Composer  Vivian  Fine
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Vivian Fine was one of the early generation of American women composers.  Born in 1913 in Chicago, she studied there and later in New York with, among others, Ruth Crawford.  Her career included both performing and composing, though, as she says, the composing was foremost in her thoughts.  She also taught at Bennington for many years.  More details of her life are in the profile which is presented at the bottom of this webpage.

Having known her through a few recordings, I was able to contact her and arrange a telephone interview late in 1986.  She was very cordial in our conversation, and seemed to enjoy the questions that I posed.

Before our appointment, she sent me several more recordings of her music, and while I was adjusting the equipment for the interview, we chatted about those discs . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    Let us start right there.  Are you basically pleased with the recordings that have been made of your music?

Vivian Fine:    Yes, I am.  I think there’s really not a single one that I’m disappointed in.  I’ve had good performers, and I think they have done my music justice.

BD:    Are you basically pleased with the live performances of your music that you have heard?

fineVF:    Now, yes.  I would say almost all the time now, I get very good performances.  There are an awful lot of gifted people out there, and they perform my music.  Actually they do music of every repertoire, and I’ve been very lucky and happy with what I’ve heard.

BD:    Do you think that modern music
yours or other’swill become part of the standard repertoire?

VF:    That’s a very difficult question.  At the moment, it doesn’t look like it.  Very few compositions enter the mainstream, but it’s too early to say anything about that.  Maybe not too early, but I’m not in a position to really comment on that, except that I don’t see it happening very much.

BD:    Is that the fault of the composers or the performers or the public, or just a combination of many things?

VF:    I would hesitate to use the word ‘fault.’  I think that the performance of music in the repertory began to take over quite a few years ago.  It wasn’t like this always.  In Beethoven’s time, the first performances of his compositions were an event.  But the development of virtuoso orchestras and virtuosi on many instruments, led, evidently, to an interest on the part of the public in performance of the old music.  Then the language of twentieth century music became more and more remote for a great many people.  What happened in art is interesting.  At the same time that cubism was developing, Schoenberg was developing his music.  But cubism caught on, so to speak.  It began to be used in everyday life after quite a while, but nevertheless it did catch on, and people don’t feel uncomfortable with cubism.  I don’t think that Schoenberg
’s music is basically more difficult than cubism was in the beginning, but it never got the household exposure that cubism did, so that most people — many peoplestill don’t feel comfortable with his middle and late works.

BD:    When you’re writing a piece, are you conscious of the public that will come to listen to it?

VF:    Not really.  There are different publics that come to listen to different music.  I’m often conscious of the organization, the orchestra or the particular instrumentalists who will be playing the work, and I try to write music that they will be happy and comfortable with.  This doesn’t mean that I alter my idiom for every different work that I write, but I am conscious of the performers.  I like to be conscious of the performers I’m writing for.

BD:    Do you write for those performers, or do you write for yourself?

VF:    I write for the performers.  That is, I write the music I want to write, but having a good performer in mind is stimulating to me.  If I know that a particularly fine artist is going to give the first performance of a work of mine, it’s a very stimulating and inspiring thing for me.  This is true of a composer like Mozart, too.  He had certain definite singers that he would write for.  He utilized people that were gifted in various ways.

BD:    If a piece that you have written for one person is going to be performed by an equally distinguished but very different performer, do you alter the piece at all?

VF:    No.  The performer then might perform it differently.  Technically I don’t write things that can’t be performed by many people, but just the sound of a particular performer’s voice or their instrumental sound is inspiring to me when I’m writing it.

BD:    You have that in your ear as you work?

VF:    Yes, I do.

BD:    Do you ever go back and revise works at all for any reason?

VF:    Rarely.  I prefer to go on and write new pieces.  Sometimes, I might use a part of a work that wasn’t totally successful, and incorporate it into a new work and weave a new work around that.  But in general, I don’t revise works that have already been performed.  I find it more fruitful to go on and write a new piece.

BD:    Do you ever have the feeling that the performers of your works find things in your music that even you did not know were there?

VF:    [Laughs]  Yes, very often because the performer will bring dramatic qualities of inflection and beauty of sound that aren’t necessarily part of the composing process.  I’m very grateful to the performers when they do this.

BD:    Some of the recordings say these are composer-supervised.  On them, or even in performance, do you sit around and give instructions or suggestions to the performers?

VF:    Usually I will attend the last one or two rehearsals of a piece.  I find with very good ensembles and very good artists there is very little that I have to say.  Occasionally I’ll say that it should be a little louder in one place or a little softer elsewhere, or change the relationship between parts of the piece they’re doing, but there isn’t usually much I have to say.  It would only be small adjustments.  They’re terribly good musicians and they bring qualities to it that I hadn’t imagined.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    In reading a bit about you, it says that in your early career there was a direct link with Scriabin.

VF:    Some of my very earliest compositions, when I was fifteen years old or so, are rather Scriabinesque.  I did study in Chicago with a student of Scriabin, Djane Lavoie-Herz.  She introduced me, when I was a very young teenager, to the works of Scriabin, including his last works.  These undoubtedly had an effect on me in the beginning of my writing, especially as my teacher at that time, Ruth Crawford Seeger, also had Scriabinesque influences in her work.

BD:    Is that why you went to Ms. Seeger?

VF:    No, that isn’t how I happened to go to her.  She was also a piano student of Madame Lavoie-Herz, and Madame Herz wanted me to have some theory lessons.  There was no question of my being a composer at that time because I hadn’t composed anything.  So I went to study with Ruth Crawford, who subsequently became a very well known composer.  It was a wonderful set of circumstances that enabled me to study with this remarkable woman.

BD:    Just as a side note, how should we refer to her, as
Ruth Crawford or Ruth Crawford Seeger?

VF:    That’s difficult to say.  Sometimes her later compositions — after she married Charles Seeger — are listed as written by Ruth Crawford Seeger, and the early ones are listed as by Ruth Crawford.  I tend to do that myself; that is, depending on when they were written, before or after her marriage to Charles Seeger.

BD:    Did that influence you to keep your maiden name even after you married?

VF:    No.  I don’t think so.  Before I got married, I had already had some published compositions under my own name and many performances.  I married at the age of twenty-one, so it seemed natural to keep my own name since I already had an identity as a composer and pianist.

BD:    This is something that we would almost take for granted today, and yet in 1935 that was something rather revolutionary.

VF:    Yes, that’s true.  But I think it was the fact that I had things published, and then people did know me by my maiden name.

BD:    Is it significant that you, as a woman composer, also studied with Ruth Crawford a woman composer?

VF:    I think it was a very good thing for me.  Certainly, in those days we didn’t have phrases like ‘role model,’ but I think Ruth Crawford was, indeed, a role model for me.  She was a young woman who was composing very adventurous music, and so it seemed natural to me, perfectly natural, for me to write the kind of music that appealed to me then, which was rather “far out.”

BD:    But you don’t feel any great difference studying with her than you did with Henry Cowell or Roger Sessions?

VF:    I didn’t study with Henry Cowell.  He was a mentor and a wonderful supporter of my music, but I studied with Roger Sessions for a long time.  Musically I do not feel a difference, but I do think it was the reinforcement I got from her being a good composer, and a woman, which was something that was very good for me.  I certainly never thought about these things consciously at the time, but looking back I can see that this was an excellent thing to have happened in my life.

BD:    I only want to touch on this just a little bit, but did you ever find any discrimination against yourself because you are a woman?

VF:    I usually answer that question by saying that women certainly don’t have total equality in our society
certainly not economic equalityand there isn’t the easy acceptance of their having certain kinds of positions.  I think things are much better for women who write music now, very, very much better.  But there were moments of, perhaps not of discrimination, but of wondering whether I was capable of doing certain things.  I remember one time when a colleague of mine — this was about twenty-five years ago — said to me, “I like the orchestration of your ballet.  Did you do it yourself?”  [Both laugh]  I said to him, “Well, do you do your own orchestration?”  He said, “Well, yes I do,” and I said, “I do mine, too.”  It was that kind of thing.  And this is a very nice man who is very favorably inclined toward my music, but he still had this idea that women couldn’t orchestrate brilliantly.  I don’t think you would find this today.  And there were male composers in my life who were very helpful to me.  Henry Cowell was very helpful and Dane Rudhyar early on was also interested in my music, so that I feel very grateful to these people for what they’ve done.

BD:    Is there a competition amongst composers?

VF:    Yes, I think so because it’s like any other field.  In art there’s the same kind of competition, and you find it, certainly, in business.  Many people are competitive — most people are competitive, and it’s mostly for performances.  People want commissions and performances.

BD:    So then basically it’s a healthy kind of competition?

VF:    I would say so, yes, but it’s there certainly.  It’s competition to get awards and performances.

BD:    What kinds of things did you learn from Roger Sessions?

VF:    I think perhaps it can be summed up by saying that I learned a great musical tradition from him.  I studied harmony with him.  At that time I already had had some songs published in Henry Cowell’s New Music Quarterly publication, but we began with traditional harmony, then a little counterpoint and then a lot of composition.  He was a man of tremendous knowledge and with a sense of great musical tradition, and I think what he heard and felt in that tradition I absorbed as much as I could.

BD:    Do you feel that you are part of a musical lineage?

VF:    Yes.  Yes, I do.  I certainly do.  Even in my early compositions, which tended to be more acerbic and more dissonant than the compositions I’m writing now, I would write in contrapuntal lines.  I would write in meters and my music has always had a strong sense of musical line.  All these characteristics are part of musical tradition.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    In listening to the music that you sent, much of it seems to be amazingly tonal for a contemporary composer.  Is this a deliberate thing, or is this just the way you feel the music coming out of you?

VF:    I don’t think it’s all that tonal.  It’s certainly not tonal in the traditional sense.  You can’t find the kind of progression that you’d find in Schubert, but there is a sense of tonality.  Did you have any particular ones in mind that felt particularly tonal to you?

BD:    Several, especially the Concertante for Piano.

fineVF:    That is a deliberately tonal piece.  I was writing a piece modeled after the concerti grossi of Bach or Handel.  It’s a kind of neo-baroque idiom, and it’s a special piece.  Occasionally I will still write a tonal piece like that, but most of my other pieces, while not atonal, are freely atonal and freely tonal at the same time.

BD:    I assume that you still accept a number of commissions?

VF:    Yes.

BD:    When they come to you, do they say, “We would like a tonal piece,” or do they just say, “We would like a piece that’s fourteen minutes for such and such instrumentation”?

VF:    The latter.  They never specify the idiom.  I couldn’t do a piece under those circumstances.

BD:    So if someone came to you and said, “We would like a tonal piece,” you would say to go elsewhere?

VF:    I’d say, “I might write a tonal piece, but it might not be the kind of tonal piece you like.”  There are all kinds of tonal pieces.  This has never happened to me.  I don’t think people would presume to do that.  People will often listen to your music and decide that they like it; this is what usually happens.  Then they just commission you because they like your music.  It’s a question of trusting the composer.  People who come with a commission know my music and trust that I’ll write a good piece, and I hope I’ll write a good piece!  That can’t be promised either, but I do my best.

BD:    Let me probe this one step further.  What exactly
or generallyconstitutes a good piece of music?

VF:    A good piece of music?  That’s difficult!  A good piece of music has to have an impact of some sort.  Your attention has to be held by it.  That’s a pretty basic definition of what I would call something good.  Something has got to be good if you really find yourself wanting to attend to it, and being affected by it.  I would like to think my music also has the quality to move people.

BD:    Is this the advice, then, that you give to your students of composition?

VF:    No, I never speak in those terms.  I criticize what they have done.  I will look at what they brought in and I’ll say, “This is too short.  This is too long.  This is not coherent.  I can’t see why one thing follows after the other.”  Or I’ll say, “This is really excellent.  You’ve said something arresting, and I really listened to it.”  But I don’t think you can develop artistically if you have a formula, like saying, “I want to write something arresting.”  I have to be interested and excited about the piece I’m writing, and if I’m not, I actually can’t write the piece.  I hope that quality of excitement I feel, and interest in the piece, is going to result in a piece that will interest other people.

BD:    Is this how you decide which commissions you’ll accept and which commissions you will decline?

VF:    There are very few commissions that I would decline.  The only reason that I would decline a commission, really, would be because I felt that the performing organization wasn’t very good.  But even then, I might accept if I would write something that was, perhaps, much simpler technically, without compromising what I wanted to do musically.  For instance, I’ve written a commission for a quite amateur orchestra, but it was a challenge to write music that was interesting to me and at the same time not too difficult technically.  There are no shortcuts to the ideas of the work; it’s just a recognition that there’s a different technical level, and I have to be aware of that. There’s nothing wrong with that.  For instance, when I write an orchestra piece, I am aware that there’s not going to be a lot of time to rehearse an orchestra piece by a big orchestra.  It’s an economic situation.  So I’m not going to write the difficult piece for the players that I might write in a chamber music piece, where they have all the time they want to rehearse it.

BD:    Is there ever a chance that the piece can get over-rehearsed?

VF:    I doubt it.  [Laughs]  I haven’t found that!

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    When you’re writing a piece of music, where is the balance between inspiration and compositional technique?

VF:    Hmmm.  Well, that’s a fine balance, I must say.  If I had to make a choice, I’d say let there be more intensity and inspiration rather than craft, because a piece that is well-crafted without intensity or an intense focus, really isn’t very interesting.  One has to be careful not to become facile in what one does.  It is better to really have expressive music.  I decided to write music that is expressive.

BD:    Is the inspiration something that can be taught, or is the teaching of composition really the teaching of technique?

VF:    You can’t teach inspiration, how you get ideas, but what you can help a pupil do is recognize a good idea.  Beginning students in composition may have good ideas, but they don’t recognize what the good idea is.  Half the phrase may be wonderful, the other half no good, and they really don’t see much difference.  You can increase their perception of what is arresting with the writing, and what is banal, and they learn to recognize that.  Then you pay attention to what you have after you’ve written it — or while you’re writing it
— and you can quickly discard that which is more facile, and less expressive and intense.

BD:    Are you encouraged by the progress that you see being made by your students?

VF:    I teach in a liberal arts college, and one course that I’m teaching now is to utter beginners in music.  They didn’t even know how to read music.  Nevertheless, I’m teaching them some elementary theory and enabling them to do some simple kind of composing.  This is very, very interesting, even though it is at a very beginning level.  It’s interesting how quick the students can perceive important musical ideas, such as ideas which are hum-drum, or ideas which have some possibilities in them.  So these very beginning students are making progress.  Then I have more advanced students who are working in composition, and I hope they’re making progress.  I think they are.

BD:    You’ve been teaching music for quite a number of years.  How has the technique of teaching music changed over those years, if at all?

VF:    I find teaching of music hasn’t changed enough.  The way music is taught is largely they way it’s been taught for the last hundred years.  Here at Bennington, and before I came to Bennington, we do try to do a few things that are different, such as enabling beginning students to compose.  It’s analogous to the way people approach painting.  No longer is it necessary for people to study anatomy, draw from casts and have long years of making drawings before they paint.  People are encouraged to get out and paint!  Here we encourage people to compose music.  To make that possible, you have to make the student aware of what are the materials of composing.  It’s rather simpler in painting.  They know it’s color and shape and use of space, but composing is very nebulous to many people.  But the minute you make the students aware of pitch, timbre, rhythm, duration and dynamics, it’s possible for them to start working with these elements and to produce a small composition.

BD:    How have you divided your career between teaching and performing and composing?

VF:    The main part of my career is composing; there’s no doubt of that.  In the beginning I used to do quite a bit of piano playing and I still do some piano playing from time to time.   I didn’t become a college teacher actually until I started to teach at Bennington.  I taught a little bit at New York University, but I didn’t become a full-time faculty member anywhere until I began to teach at Bennington in 1964.  So my career has not been entirely in academia.  I’ve enjoyed all the parts of it, but the composing is the core, the meaning, the bedrock, everything like that in my work.  All the other emphases are important but they’re not major.  The composing is the core out of which everything else comes.

BD:    Has it always been so?

VF:    I started out at the age of five by playing the piano, and I played the piano until I was about thirteen without doing any composing.  Then when I was about thirteen, after I’d studied for a while with Ruth Crawford, I began to do some composing.  Then very gradually, by the time I was seventeen or eighteen, the composing really was the most important thing, and it’s remained that all along.  But I’ve been involved either with playing the piano or composing ever since I was five years old.

BD:    When you got married, was there any thought of abandoning the composition or performing career?

VF:    Impossible.  No, absolutely no thought at all, ever!  It’s been part of my life.  It’s the way of my being.  With something that you start when you are five and is very important to you, you don’t give up.  It’s like asking a person who believes, someone who is a religious person, to give up their religion!  It’s about equal to that!

BD:    So you worship at the altar of music?

VF:    Well, I am a musician, and I’m totally caught up in sound and every aspect of music.

BD:    I assume that your whole family is supportive of all of this?

VF:    Yes, I think they are.  It takes a lot of energy to raise a family and continue a musical career, but fortunately I have that energy.

BD:    Is composing fun?

VF:    Yes.  In a very profound sense, it’s a great joy.  It’s the one activity in which my mind is totally focused.  Nothing else comes into my mind when I compose, and to have this completely focused attention is an extremely enjoyable sensation.  It’s an intense activity.  It can be tiring, but it also gives one a deep kind of gratification.  In a way, it’s a kind of meditation with tones.  If one thinks of it, there are very few things in life that one can concentrate on completely.  Even when I play the piano, random thoughts will come into my mind, but they never do when I compose.  I take breaks; after fifteen minutes I’ll look up and think about something else for a few seconds.  But when I’m working, I have this total concentration, and it’s effortless; I don’t have to concentrate.  You can see that this is a very enjoyable thing to do.   It’s effortless concentration, a kind of yoga or meditation, I suppose.  I didn’t set out to do this or have to train myself.  This happened from the very beginning.  If you’re listening to these sounds from inside and shaping them, it’s totally absorbing.  People speak of having this experience when they garden; they garden for hours and they aren’t aware of the time that’s passing.  I think any activity in which one is absorbed this way is an enjoyable activity, and I don’t have any hierarchy of activities.  If someone enjoys making a piece of furniture and is totally absorbed in it, it’s the same thing.

BD:    You’re very lucky to have been able to pursue exactly what you wanted and what gave you pleasure.

VF:    I feel I am very lucky, yes.

BD:    When you’re writing, do you work on just one piece at a time or do you have more than one project going?

VF:    I’ve never even tried to work on more than one project.  I don’t think it would work for me.  I have to just work on one project at a time.

BD:    You work on that until it’s completed...

VF:    ...then go on to the next one, yes.

BD:    How do you know when a piece of music is finished?

VF:    That’s an interesting question.  If I’m writing it using a text, when the text is used up there’s no more text.  Of course you could write an instrumental postlude to it, but that’s one of the senses you do develop — how far to go.  It sometimes is difficult.  Right now I’m writing a piece and I think I’m at the end of a movement.  Much to my surprise, it came much sooner than I thought it was going to come.  But it seems to be the end of the movement and wanting to go on to something else, so I just let it.  I don’t have a preconceived idea of, “Well now, I’ve written only four pages.  This is too short for a movement.”  If it’s going to be short, it’s going to be short, or if it’s going to be long, it’s going to be long.

BD:    So you have no comprehension of time, that it should take so many seconds or so many minutes?

VF:    No.  I let each thing shape itself.  If you’re doing a piece of sculpture, how much of a curve should you make?  If you’re not doing something utterly realistic, they say, “Why does it have to be this way?”  It seems to conform to some sense of proportion or some sense of wholeness that one has.

BD:    When you get to the end of the text or the end of a movement and you put the double bar, do you go back and tinker with things, or once it’s down on paper it is finished?

VF:    Usually my tinkering is done at the time.  I don’t do a lot of rewriting. I’m not a good reviser.  Some people are good at revising; I tend to let compositions stay the way they come out.  I change some of my ideas as I go along, but in the main it comes out.  I work with it; I’m satisfied with it as I’m working with it.  If I’m dissatisfied with it, I will make some changes as I go along.  I let that be my guide, that I am satisfied with it.  I would feel incapable of revising an entire composition after I’d finished it.

BD:    Are you ever surprised at where it winds up, that it turned out to be a completely different place than you thought at the beginning?

VF:    Yes.  Very often!  [Laughs]  That’s one of the nice parts of it.  But you have to be able to do that. You have to accept that.  It isn’t totally a conscious process.  There is this sense of the details fitting into some sort of whole that you have to trust as you write something.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Tell me a bit about your opera Women in the Garden.

VF:    The texts are taken from the writings of Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein and Isadora Duncan.

BD:    All artists in their own right.

fineVF:    Yes, and these people become the characters in the opera.  There’s also a man called the Tenor, and he plays various roles.  Sometimes he’s Emily Dickinson’s imagined lover; he’s Isadora Duncan’s real lover; he’s Emily Dickinson’s father, or he’s Gertrude Stein’s friend.  He plays quite a number of roles in it.  I put this text together.  I just had an idea one day; I was just going to do that.  I’d gotten a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to write an opera, and I’d originally suggested a text that I thought I could use, but I decided I didn’t want to.  So I wanted to come up with something else, and this is what I came up with.  It proved really interesting to write the work.  I took out a great many works of these people.  Isadora Duncan only had one book that she wrote, but the others have a lot of books and poems, and I made an opera out of it.  There isn’t much of a plot.  There really isn’t a plot, except that the women get to know each other through the course of the opera.

BD:    It is the imagined meeting of these characters?

VF:    Exactly.  Exactly.  They meet in a garden.

BD:    Sounds like what Steve Allen did with his program called Meeting of Minds.  He took various historical figures, and put two or three of them together for a discussion that would have happened if they had all met.

VF:    Did he use their writings or other people’s?

BD:    He used much of their writings, and then fabricated the script.

VF:    Yes, very much like that, except that I entirely used the writings of these women.

BD:    You call it an opera.  Is it an opera in the real sense?

VF:    Well, people are singing.  They’re acting.  It doesn’t have a plot, but I don’t know.  It isn’t really a theater piece because everything is sung in it.  So one would have to call it an opera.

BD:    You sound somewhat reluctant about that.

VF:    Well, I don’t now what else to call it!  [Both laugh]  It has been done by opera houses. The San Francisco Opera did it, so it must be an opera.

BD:    Are you going to write another opera?

VF:    I hope to, very much.  I enjoyed writing that one tremendously, but now it’s a question of finding a theme, a libretto, and a librettist.  But I would like very much to write another opera.  As soon as I can find a libretto and an idea I can work with, I will certainly write one.  It was enormously enjoyable for me to work with these characters.  I really missed them after I finished the opera.

BD:    You hated to say good-bye to them?

VF:    Exactly.

BD:    Has it been played in other places also?

VF:    It has been.  It’s received five or six productions, which is not bad for a new opera, including some very, very good ones.  So I feel I’ve been kind of lucky.

BD:    I assume that you expect your music to last at least through a few ages?

VF:    I don’t know about that.  How can one tell?

BD:    Do you hope that it will last?

VF:    Well, I certainly would be pleased.  I won’t be here to see it, but one always hopes.  I see how difficult it is to get performances, and how little music lasts.  And then things go in cycles.  Some people’s music disappears for a while, like Ruth Crawford’s music disappeared for about twenty years.  Then, after she died, — about twenty-five or thirty years — people began to find out what a fine composer she was, and began to play her music.  So, you just can’t tell about these things, but I certainly never have one eye on immortality.  One hopes to write good music, but whether it lasts or not depends on a lot of factors.  I like to get performances while I’m here.  [Both laugh]

BD:    I hope there are, of course, many, many more!

VF:    Thank you.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    What is the influence upon you of electronics?  And this becomes a two-edged sword
the electronics of home sound reproduction, and also the electronics of musical composition and performance.

VF:    I’ve only done one piece that uses any kind of technology.  It’s the Missa Brevis for Four Cellos and Taped Voice in which there were four vocal tracks made by Jan DeGaetani.  I took these four tracks and combined them into one track that’s used in interludes in the Missa Brevis, and also used along with the four celli.  I’m interested in the fact that the sounds of electronic music are getting to be much more interesting to me.  But I don’t know; I haven’t heard a lot of electronic music.  It’s the composing; I don’t find it very challenging, but sometimes I’m tempted to take some time off and work with the technology and see what I can come up with.  I might do that.

BD:    What about the other side, the home reproduction?  Do you think that recordings have been a blessing or a bane upon society as a whole?

VF:    You mean that people have recordings in their homes?

BD:    Right.

VF:    I think that’s marvelous!  Are you asking that the public might not go to too many concerts because of the recordings?

BD:    Well, do the recordings set up an impossible standard that the live performances have to try and match?

VF:    I get something different out of recordings.  I think recordings bring music to people who perhaps wouldn’t be listening to it that often.  Certainly in the case of new music, I’m glad to have recordings because it gives me the chance to hear things where I can’t get to the live performances.

BD:    And of course it spreads your music around to a wider audience.

VF:    Yes.  Oh, I’m all in favor of that.  I can’t see anything that isn’t good about it.  They used to be able to splice and bring out nearly technical performances.  I don’t think that’s the greatest idea, but it seems to me with digital recording that they’re getting away from that.  I think that a certain amount of error is a part of performance.  Most of the recordings have no mistakes, but I don’t consider it a tragedy if there’s one wrong note in a piece if the rest of the performance is really shaped and expressive.

fineBD:    So you’re looking for more inspiration than technical perfection?

VF:    Yes, for the total impact of the performance.

BD:    Let me ask the big question
— where’s music going today?

VF:    In many directions.  [Laughs]

BD:    Too many?

VF:    In many!

BD:    In too many?

VF:    No, no, not too many; in many directions.  There’s interest in music of other cultures.  I was just talking to a musician today, and he’s interested in music from Africa and music from India.  There are a great many “styles” of music now.  I think the diversity is excellent!  I think it’s a climate in which a great many kinds of music can flourish and I’m very happy about that.

BD:    Are we talking just about the serious concert music, or are you also including pop music?

VF:    I don’t know enough about pop music to be able to comment on that scene.

BD:    Should we try to get the pop music audience to come to the concert hall?

VF:    I think that would be fine, but I don’t know how much chance there is of it.  [Both laugh]

BD:    Are you optimistic about the future of music?

VF:    I think things are going to change.  I find that young people seem to know less about classical music than they used to twenty-five or thirty years ago.

BD:    Why is that?

VF:    I don’t know, but popular music has certainly taken over the minds and bodies of young people.  I don’t think it is a necessarily bad thing, but things are changing.  Whether there’s going to continue to be a large audience for orchestras and chamber music I don’t know, but certainly people are still writing for these combinations and a great deal of excellent music is being written.  But I sense that the impact of technology is going to be considerable on music, and I’m not pessimistic about that impact at all.

BD:    You don’t feel, then, that the concert hall is really just a museum?

VF:    I hope not.  I prefer it not to be.  My idea of a good program is to play a couple of things from the repertoire, have a great soloist if you want to, but play at least one new piece on the program.  I think that’s an ideal kind of programming.  There are some orchestras, like the San Francisco Orchestra, that have espoused this kind of programming.  I was fortunate enough to get a commission from the San Francisco Orchestra, and on the same program was the Brahms Violin Concerto and a Mozart symphony.  Now you might say that’s hard competition to match, but I didn’t feel any competition with Brahms and Mozart.  I felt that they provided a noble and wonderful framework for my piece, and I think it was the best thing that could have happened.

BD:    That would be better than either an all contemporary concert or an all Vivian Fine concert?

VF:    Yes, I think that is the very best thing that could happen.

BD:    I hope you get lots more of those kinds of things.

VF:    Thank you.  I might say a little word about the fact that the first musical institution I studied at was the Chicago Musical College.  I won a piano scholarship there at the age of five, and studied there, I think, until I was eight or nine.  Then I studied with some other teachers, and I wound up studying, at the age of ten, at The American Conservatory of Music.  I studied there with Silvio Scionti, who was one of the principal piano teachers there at the time, and later with Ruth Crawford, who was a pupil of Adolph Weidig who taught at the American Conservatory.  I am glad to say, and happy to say, that my first eighteen years were spent in Chicago and they were very important years to me.

BD:    I am glad you have very fond memories of Chicago.  What, then, encouraged you to leave Chicago for New York?

VF:    There wasn’t enough happening on the contemporary music scene in Chicago.  There was very, very little happening, and Ruth Crawford had gone to New York.  I knew that I had to study elsewhere and to be elsewhere, so I just went to New York at the age of eighteen — kind of courageous move, when I think of it now.  I didn’t have any money, but I got myself a job as a dance accompanist, and started playing at contemporary music concerts, playing my own music and music of other people.  There just wasn’t enough going on at that time in Chicago.  I used to go to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Frederick Stock.  I went there every week from the time I was about eleven years old until I left Chicago.  That was an enormous thing in my musical education
hearing that marvelous orchestra play the music.

BD:    You worked with some modern dance groups.  Did that have had a profound impact on your career?

VF:     I don’t know how much of an impact it had on my career, but it was a privilege to be associated with some of the important figures of early modern dance, such as Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman, Hanya Holm and José Limón.  I worked with all these people; I played for them and I also wrote music for them.  Early on I did a lot of playing for contemporary dance groups, but then I thought I wanted to write different kinds of music, so I stopped writing for dance very much.  But then I did write a work in 1960 for Martha Graham.

BD:    Is writing for the dance group a completely different animal than writing for a concert?

VF:    Yes, I think it’s different.  It depends on the method that you use in working with a dancer.  Martha Graham gave me a script.  This was for her ballet Alcestis.  She gave me a script and I wrote music for the different sections that she’d outlined.  So the music comes from a dramatic idea, from a theatrical idea.  I didn’t know the movements she’d use, so I wasn’t too concerned with the movements, but I had to have in the music the dramatic moods that she needed, so this literary element comes into it.  It’s possible to do the same thing when writing a piece of music that is somewhat programmatic, such as the piece I wrote for the San Francisco Symphony, the Drama for Orchestra.  This work is based on paintings of Edvard Munch, so it had also a dramatic element in it.  It’s different than writing a piece of chamber music where you have no program at all.  It’s quite different from that.

BD:    Did Martha Graham like the music you wrote for her?

VF:    She used all the music I wrote.  What she did was change the sequence of her script, but she used everything.  She didn’t tamper with the score at all.  She evidently felt that certain music was better for certain dramatic ideas, or she changed the sequence of the dramatic ideas.  I really don’t know.  But she did change the order of the script.  She had no hesitancy in doing that, and she had very good instincts.

BD:    Did you feel that ballet worked very well?

VF:    I was very happy with it, and very thrilled to have a great dancer like Martha Graham dance to my music.

BD:    You had no preconceived notions of how it would look?

VF:    Oh, no.  Not at all, even though I knew her work very well.

BD:    What is next on the calendar for Vivian Fine?

VF:    I’m writing a lot of chamber music these days.  This summer I wrote my first piece for harpsichord.  It was commissioned by Barbara Harbach, who is a virtuoso harpsichordist and who will perform and record the work.  This was an altogether new experience, writing for harpsichord.  I’ve written many works for piano, but I found in writing for the harpsichord I had to stay away from the piano to keep the harpsichord sound in my ears.  Now I’m writing a cello and piano sonata for a friend of mine who will premiere it either in New York or in Europe, and I am finding this a wonderful experience.  I’m really very happy with the work.  After that I’m writing a work for Jan Williams, who’s a virtuoso percussionist.  This will be for violin, piano, percussion and double bass, and I’m looking forward to that.  I’ve never written for that combination.  I have ideas in which I hope will work, and it’s going to be somewhat humorous, I hope.

BD:    Thank you for spending the time with me this afternoon.  I’ve enjoyed our talk very much, and I hope that you have enjoyed it also.

VF:    I have enjoyed it very much.  I found it very easy to talk to you.

 Profile of Vivian Fine
By Espie Estrella, Guide

Born in Chicago on September 28, 1913 to David and Rose Fine
Died March 20, 2000 in Bennington, VT due to vehicular accident

Also Known As:
Influential American female composer who was especially noted for her chamber music. She was also known for performing contemporary piano music written by composers like Aaron Copland and Charles Ives. She married Benjamin Karp, a sculptor, in 1935. Their first daughter, Margaret, was born in 1942.

Type of Compositions:
Her compositions include chamber music, symphonies, choral music, vocal pieces and 2 chamber operas.

In 1918 she began taking piano lessons under the tutelage of her mother. At the age of 5 she entered Chicago Musical College; making her one of the youngest students to receive a scholarship there. From 1924 to 1926, she studied piano with Djane Lavoie-Herz - a former colleague of Russian composer Alexander Scriabin. She also studied harmony and composition with Ruth Crawford and counterpoint with Adolf Weidig.

Other Influences:
In 1929, at the age of 16, she made her professional debut with her composition "Solo for Oboe" premiering at New York's Carnegie Chamber Hall. She later studied composition with Roger Sessions (!934 to 1942), piano with Abby Whiteside (1937 to 1945) and orchestration with George Szell (1943).

Notable Works:
Her composition for the piano titled "Lullaby" was written when she was only 13 years old. Other works include: "Four Pieces for Two Flutes," "Four Polyphonic Pieces for Piano," "Suite in E Flat," "Concertante for Piano and Orchestra," "Capriccio for Oboe and String Trio," "String Quartet," "Duo for Flute and Viola," "The Great Wall of China," "The Race of Life," "Opus 51," "They Too Are Exiles," "Tragic Exodus" and her two chamber operas: "The Women in the Garden" and "Memoirs of Uliana Rooney."

Interesting Facts:
    * Vivian Fine became a member of Aaron Copland’s Young Composers’ Group in 1932.
    * That same year, she participated in the First Yaddo Festival.
    * She co-founded the American Composers Alliance and became its vice-president from 1961 to 1965.
    * She taught at Vermont's Bennington College from 1964 to 1987.
    * Other schools she taught at include New York University, Juilliard School and the State University of New York at Potsdam.
    * From 1953 to 1960, she was artistic director of the Rothschild Foundation.

More Information:
    * She was also a recipient of grants from several foundations including the Ford Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, Martha Baird Rockefeller Foundation, Alice B. Ditson Foundation and Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation.
    * In 1979 she received an award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. This was followed by a Guggenheim Fellowship award in 1980.
    * Her "Drama for Orchestra" was a runner-up for a Pulitzer Prize.

For more information on Vivian Fine, visit her official website [].

© 1986 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded on the telephone on November 8, 1986.  Portions (along with recordings) were used on WNIB in 1988, 1993, and again in 1998.  A copy of the unedited audio tape has been placed in the Archive of Contemporary Music at Northwestern University.  This transcription was made and posted on this website in 2012.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.