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Vivian Fine

By Arthur Berger

I met Vivian Fine around nineteen hundred thirty. We were fellows in a band of young composers that Aaron Copland had brought together for the purpose of exchanging ideas and keeping abreast of the current musical scene. We were known as the “Young Composers Group” and some of us went on to big things in later years: Bernard Herrmann of Hollywood fame, who did the music for Citizen Kane and several Hitchcock films, and Paul Bowles, who did not tarry with us long since he soon went on to life in Morocco as a novelist.

Vivian was the only woman but there was no problem at all about her fitting in. Like the rest of us she profited from the advantages that membership in the group, as well as Copland’s sponsorship, afforded us. The group was modeled after the bad boys of the French “Six” which had revolved around Erik Satie and had had Alfred Cocteau to promote it. Making a bit of noise to alert the public was part of its program. One of the most notable accomplishments of the Young Composers Group was to draw attention to Charles Ives, working with Henry Cowell to bring the seminal master’s work before the public at a time when he was almost completely unknown.

By the mid-thirties the members of the Young Composers Group began to feel that there was no longer the need for group action, and were ready to go off by themselves. Unlike the members of the “Six” they had had no unified platform to keep them together. Fine’s early music, for example, was what in those days was described as “ultra-modern”—hard as nails, eschewing expressivity and relentlessly dissonant, but with a redeeming musicality and personal expression. Others were pursuing a direction that was referred to with the somewhat opprobrious locution of neoclassicism—referring in particular to the music of Stravinsky and Copland. This was the direction I would take later until I finally succumbed to serialism. But in the early thirties I was absolutely mesmerized by the dissonant music that Vivian was writing. Almost none of our music was published, and we did not yet have the inexpensive methods of reproduction later provided by blueprint or Xerox. So I started laboriously copying out Vivian’s music by hand—her fugues in particular. Though we were approximately the same age, Vivian was much more advanced than I was in her music education. She had a scholarship to the Chicago Musical College when she was 5! I started my musical education with a routine neighborhood piano teacher at the age of 11. She was studying with one of our great American master composers Ruth Crawford Seeger. Fine was not only a student of Crawford, she was her protégé and friend. They shared many beliefs other than musical ones. In the volatile atmosphere of the nineteen thirties, leftist politics naturally figured prominently. Like others in the arts, Crawford and her composer husband Charles Seeger at first made the mistake of assimilating radical politics to radical art. Fine saw no contradiction in pursuing her stringent and intellectually demanding music while taking up the cause of the masses—even after the Seegers had essentially given up on the avant-garde and essentially devoted themselves to arranging folk songs. Eventually Fine turned to what has been described in Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians as a “markedly milder, almost diatonic” idiom—not that she had ever been particularly chromatic. This did not last long, for she returned to the use of some dissonance, but now with a mastery, so that the music no longer had the stringency it originally had. Her years of increasing association with the dance instilled her music with a rhythmic zest and a communicative power that was much to its advantage.

Vivian Fine’s accomplishments as a pianist which had remained with her since her days as a child prodigy became the basis of her qualification as one of the most sought after rehearsal accompanists for such celebrated modern dancers as Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman, and Hanya Holm. It was surely as the result of this activity that she was commissioned to write several modern dance scores of her own. Among those who did so was that wonderful master of modern dance, Martha Graham. In addition, through her contact with the dance patroness Bethsebee Rothschild, who depended upon her for advice, she managed to exert an influence over the music in general that was written for modern dance in America.

There is a certain irony and also a pathos in the fact that Vivian Fine survived into her mid-eighties in reasonable health only to be mowed down by an avoidable automobile accident. With Henry Brant and myself she was one of the three surviving members of what in the nineteen thirties had been the Young Composers Group. We shall miss Vivian Fine.

Read at the Academy Dinner Meeting on April 3, 2001.

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