Vivian Fine was born in Chicago, Illinois on 28 September 1913. At age five, she won a scholarship to the Chicago Musical College and would eventually become the recipient of many more major musical awards and honors leading to a virtually uninterrupted career composing music until old age. Several of her compositions were funded through the National Endowment for the Arts, including her multidimensional Meeting for Equal Rights, 1866 for chorus and orchestra requiring three conductors. She also received an individual NEA grant for her opera Women in the Garden. She was elected to membership in the American Academy and Institute of Art and Letters in 1979 and she won a Guggenheim Fellowship for composition in 1980. Fine's music achievements were honored by the San Francisco Symphony with their 1983 dedication of a "Vivian Fine Week" retrospective of her work. The Symphony also commissioned Fine's massive Drama for Orchestra as part of this celebration, which was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. In 1989, Boston mounted a similar celebration with their own "Vivian Fine Week" to celebrate the great composer's music, during which Fine was also given the "keys to the city."
At a young age, Fine became enthralled with the great composers and performers at her regular visits to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and she read avidly on emerging new music. Of her Russian-Jewish heritage, Fine believed that it was this culture's "love of learning" that helped influence her early dedication to self-education in music, poetry and other subjects. Poetry would sometimes be incorporated into her music in later years, as would themes reflecting her life, as well as the social, psychological and spiritual controversies emblematic of the twentieth century. Fine, a true child of the twentieth-century modern music movement would manage to bring this ungainly, brash, yet thrilling new music to its natural realization during her long life of composing. In 1924 she began piano studies with Madame Djane Lavoie-Herz, a Scriabin disciple. Scriabin's style strongly influenced Fine's early work. Through Herz she met Ruth Crawford and other notables from Chicago's new music scene. Crawford would become her mentor and composition teacher, awakening Fine's desire to compose new, avant-garde dissonant music also called "Ultra-Modern Music." Crawford was amazed at the child's precocious ability to compose. Lullaby was Fine's first written composition that was to begin a creative explosion that would eventually total one hundred forty compositions in her lifetime. In 1928, deeply involved in her studies with music, Fine left high school and Henry Cowell encouraged her emerging style, not unlike his own dissonant experiments that were considered shocking in that era. Most of her music from this first period was atonal, and her captivating sense of innovation and youthful genius intrigued numerous new music mavens in Chicago.
In 1930, Fine's Solo for Oboe received its world premiere at the Pan American Association of Composers. Shortly thereafter Fine moved to New York City, the true center of Ultra-Modern Music. She was just eighteen years old with virtuoso piano skills that became her livelihood. She was soon employed as accompanist and composer for the neophyte modern dance movement. Aaron Copland observed her prodigious abilities and selected Fine as a member of his critically followed. "Young Composers Group," embracing those makers-of-music who would become some of the illustrious names in twentieth-century modern music. During this period, Fine's close association and work with all the pioneering historical figures of modern dance choreography, Charles Weidman, Doris Humphrey, Hanya Holm, Martha Graham, and Jose Limon, inspired her numerous acclaimed dance compositions: Tragic Exodus; They Too Were Exiles; The Race of Life; Alcestis; Affirmations, and others.
1934 saw a dramatic shift in her compositional techniques as Fine began almost seven years of harmony and counterpoint studies with the renowned composer Roger Sessions. Her trademark dissonance, her sometimes startling, wunderkind juxtapositions of musical structures were exchanged for tonal structures, but with a new sense of complexity foreshadowing the great music dramas of her later work. Abby Whiteside was her piano instructor at that time. 1944 saw the composition of her first orchestral work, Concertante for Piano and Orchestra, a tonal work, yielding a somewhat traditional harmonic construct. She was studying orchestration with conductor George Szell. She married the brilliant young sculptor, Benjamin Karp in 1935.
By 1947, with her landmark composition Capriccio for Oboe and String Trio, Fine had brought back some of the more adventurous, atonal structures to her idiom. More of the same type of sound was created that year in her critically acclaimed, The Great Wall of China. Sinfonia and Fugato, 1952, for solo piano, were recorded on several labels. Fine began a series of widely heard lecture-recitals on 20th century music where she performed on piano. She often played Sinfonia on these programs, a work whose textural sharpness countered with otherworldly rhythms is suggestive of a stark modern ballet. In the 1960's and 70's the introduction of electronic composing and recording with its numerous music "tracks" controlled and interwoven, proved inspirational to Fine. Always attuned to the shifts of history, she would draw on this concept for her innovative "layering" style for her Missa Brevis, bringing this technique to her later acoustic works as well with striking results.
Teaching was always an important part of Fine's professional life. From 1945 to 1948 she was adjunct professor at New York University; adjunct professor at the Juilliard School of Music in 1948; and in 1951 she was adjunct professor at State University Teacher's College at Potsdam, New York. She was music director of Rothschild Music Foundation from 1953 to 1960, and from 1961 to 1965 she was founder and vice-president of the American Composer's Alliance. In 1964, Fine began a part-time teaching position at Bennington College in Vermont, which became a full-time faculty position in 1969 lasting until she retired in 1987.
One of Fine's last major works was an opera, Memoirs of Uliana Rooney, which loosely paralleled her own lifetime spanning twentieth-century events and its music.
Vivian Fine died in March 2000 at the age of eighty-six.
Biography of Vivian Fine © copyright 2001 by JudithCody. Used by permission.
Judith Cody has won national awards in both composingand writing. The Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, has placed oneof her poems in its permanent collection. She is the author of VivianFine, a Bio-Bibliography, Greenwood Press, early 2002: www.greenwood.com
For further reading, see also The Music of Vivian Fineby Heidi von Gunden, Scarecrow Press, 1999: www.scarecrowpress.com