constructed movement is essentially romantic in expression.
Fine described the high-spirited finale (Vivo) as “more bravura in character.” It contains mildly virtuosic violin writing and a piano part abounding in tricky rhythms. Bowing effects such as martellato, saltando, détaché, and richochet add color, as do occasional triple-stop pizzicato chords. The music is rhythmically intricate throughout, with striking contrasts between the instruments. Near the end, material from the first movement returns in the piano for a gripping allargando climax. The work ends with a short, brittle but witty coda.
Fine’s Sonata for Violin and Piano had a tryout performance at Harvard on February 6, 1947, performed by its dedicatees, violinist Angel Reyes and composer-pianist Jacques de Menasce. The official premiere was given by the same forces in New York a few days later, on February 9, at Times Hall, along with sonatas by Prokofiev, Milhaud and de Menasce. Both program books listed the Fine sonata as a first performance. Writing in the New York Sun, Harold C. Schoenberg thought it displayed “a worthy modicum of individuality and a satisfactory feeling of events proceeding to a logical conclusion.” Howard Taubman observed in the New York Times: “To one hearing music by Mr. Fine for the first time it signalized the arrival of a gifted composer. This sonata has logic and lucidity, tasteful workmanship and abundant vitality. If [it] reflects more of energy than depth, to judge it from a single hearing, that is not a bad balance for an up and coming composer.” Two weeks later, on April 24, the sonata had its formal Boston premiere, at the Institute of Modern Art. This time, the performers were Alfred Krips and Fine himself. The program also had works by Shapero, Foss, Talma and Cop- land, and Fine and Foss served as a duo-piano team in Copland’s Danzon Cubano and Talma’s Four Handed Fun.
The performance of the violin sonata in New York marked Fine’s debut as a composer outside the Boston area, and the score was published by Witmark a year later. His first instrumental composition for the concert hall had fared well.