In 1967, referring to Irving Fine in the liner notes to an RCA Victor recording of Fine’s Fantasia, the prominent actor and music aficionado Peter Ustinov wrote, “It is always sad when a man dies young; it is sadder still when that man leaves behind evidence of irreplaceable talent…. With Fine, American music lost a discreet talent, more personal by far than most.”
Indeed, for Aaron Copland, perceived for decades as the dean of American composers—and without doubt the most prominent American composer of his generation—Fine’s music “wins us over through its keenly conceived sonorities and its fully realized expressive content.” Copland, who considered Fine an important junior member of his own group, valued his music in sum for its “elegance, style, finish and convincing continuity.”
Fine was born in Boston, where his early training was in piano. At Harvard University, where he earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees, he studied composition with Walter Piston (1894–1976), one of the major figures among American composers for much of the 20th century and one of the leading pedagogues in the field. Also at Harvard, Fine studied orchestration with Edward Burlingame Hill and choral conducting—in which he became actively involved thereafter—with Archibald T. Davison, the author of the instructional book The Technique of Choral Composition.
Fine’s honors thesis at Harvard—“Stravinsky’s Contribution to Twentieth-Century Musical Style”—offers evidence of his own early leanings toward neoclassicism, which characterized much of Stravinsky’s work up to that time and with which Stravinsky was commonly associated as its most celebrated exponent. The thesis addresses in some depth Stravinsky’s stylistic features in that context. Fine pursued his neoclassical penchant further by studying with the legendary Mme. Nadia Boulanger, often considered the “high priestess” of Stravinskian neoclassicism (who was Copland’s teacher as well)—first in Cambridge (Massachusetts) while she was at Radcliffe College, and then in Paris in 1939 on a Fulbright Fellowship.
Upon his return from Paris, Fine was appointed as a tutor at Radcliffe and subsequently became a teaching fellow at Harvard, where he lectured in theory and music history. While there, he was assistant director of the Harvard Glee Club, and during the Second World War he conducted the Naval Training School Glee Club. In 1945 he was appointed to Harvard’s faculty. Meanwhile, at Tanglewood (the Berkshire Music Center) he studied conducting with Serge Koussevitzky and served on its faculty as well for nine of its summer seasons (1946–1957). It was at Harvard and at Tanglewood that he developed professional, artistic, and personal associations with Stravinsky, Copland, and Leonard Bernstein.
Phillip Ramey’s biography, Irving Fine: An American Composer in His Time, maintains that Fine’s denial of tenure at Harvard, following the usual period on the tenure track, was personally as well as professionally devastating for him. It is said that he never completely recovered from his bitterness over what he considered an outright injustice—not least because he attributed it to anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish discrimination within Harvard’s music department as well as in the wider ranks of the university. The degree, if any, to which anti-Jewish sentiments or hostilities may have played a role is difficult to calculate, but Fine’s assessment, which remained for him a certainty, may not have been entirely without foundation.
In the prevailing late-20th- and early-21st-century atmosphere in academia, as well as in the music world—when prized Jewish studies departments are acknowledged for lending prestige to even the most elite American colleges and universities, and when former academic bastions of the so-called WASP establishment now encourage cross-cultural and non-Western musical studies that include quintessentially Jewish genres—Fine’s accusation may seem strange, if not self-indulgent. But the incident is worth reexamining, since it recalls an era in which there was indisputable anti-Semitism and a climate of anti-Jewish attitudes at many American institutions of higher learning. Neither the music department at Harvard nor those at other similarly elite universities—nor even prominent music conservatories—were free of unfriendly attitudes toward Jews and their perceived disproportionate presence or influence. Of course, those biases could be veiled in a more subtle “New England brand” of anti-Semitism (the Hollywood film Gentlemen’s Agreement comes to mind). But some not-so-subtle strategies for keeping Jewish enrollment and faculty to a minimum at universities, Brown and Princeton, for example, have been unearthed and published. And it is no secret that major medical schools engaged in a quota system vis-à-vis Jews, a practice that persisted as late as the 1960s. (Ironically, or perhaps disingenuously, that status quo did not appear to attract the ire—or even the attention—of the many Jewish activists among the student protesters in the turbulent campus disturbances of the 1960s.)
In the pre-1960s academic music world, that situation was probably born more out of resentment at supposed Jewish (as well as “New York”) encroachment on American cultural territory—as the imagined rightful domain of its more “inherently American” proprietors—than simply out of inherited social elitism or discrimination. The field had once all but belonged to composers such as Edward MacDowell (1861–1908) and his successors (although MacDowell’s music could hardly be characterized as substantively American), whose claim on the very notion of a homegrown American concert music had seemed firm. Until the 1930s, Jews had not figured visibly in that emerging milieu, notwithstanding their prominence in popular, entertainment-oriented music. Now, the ascendance of an Aaron Copland (1900–1990)—quintessential New Yorker, Brooklyn-born son of eastern European immigrant Jews, known homosexual, and transparent leftist with Communist Party affiliations and involvements with Communist-funded musical organizations—together with the emergence of a circle of protégés and followers (of which Fine would be considered a member), had the potential for fanning the flames of any latent anti-Semitism that might have been harbored by those fellow composers, senior or not, who felt eclipsed by Copland’s unprecedented national public attention. To some of those composers who felt grounded in so-called middle-American values, sensibilities, or origins, he and his followers could be viewed as “outsiders.” Nor would his persona and growing popularity necessarily have endeared him to everyone in the scholarly musical pursuits of the academy. That Copland by the late 1940s was already an admirer of Fine’s work and had become a kind of father figure for him might not have helped Fine’s cause at Harvard. Writing more than a half century later, American composer Leo Kraft has suggested both a prejudice on the part of a Boston patrician establishment and an opposition to Fine from within Harvard’s faculty—opining that his chief adversary in the department may have been composer and fellow Bostonian, as well as fellow Harvard alumnus, Randall Thompson (1899–1984). Known virtually to all American high school and numerous college choruses (at least until late in the 20th century), especially for his ubiquitous Alleluia (1940) and his didactically patriotic The Testament of Freedom to words of Thomas Jefferson (1932), but also for his sacred music in general, Thompson’s conservative if not old-fashioned (though nonetheless arresting) harmonic and overall stylistic approach had little of Fine’s sense of adventure. In any case, there may be, as Kraft observes, a certain irony in the fact that Fine later became identified as one of a group of composers known as the Boston Six, together with Lukas Foss, Harold Shapero, Arthur Berger, Leonard Bernstein, and Copland himself—all of them Jews.
Yet even if a form of anti-Semitism in some way underlay Fine’s denial of tenure, it may not have played a solo role. At the time, the focus of university music departments was still largely on the scholarly disciplines of music theory and historical musicology, especially at the graduate level. Performance and composition trailed those pursuits with regard to doctoral legitimacy in the academy for some time, and the institution of academic and even conservatory doctoral degrees in composition was a gradual process. It was not until the mid to late 1960s that Columbia University (whose first professor of music was MacDowell), for example, instituted a doctoral degree in composition; and even then, only as a D.M.A. through the newly established program at its School of the Arts, not as a Ph.D. through its Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. So, in the Harvard of his day, Fine, as a composer rather than a scholar or academician, would probably not have been in a position to compete favorably for a tenured post with a candidate from the other accepted disciplines. Even less so with another composer—Thompson—already on the faculty.
In 1950 Fine joined the faculty of the newly founded Brandeis University, where he served as Walter W. Naumburg Professor of Music and rose to the chairmanship of the School of Creative Arts.
In his all-too-brief life, one can observe three assimilative and interrelated developmental stages in Fine’s art as he struggled to reconcile contemporary techniques and approaches with what he had to communicate. Of most interest to critics is his change of direction from neoclassicism to serial or serial-influenced procedures, punctuated by a short foray into Romantic or neo-Romantic expression marked by distinct lyricism.
Not surprisingly, Fine’s early compositions reflect the impact of his enthusiasm for Stravinsky’s neoclassical explorations. For Fine, as for others in the circle of Boulanger pupils, neoclassicism offered a non-dodecaphonic direction—even if partial and only short-lived for some adherents—away from the full-blown Romanticism of the 19th century, without abandoning tonality or historical continuity altogether. Finding a way to “move on” from what many perceived as the exhausted modes and aesthetics of 19th-century Romantic expression had posed a challenge to intellectually curious, forward-looking composers even before the turn of the century. But radical departures—most notably the theoretical rejection of tonality (to the extent that any music reliant upon the twelve pitches of the even-tempered tuning system can be devoid of tonal reference), had neither met the challenge nor resolved the problem for many composers. Nor could it find immediate resonance across a broad range of audiences, though some were indeed open to its bold freshness.
Neoclassicism, together with its various tributaries and offshoots, offered an alternative solution to Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School’s serial-oriented nontonal, or pantonal (twelve tone) procedures. It did so by returning deliberately instead to formal, harmonic, and other aesthetic elements that had prevailed prior to the 19th century in Western music, but in a new guise and with a battery of contemporary vocabularies, idioms, and innovations.
Like the serialist school, neoclassicism was born of a search for objectively balanced order as an organizing force in music—but still, albeit liberally, within the legacy of Western tonality, and not necessarily shunning dissonance, chromatic sonorities, or highly irregular rhythms. For Stravinsky, who eventually experimented with twelve-tone procedures as well, neoclassicism constituted “a living force that animates and informs the present.” For him, tradition was much more than repetition of the past. Rather, it “presupposes the reality of what endures . . . a heritage that one receives on condition of making it bear fruit.” That orientation and that charge had powerful appeal for Fine, whose musical development and maturation during the 1930s and 1940s coincided with, and thus was profoundly affected by, the rise of neoclassicism almost as a quasi-movement. “It satisfied a deep need in Fine’s creative psyche,” wrote Copland in an essay devoted to his younger colleague, “the need for an emotive world that includes imaginative freedom along with a sense of order and control.” Copland recognized in Fine’s music a prevailing “craftsmanship that shapes the composition with a sure hand,” always with “intensity and movement and sometimes a surprising pathos.” But Fine was no slavish imitator of Stravinsky or his models. In short order, as would any truly original artist, he developed his own brand of neoclassicism, infused with his own imagination. A high point of his own neoclassical phase is reflected in his Toccata Concertante for Orchestra (1947), in altered classical sonata form, written for the Boston Symphony and premiered under Serge Koussevitzky’s baton in 1948. “When I was writing this piece,” Fine wrote, “I was aware of a certain affinity with the energetic music of the Baroque concertos.” He went on to explain the qualifying adjective concertante in the title as appropriate to the soloistic nature of the orchestration, “especially in the second theme group and closing sections of the exposition and recapitulation.” Fine began work on this piece in 1946, during one of the many summers he spent at the MacDowell Colony, and he spent roughly a year completing it.
Another significant work from that period is his Music for Piano (1947)—a suite dedicated to Nadia Boulanger on the occasion of her sixtieth birthday. Written in four movements (a prelude, a “waltz-gavotte,” a set of four variations, and an “interlude-finale” the suite shows his concern for carefully worked out detail and transparent, crystalline texture. It was later orchestrated by an associate of Fine’s, Joel Spiegelman, who retitled it as Music for Orchestra. Also from this period is his Partita for Wind Quintet (1948).
For a few years at the very end of the decade Fine began to flirt with echoes of the Romantic periods of the 19th century, assimilating those elements into his personal contemporary approach. That direction was first noticeable in his Notturno for Strings and Harp (1951), a work of grace and melodic nobility. That and his 1955 Serious Song: Lament for String Orchestra are generally cited as his two most frequently performed orchestral works. An important vocal work that owes its genesis to this period of Romantic imprint is his Mutability (1952), a song cycle in which his harmonic eclecticism comes to the fore. In general, his music of those years gives evidence of an abiding concern for inventive melody, something he almost envied in the works of other composers, and a strong lyrical bent.
His biographer has suggested, however (confirmed by fellow composers), that by the early 1950s Fine had come to question the depth of much of his earlier work. Meanwhile, Stravinsky had succumbed to the call of serialism in some new works, and Copland made his first foray into the technique with his Piano Quartet (only partly a serial work, with its row based on half-steps rather than using the full range of intervals). Seeking to give greater substance to his music, and perhaps influenced by the turn to serialism by the two contemporary composers he most admired, Fine felt ready to try his hand at dodecaphonic procedures as well. It was thus in 1952, in his String Quartet, that he first experimented with a twelve-tone serial approach, and he continued it with his Fantasia for string trio (1957). But he found a way to adapt those putatively atonal serial techniques to his own diatonic predilections and to use them freely, preserving a sense of tonal centers that functioned as anchors. In his late works, he was, in effect, reconciling diatonic and chromatic elements, allowing for interactions between twelve-tone methods and tonal principles.
Fine’s last work was his grandest undertaking: his expansive symphony, which Copland described as “almost operatic in gesture.” With that symphony, commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under a Ford Foundation grant, he appeared to have reached a new level of complexity and profundity. It was premiered by the Boston Symphony at Tanglewood less than two weeks before the composer’s sudden heart attack and death, in 1962. Charles Munch, who was slated to conduct, took ill, and the composer conducted the performance himself. Referring both to the work’s musical attributes, with its astutely crafted polyphonic passages and its driving rhythmic force, and to the poignant circumstances surrounding it as the final work of so young a composer, Fine’s biographer called it a symphony “that must forever intrigue as both a beginning and end.” During the 1966–67 season of the New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein conducted another performance, introducing the symphony to New York audiences. “It is saddening to think,” commented Aaron Copland, “that Fine was not fated to carry through to full fruition the new direction clearly inherent in the best pages of the ‘Symphony.’”
As an experienced choral conductor dating from his days directing glee clubs in the Boston area, Fine wrote a number of interesting choral settings that have received frequent performances. Among these are his Three Choruses from Alice in Wonderland (1942)—“The Lobster,” “Quadrille,” and “Lullaby of the Duchess”—followed by a second set also drawn from Lewis Caroll’s Alice, this time scored for women’s chorus on a commission from Bradford Junior College in 1953, which comprises “The Knave’s Letter,” “White Knight’s Song,” and “Beautiful Soup”; The Choral New Yorker (1944); The Hour-Glass; Childhood Fables for Grownups; McCord’s Menagerie, written for the hundredth anniversary of the Harvard Glee Club, including the four pieces “Vultur Gryphus,” “Jeroba,” “Mole,” and “Clam”; and A Short Alleluia, which was recorded for the Milken Archive in 2000. He also created choral arrangements of Copland’s Old American Songs and set poems about some of his composer colleagues and friends, such as Bernstein, Shapero, and Foss.
Fine was not above writing so-called light or humorous music, such as his 1959 march, Blue Towers, based on a college football song; and Diversions for Orchestra (1960), which incorporates two pieces that he had conceived originally for the Alice in Wonderland settings: “Flamingo Polka” and “Red Queen’s Gavotte.” Showing his humorous side, another movement of Diversions describes his French poodle, Koko, in a lullaby.
Among the honors and awards presented to Fine were a National Institute of Arts and Letters Award, a New York Music Critics Circle Award, two Guggenheim fellowships, and a Fulbright research fellowship. He was also highly regarded as a lecturer and writer about contemporary/20th-century music. He contributed articles to such journals as Notes and Modern Music. His lectures about the French phenomenon known as musique concrète, which he first encountered during his stay in Paris, as well as those assessing in overview format the work of six American composers, were particularly well received.
At the time of his death, Fine had begun work on a violin concerto, of which only initial fragments had emerged. And he was collaborating with his former student, Richard Wernick, on plans for an opera or musical stage work based on Stephen Crane’s novel Maggie: A Girl of the Streets.
At a concert in September 1962, just over a month after Fine’s death, Leonard Bernstein programmed a movement from his Notturno for Strings and Harp as a memorial. In his comments to the audience, Bernstein spoke of Fine as “a beautiful spirit in the world of music. . . . He was goodness itself, almost to a saintly degree, and that goodness radiates from his music.” Three years later, Aaron Copland paid Fine the highest tribute when, in a discussion recalled by David C. F. Wright in his analysis of Fine’s contributions, he remarked simply, “He was the greatest of us all.”
Photo credit: Irving Fine Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress