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The Music of Vivian Fine by Heidi von Gunden.
Scarecrow Press Inc. ISBN 0-8108-3617-3.
Publisher's Addresses:
American Address: 4720 Boston Way, Lanham, Maryland 20706.
GB Address: 4 Pleydell Gardens, Folkstone, Kent, CT20 2DN.

This is a very well-researched book which deals mainly with Fine's music as the title suggests. Some readers would have liked to know more about the composer herself. She was obviously an interesting character and vascillated with ideologies throughout her long life. In later years, she seems to have embraced a type of extreme feminism and, as her music does not receive all that many performances, one has to question why. Is it music of little worth or appeal, or is her feminism a deterrent?

Perhaps she is not a rank feminist at all. But we can be forgiven for coming to this conclusion from reading this book.

Vivian Fine was born in Chicago on 28 September 1913 to Russian and Jewish immigrants. They lived in poverty but the luxury in Vivian' s life was the piano that belonged to her mother. At the age of six she began to study at the Chicago Music College and from 1923-4 studied the violin and thereafter returned to the piano. It is a great pity that she did not written a concerto for either of these instruments although there is a Concertante for piano and orchestra.

She had a very happy and successful association with the composer Ruth Crawford with whom she studied composition and counterpoint during 1926 - 8. She was very fortunate to study with Roger Sessions, unquestionably the finest teacher of music that America has ever produced and yet his music is admired rather than liked. Its intellectualism defeats shallow music-lovers.

Fine did not follow in Sessions style and, sadly, did not write a Symphony or Concerto. She has written much chamber and vocal music and solo instrumental works. But there are only a few works for orchestra of which the Concertante, refered to above, which dates from 1944, is one example. There is also her ballet, Alcestis of 1960 which may be her best known piece. Vivian was an accompanist for dance companies in her earlier career. Her music is not particularly dramatic and some may therefore find it bland. On the other hand, it may be the expression of someone who is musically modest. Her Romantic Ode for strings has a warmth and is an example of what could be called mood music.

In the last twenty years of so, she composed works to an ultra-feminist ideology which may have hindered her career, particularly with her opera Memoirs of Ultima Rooney, which dates from 1994 and tells of a ficitious, feisty, feminist composer. The author suggests that Ultima is really Fine herself and, if this is so, it paints a picture of her that will not be universally welcome or admired.

I was left with an uncomfortable dilemma as to whether this book is about Vivian Fine or a crusade for feminism.

The book only contains two pictures of the composer but many examples of her music which is most welcome. The book is honest showing the composer's quest both for modernism and her own style and how she embraced Schoenberg and other greats of the twentieth century.

In her early years she was encouraged by Henry Cowell and there are some works of hers that I have known and admired over many years such as the Five Preludes for piano (1939 - 41), the String Quartet (1957) and the Five Victorian Songs (1988)

One can hope that this book, which shows great insight, will generate a productive interest in Fine' s music.

She died on 22 March 2000.


David Wright


David Wright

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