The best of Irving Fine’s work is touched by genius and has stayed in limited circulation on the concert stage.
Will Robin’s recent centennial piece in the New York Times considers Fine’s milieu almost as much as his music. Fine’s biographer, Phillip Ramey, suggests a similar perception by calling his book An American Composer in His Time.
If Fine wasn’t quite a major voice, he nevertheless touched on most things within his orbit, and remains a good starting point when considering American midcentury composition. Active from 1942 to 1962, Fine used syncopated American rhythms, mastered Neo-Classicism, had easy command of choral texture, and explored the twelve-tone system.
I always will owe Irving Fine a debt. I was only 19 when my girlfriend got me the job of rehearsal pianist for the Gregg Smith Singers. Reading music had always been easy, but I had almost no experience with classical music in general. The first rehearsal was Stravinsky’s Mass with Robert Craft guest conducting.
A few months later, Smith thought he’d try me out on a gig that had proper piano accompaniment. In addition to brand new works by living composers, the concert included one of the GSS signature pieces, The Choral New Yorker by Irving Fine.
The Choral New Yorker is made of three comic dances and a final long elegy, all settings of poems from an anthology of The New Yorker. Harmonically and rhythmically it is as if the basic shapes of Stravinsky were given an infusion of Gershwin. The piano part was fun to play and perfect for my abilities at that time.
Much later, I stumbled across a CRI compilation of composers at the keyboard that included Fine himself playing the “Waltz-Gavotte” movement from Music for Piano. I was astonished at the confident pianism. The music was good, too, but the playing was really the thing. Rhythmic and elegant; indeed, almost swinging. Unfortunately only one of the other three movements of Music for Piano, the “Variations,” was recorded and has never been reissued on CD.
Fine is also heard on the rather recondite song cycle Mutability. I’d much rather he had completed Music for Piano! Still, even on Mutability there is real aliveness to Fine’s keyboard artistry.
All of Fine’s music has been recorded, in some cases several times. For his 100th birthday, I listened to everything, dug up his 1948 essay “The Story of Twentieth Century Music,” and tracked my own lo-fi performance of his best piano piece.
The Forties instrumental music is Neo-Classical in the Boulanger school idiom, a mixture of Stravinsky and Copland with a bit of a French accent. The rhythms can be a little “American jazzy.”
Sonata for violin and piano (1946)
Toccata Concertante for orchestra (1947)
Music for Piano (1947)
Partita for wind quintet (1948)
Fine distinguishes himself by ease of counterpoint and melodic inspiration. The music is full of important detail but remains light on its feet. The winner is the Partita, at this point a true classic for the instrumentation. (iTunes has eight recordings.)
The Partita burbles and chortles amongst five happy winds before drawing to a heartfelt close.
Music for Piano is almost as good. It’s perfectly written for the instrument. Indeed, all of Fine’s music is idiomatic no matter the orchestration. (Speaking of which, I’m regrettably unimpressed with Joel Spiegelman’s lightweight transcription of Music for Piano into Music for Orchestra.)
The Sonata for Violin and Piano is not as well-balanced structurally; some ideas wear out their welcome. It’s still worth hearing, as is the Toccata Concertante, a blaze of efficient motion slightly undercut by an overwhelming emphasis on the octatonic scale. The best parts of the Toccata have an engaging lyric sweep over compelling counterpoint.
The Fifties and Sixties instrumental music is less obviously Neo-Classic, instead becoming more lush and romantic or lean and abstract. This is the music that most fascinates scholars and critics, for while its value is obvious, it remains curiously hard to assess.
Notturno for strings and harp (1950–51)
Serious Song: a Lament for Strings (1955)
Romanza for wind quintet (1958)
String Quartet (1952)
Fantasia for String Trio (1956)
The Notturno is a collection of intriguing ideas superbly crafted for string forces. The harp contributes some lovely special effects. As Ramey notes, we wish that the composer had stayed with his ideas longer, as the result is a bit unfocused. A highlight is the short post-Bartók “Animato,” which shows how well Fine could write fast music.
Serious Song is often considered Fine’s best piece overall. The echo of Neo-Classicism informs the counterpoint and structural balance, yet the idiom is quite restrained and specific to this work. If there were a dozen Fine pieces like Serious Song, he would have a much greater profile today.
At the recapitulation, Fine pauses to conjure the most astonishing harmonies in bell-like quarter notes.
There are many recordings of Serious Song. I’ve heard five so far, and particularly admire the recent version by Scott Yoo and Metamorphosen. However the one by Gerald Schwarz and the Los Angeles Symphony is also excellent, part of the Nonesuch compilation of Partita, String Quartet, Notturno, and The Hour Glass, arguably the most representative Fine CD to date. (The players on Partita are a superlative edition of the New York Woodwind Quintet with Samuel Baron, Ronald Roseman, Charles Neidich, William Purvis, and Donald MacCourt.)
(Update: Not long after the centennial, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project released the complete Fine orchestral music on one CD. This has the best Toccata Concertante and good notes by Fine scholar Nicholas Alexander Brown.)
Ramey calls Romanza, “One of Fine’s most mature and personal scores.” It has been recorded only once, a strait-laced rendition by the Boehm Quintette. Something more sardonic might be required to get the most out of this unusual collection of pitches and rhythms.
The three major Fifties pieces above are tonal. In three others Fine explored twelve-tone music in a personal way. Other American atonalists of that era like Elliot Carter, Milton Babbitt, Gunther Schuller, or Ralph Shapey obviously believed in the aesthetic more than Fine does, crowding their scores with thousands of dissonant notes. Closer to Fine’s lyrical aesthetic in dodecaphony are selections from later Aaron Copland, even moments of Samuel Barber; even closer are pieces from Arthur Berger, Wallingford Riegger and Louise Talma. In my amateur view, while both Leon Kirchner and Roger Sessions could sit comfortably in the middle between Copland and Babbitt, few of the more lyrical composers of that generation found a way to make atonality work all the time. Some pieces are great, some wander around. Talma might have got there the furthest; you’d barely guess that the 12-note matrix was animating her Piano Sonata No. 2 or the Violin Sonata. These were hard waters to navigate. Fine’s close friend (and important influence) Harold Shapero quit composing entirely.
The best of Fine’s atonal scores is the Fantasia for String Trio. Reduced to such a slender frame, the chromatic harmony breathes easily. More than in the other hyper-chromatic pieces, Fine’s gift for melodic shape is unencumbered by dodecaphony. In addition, all three movements are the perfect length.
The general flavor is more Bartók than Schoenberg, although Fine’s Neo-Classic heritage has final say. On the last page, the full aggregate is completed over a pure Stravinsky-Boulanger bass.
Some find more in the String Quartet and the Symphony than I do. Have a listen and judge for yourself! To me they seem a little underwritten and lack the natural forward motion found in the best of earlier Fine. When considering the density of the harmony, the argument is undercooked or blocky.
Once in a while an expressionist gesture will appear as a lonely and rather undigested effect.
The Symphony has a powerful close, clanging chimes over ground bass, an amplification of the kind of thing Stravinsky worked out in Symphony of Psalms. The recording of Fine conducting the world premiere will always have special weight, for the composer suddenly died eleven days later of a heart attack, only 47 years old.
Irving Fine was attuned to the needs of vocalists, perhaps especially college singers and college choirs. As my own experience with the Gregg Smith Singers shows, some of these pieces might have done the most to keep his name in circulation.
3 Choruses from Alice in Wonderland (1942)
second set of 3 Choruses from Alice in Wonderland (1953)
The Choral New Yorker (1944)
The Hour Glass (1949)
Childhood Fables for Grown-ups (1954–5)
McCord’s Menagerie (1957)
The most serious is The Hour Glass with texts by Ben Jonson, but perhaps stronger overall are the comic pieces Alice in Wonderland, The Choral New Yorker, and McCord’s Menagerie.
The song cycle Mutability is intriguingly dense but doesn’t have convincing harmonic tension and release. (Ramey likes it more than I do.) The recording is most notable for Fine’s own piano playing; unfortunately the singer is below par.
The Childhood Fables see steady duty as a lighthearted addition to student recitals. There is absolutely nothing wrong with music intended to raise a smile.
Lesser works include Blue Towers (1959) and Diversions (1959–60), orchestral pops trivia surprisingly close to Prokofiev, and other bits and pieces like the easy piano Hommage à Mozart (1956).
For me, the short list of essential Fine includes
Music for Piano
Fantasia for String Trio
These four minor masterpieces will remain relevant as long as anyone takes an interest in American midcentury classical music.
Ramey writes of summer activities in 1947:
Additionally, he spent “one week of agony” writing a 6,000-word article, “The Story of Twentieth-Century Music”; this would be published by the Grolier Society in 1948 as a chapter in the Book of Knowledge, and he was paid $200, a good fee in those days.
Today, the book is on eBay for $4.99. The essay is naturally dated but is still an interesting read. It’s not easy to compress all this information into something for a general audience.
As mentioned at the top of the page, Irving Fine recorded the two middle movements of Music for Piano in the early Fifties. As far as I know, the whole set was not committed to disc until 1991, when Michael Boriskin recorded a wonderful recital for New World. The CD also includes the three short sonatas (sometimes called Three Amateur Sonatas) by Fine’s great friend Harold Shapero.
When considering the whys and wherefores of Boston Neo-Classicism, comparing the Shapero and Fine pieces on Boriskin’s disc is a worthy crucible. In the end, the Shapero pieces are better. Honestly, I can’t understand why professional pianists don’t play these tiny masterworks more often, especially the first sonata in D Major.
Shapero may have greater genius, but Fine has something almost as attractive. Boriskin describes it perfectly in his liner notes: “While it inhabits the same sound world as the Shapero sonatas, Fine’s lyricism is more overt and vocal, his textures richer and more traditionally pianistic, and the rhetoric more flowing.”
Boriskin obviously listened to Fine’s version of “Waltz-Gavotte” as he emulates some delightful dance rubato not marked in the score. A worthy 2001 recording of Music for Piano by Andrew Willis offers a more overtly passionate perspective than either Boriskin or Fine.
Just for fun, here’s my own iPhone tape of the “Variations” from Music for Piano. I made this right before TBP soundcheck at the Oakland jazz club Yoshi’s on December 3rd, 2014, exactly 100 years after Fine’s birth. There are a couple of wrong notes and bit of background noise as the staff sets up the restaurant.
“Variations” is the longest movement of Music for Piano and exhibits all the best qualities of Fine’s Neo-Classic music. It is essentially lyric and utterly diatonic. Indeed, no accidentals are required in the long theme, which moves from B to G to B before ending on an unresolved G-sharp minor.
The second section offers the only hint of instrumental brilliance. Perhaps worried about time constraints Fine plays it faster than the metronome mark and muddles it slightly. It still exudes a flair that eludes Boriskin, Willis, and myself.
While called “Variations,” this piece feels more like four panels of a painting: the melodic shapes and harmonic coloring are consistent, but there is no conventional varying of a theme over a repeating form.
The third section is my favorite. Under the hands, it feels rather like a displaced Chopin nocturne, although Fine’s own performance suggests the less rubato, the better. I love it so much that I ignore the score and repeat the second half as well as the first.
In the middle of the final section, Fine comes up with an utterly original wide-spaced chorale with syncopated bass line.
The main part of this variation is all in B major, of course, but Fine is careful never to state a clear B harmony, giving it a curiously immobile yet still charismatic harmonic texture. Eventually, that stasis goes all the way to the last bar, for there’s no ending, just a transition to the last movement. Fine plays it that way on his record, leaving the music essentially unfinished (when you don’t go on to the last movement).
Would a concluding B chord invalidate the previous “immobility”? Apologies for a sacrilege possibly even worse than adding a repeat to the nocturne: I improvise a final cadence to make “Variations” a standalone piano piece in four complete parts. The CalTrain outside the club seems to approve, going by in B major right at the end…or perhaps that was the composer’s shade, protesting the intrusion.
The Irving Fine Society is run by Nicholas Alexander Brown. Brown has also been in charge of the centennial festivities at the Library of Congress this week. Special note should be made of Brown’s oral histories. Thanks to Brown for his personal encouragement (including sharing some rare documents) while I was working on this post.
Arthur Berger, another member of Fine’s close circle, penned the valuable Reflections of an American Composer, available online here. There’s not so much about Fine’s music in this book but undoubtedly Berger and Fine shared a lot of the same concerns.
I was a bit disappointed by R. James Tobin’s Neoclassical Music in America: Voices of Clarity and Restraint. The chapter on Fine is not much more than a synopsis of Ramey, and somehow Tobin thinks the arrangement Music for Orchestra supersedes Music for Piano. The most interesting chapter in Tobin covers Shapero.
I managed to speak with Phillip Ramey briefly last week. Ramey’s biography of Fine is extremely level-headed, so I was amused to discover that Ramey was a provocative firebrand in conversation. A taste of his personality can be found in Ramey’s terrific interview with Frank J. Oteri in NewMusicBox. The book anthologies discerning comments on Fine by Harold Shapero, Richard Wernick, Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Milton Babbitt, Leon Kirchner, Arthur Berger, and David Diamond. Ramey is an important composer himself. Those wanting to immerse themselves in Fine further must read An American Composer in His Time.
Write It All Down (Fully Notated 20th Century American Piano Music)