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
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 . . . . .
Let us start right there. Are you basically
pleased with the recordings that have been made of your music?
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?
yes. I would say almost all the time now, I get very good
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’s — will
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 people — still
comfortable with his middle and late works.
you’re writing a piece, are you
conscious of the public that will come to listen to it?
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
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?
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?
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
[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
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
softer elsewhere, or change the relationship between parts of the piece
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
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
with this remarkable woman.
BD: Just as a
side note, how should we refer to her,
as ‘Ruth Crawford’ or ‘Ruth
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
BD: Did that
influence you to keep your
maiden name even after you married?
I don’t think so. Before I got married, I had already had some
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
that’s true. But I think it was the fact that I had things
published, and then people did know me by my
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
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
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
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 equality
— and 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
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?
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
Many people are competitive — most people are competitive, and it’s
mostly for performances. People want commissions and
BD: So then
basically it’s a healthy kind of
VF: I would
say so, yes, but it’s
there certainly. It’s competition to get awards and performances.
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
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.
listening to the music that you sent, much of
it seems to be amazingly tonal for a contemporary composer. Is
deliberate thing, or is this just the way you feel the music coming out
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?
especially the Concertante for Piano.
VF: 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?
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”?
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,
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 generally
— constitutes 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
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!
you’re writing a piece of music,
where is the balance between inspiration and compositional technique?
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
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
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
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
progress. Then I have more advanced students who are working in
composition, and I hope they’re making progress. I think they
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
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
BD: When you
got married, was there
any thought of abandoning the composition or performing career?
Impossible. No, absolutely no
thought at all, ever! It’s been part of my life. It’s the
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
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
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
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.
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.
you’re writing, do you work
on just one piece at a time or do you have more than one
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...
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
thought it was going to come. But it seems to be the end of the
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?
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?
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
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
VF: The texts
are taken from the
writings of Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein and Isadora
artists in their own right.
VF: Yes, and
these people become the characters in
the opera. There’s also a man called the Tenor, and he plays
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
Exactly. Exactly. They meet in a
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
VF: Yes, very
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?
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
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
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
BD: Has it
been played in other
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
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
about the other side, the home reproduction? Do you think that
been a blessing or a bane upon society as a whole?
VF: You mean
that people have recordings in their
VF: I think
that’s marvelous! Are you asking
that the public might not go to too many concerts because of the
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.
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.
BD: So you’re
looking for more inspiration than
VF: Yes, for
the total impact of the performance.
BD: Let me
ask the big question — where’s music
VF: In many
BD: Too many?
VF: In many!
BD: In too
VF: No, no,
not too many; in many directions. There’s interest in music of
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
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
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
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.
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
leave Chicago for New York?
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.
some modern dance groups. Did that have had a profound impact on
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
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.
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
Graham like the music you wrote for her?
VF: She used
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
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
no. Not at all, even though I knew her
work very well.
BD: What is
next on the calendar for Vivian
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
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
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, About.com 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.
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
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
* Vivian Fine became a member of Aaron Copland’s
Young Composers’ Group in 1932.
* That same year, she participated in the First
* 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
* From 1953 to 1960, she was artistic director of
the Rothschild Foundation.
* 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
For more information on Vivian Fine, visit her official website
© 1986 Bruce Duffie
This interview was recorded on the telephone on November 8,
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
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.
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
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.