Biography

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Vivian Fine's parents, Summer, 1935
Vivian’s parents, Rose and David Fine c. 1935

Over her 70 year career, Vivian Fine became one of America’s most important composers. She wrote virtually without a break for 68 years, producing over 140 works. Although perhaps best known for her chamber music, she wrote in every genre, including large-scale symphonic and choral works. In addition to numerous articles and several dissertations, two books have been published on Fine’s life and music: The Music of Vivian Fine, by the noted musicologist Heidi Von Gunden (Scarecrow Press, 1999), which won the ASCAP-Deems Taylor award in 2000, and Vivian Fine, A Bio-Bibliography, by the poet and composer Judith Cody (Greenwood Press, 2002).

 

Vivian Fine's first birthday, 9-28-1914
First Birthday with older sister Adelaide

Vivian Fine was born in Chicago in 1913. A piano prodigy, she became at age five the youngest student ever to be awarded a scholarship at the Chicago Musical College. At age eleven she became a student of Scriabin disciple Djane Lavoie-Herz. Fine composed her first piece at thirteen while studying harmony with Ruth Crawford, who considered Fine her protege. Through Madame Herz and Crawford, Fine met Henry Cowell, Imre Weisshaus, and Dane Rudhyar, who became strong supporters of her talent.

 

Vivian Fine at 19
Vivian Fine at 19

Fine made her professional debut as a composer at age sixteen with performances in Chicago, New York (Solo for Oboe, at a Pan-American Association of Composers’ concert) and Dessau (Four Pieces for Two Flutes, at an International Society of Contemporary composers’ concert). In 1931, the 18-year-old Fine moved to New York to further her studies. She was a member of Aaron Copland’s Young Composers Group, and a participant at the first Yaddo Festival in 1932. In 1937 she helped found the American Composers Alliance and served as its vice-president from 1961 to 1965. In addition to her career as a composer, Fine continued to perform. In the 1930s she was perhaps the best-known performer of contemporary piano music in New York. She premiered works of Ives, Copland, Brant, Cowell, Rudhyar, and others, and studied piano with Abby Whiteside from 1937 to 1946.

Vivian Fine in her '40s
Circa 1953

Fine’s early compositional style was highly dissonant and contrapuntal. In 1934 she began a nine-year course of composition studies with Roger Sessions, and her work became for a time more tonal, as exemplified by Suite in E Flat (1940) and Concertante for Piano and Orchestra (1944). In 1946, with Capriccio for Oboe and String Trio and The Great Wall of China, she returned to a freer mode of expression, to which she adhered for the remainder of her career, steadily expanding her expressive and generic range. She employed diverse techniques corresponding to a wide range of musical subjects. Henry Brant noted that “No two Fine pieces are alike either in subject matter or instrumentation; each new work appears to generate its own style appropriate to the subject, and there are no mannerisms which persist from work to work.”

Notable in Fine’s work is a sense of fun, either as a major element in the piece (The Race of Life, Memoirs of Uliana Rooney) or as a humorous section or reference inserted into a more serious piece (The Women in the Garden, Songs and Arias).

Vivian Fine
Circa 1980

Fine wrote extensively for voice, employing the poetry of Shakespeare, Racine, Dryden, Keats, Whitman, Dickinson, Kafka, Neruda, and others in a wide variety of settings. She composed two chamber operas, The Women in the Garden (1978) and Memoirs of Uliana Rooney (1994). In The Women in the Garden Fine used the writings of Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, Isadora Duncan and Gertrude Stein to fashion conversations among the four women and a tenor representing the various men in their lives. Memoirs of Uliana Rooney (1994), Fine’s last major composition, is a contemporary opera buffa, with libretto and videography by Sonya Friedman. The work, autobiographical in spirit if not in factual detail, follows American composer Uliana Rooney as she journeys through the 20th century, surviving changing political climates and several husbands to ultimately triumph.

From 1964 to 1987, Fine taught composition at Bennington College in Vermont. Her years there, surrounded by a faculty of composers and musicians eager to perform her work, were some of the happiest and most productive of her life. She also taught at New York University (1945-48), Juilliard (1948), and SUNY Potsdam (1951). In the 1960s and 70s she gave a series of lecture-recitals on 20th century music at Notre Dame, Harvard, Skidmore, Bard, and William and Mary.

Among Fine’s many awards were a Guggenheim Fellowship, grants from the Ford, Rockefeller, Ditson, Woolley, Koussevitsky, Readers’ Digest and Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge foundations, several grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Dollard andYaddo Awards. In 1980 she was elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. Fine died in March of 2000 at the age of 86.


 

TIMELINE

1913
Born Chicago, 28 September. Daughter of Rose and David Fine, Russian-Jewish immigrants

1918
Begins piano studies with her mother;
At age 5, becomes the youngest student ever to receive a scholarship from the Chicago Musical College

1924-26
Studies piano with Djane Lavoie-Herz, a disciple of Scriabin

1926
Composes first piece, Lullaby, for piano

1926-28
Studies harmony and composition with Ruth Crawford;
studies counterpoint with Adolf Weidig at at American Conservatory in Chicago;
meets Henry Cowell, Dane Rudyar, and Imre Weisshauss, who become early supporters

1929
Makes professional debut as a composer at age 16 when Solo for Oboe premieres at Carnegie Chamber Hall in New York

1930
Four Pieces for Two Flutes is performed at a concert of Music by Women in Hamburg, Germany

1931
Moves to New York City;
works as dance accompanist at the Gluck-Sandor Dance Theater and other studios

1932
Becomes member of Aaron Copland’s Young Composers’ Group;
premieres Four Polyphonic Pieces for Piano at the First Yaddo Festival

1933
Four Songs is published in New Music
1934-42
Studies composition with Roger Sessions

1935
Marries sculptor Benjamin Karp

1937
Helps found The American Composers’ Alliance, hosts first meeting in her Greenwich Village apartment;
The Race of Life is premiered in New York by Doris Humphrey, Jose Limon, Charles Weidman and Dance Company
1937-45
Studies piano with Abby Whiteside

1938
Opus 51, written for Charles Weidman, premieres at the Bennington Modern Dance Festival

1939
They Too Are Exiles and Tragic Exodus, written for Hanya Holm, premiere in New York;
They Too Are Exiles is taken on transcontinental tour by Holm

1942
Opus 51 performed at Humphrey-Weidman studio in New York;
birth of first daughter, Margaret

1943
Studies orchestration with George Szell;
receives award from the Music Guild of Philadelphia for
Sonatina for Oboe and Piano

1945-48
Faculty member in the piano department at New York University

1948
Adjunct faculty member in literature and materials at Juilliard School;
moves to New Paltz, New York; birth of second daughter, Nina

1951
Teaches composition in summer session at State University of New York at Potsdam

1953-60
Artistic director of the Rothschild Foundation

1956
Receives Rothschild Foundation commission for
A Guide to the Life Expectancy of a Rose

1957
String Quartet is premiered by Claremont Quartet at Vassar

1958
Wallingford Riegger and Doris Humphrey write articles on Fine’s music in the
Bulletin of the American Composers Alliance

1959
Martha Graham commissions and premieres
Alcestis

1961
Begins four-year term as vice president of the American Composers Alliance;
Duo for Flute and Viola is premiered at Carnegie Recital Hall by Claude Monteux and Walter Trampler

1964
Begins teaching composition at Bennington College, where she remains until 1987

1965-68
Gives series of lecture-recitals on 20th century music at Notre-Dame, William and Mary, Wisconsin-Oshkosh, and Bard

1965
My Son, My Enemy is commisioned by Jose Limon with grant from Rockefeller Foundation

1970
Receives Ford Foundation Grant in the Humanities

1973
All-Fine concert at Finch Concert Hall in New York City

1974
New York Public Library mounts exhibit of manuscripts of Fine dance compositions;
National Endowment for the Arts grant for
Teisho

1976
Composer-in-residence at Skidmore College, Saratoga, New York;
receives Cooper Union commission and second National Endowment for the Arts grant for Meeting for Equal Rights 1866;
Teisho premiered by Sine Nomine Singers and Contemporary Quartet at Bennington

1977
Third National Endowment for the Arts grant for chamber opera
The Women in the Garden

1978
The Women in the Garden is premiered by Port Costa Players in San Francisco

1979
Wins award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters

1980
Receives Guggenheim Fellowship;
elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters;
receives commission from the Martha Baird Rockefeller Foundation;
guest lecturer at Composers’ Forum, University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana;
Mirecourt Trio commisions Trio for Violin, Cello, and Piano;
Huntindon Trio commissions
Songs and Arias

1981
Receives grant from Alice B. Ditson Foundation
Conducts Missa Brevis for Bay Area Conference on Women in Music

1982
Pianist Claudia Stevens commissions Double Variations in honor of Elliot Carter’s 75th birthday
The Women in the Garden performed by San Francisco Opera Center
performs Ruth Crawford’s Sonata for Violin and Piano at Library of Congress

1983
San Francisco Symphony and Mostly Modern sponsor Vivian Fine Week:
San Francisco Symphony conducted by Edo DeWaart premieres Drama for Orchesta,
concerts of Fine’s music are held in San Francisco, Berkeley and elsewhere in Bay Area
memorabilia and manuscripts exhibited in Davies Hall
Drama for Orchestra is nominated and is runner-up for Pulitzer Prize
Double Variations premieres at Carnegie Recital Hall in New York

1984
Receives funding from Koussevitsky Foundation for Poetic FiresOde to Henry Purcell commissioned by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation

1985
A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day commissioned and premiered by Trinity College with grant from Vermont Arts Council
American Composers’ Orchestra conducted by Gunther Schuller premieres Poetic Fires in New York
Ode to Henry Purcell premieres at Library of Congress

1986
International League of Women Composer produces “A Tribute to Vivian Fine” an hourlong special hosted by Lise Simeone,
“A Tribute to Vivian Fine” is broadcast on National Public Radio station WGBH - Boston
Lise Messier and Nan Nall commission Inscriptions with grants from New England Foundation and National Endowment for the Arts
Toccatas and Arias for Harpsichord commissioned by Barbara Harbach

1987
Bay Area Women’s Philharmonic commissions and premieres After the Tradition in honor of Fine’s 75th birthday
State University of New York at Buffalo holds retrospective concert
Toccatas and Arias for Harpsichord premieres at SUNY-Buffalo
Dancing Winds commissioned by Catskill Woodwind Quintet with grant from New York Council on the Arts
Toccatas and Arias for Piano commissioned by Veda Zuponcic

1988
After the Tradition commissioned and premiered by Bay Area Women’s Philharmonic
Five Victorian Songs commissioned and premiered by Capitol Chamber Artists
The Triple Goddess commissioned by Harvard Wind Ensemble
Asphodel commissioned by Musica Viva of Yale

1989
Boston declares Vivian Fine Appreciation Week: concerts and lectures held throughout Boston area;
official proclamation and keys to the city presented to Fine by Boston Mayor Raymond Flynn
Composer-in-Residence at Angel Fire, New Mexico
Madrigali Spirituali premieres at Angel Fire Festival
The Triple Goddess premiered by Harvard University Band
Toccatas and Arias for Piano premieres at Carnegie Recital Hall in New York
1990
Portal commissioned by Pamela Frank; premieres in Philadelphia and New York;
Songs and Arias for French horn, violin, and cello commissioned by Huntingdon Trio; premieres at Chamber Music Northwest, Portland, Oregon

1991
Songs of Love and War commissioned by Stephen Walt; premieres at Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts;
Canciones y Danzas commissioned by Joel Brown

1993
Receives Meet the Composer, National Endowment for the Arts, and Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund grants for chamber opera
Memoirs of Uliana Rooney

1994
Memoirs of Uliana Rooney premiered in New York by the American Opera Projects Incorporated
Memoirs of Uliana Rooney given first full production by Currents at the University of Richmond, Virginia