Born in Chicago, Vivian Fine revealed distinctive musical gifts at an early age. At the age of five she won a scholarship to study at the Chicago Musical College, commencing that program the following year. In 1923 she entered the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago, where she studied violin, and a year later she began piano studies with Djane Lavoie-Herz, a pupil of the Russian composer Alexander Scriabin. Scriabin was thus indirectly to become a powerful influence on Fine’s own work when she started to compose in 1926. She studied harmony and composition subsequently with Ruth Crawford, a fellow pupil (twelve years Fine’s senior) of Lavoie-Herz.
Fine’s works from the late 1920s focus predominantly on chamber music. These pieces were written in a forthright, contrapuntal, and dissonant style under the influence of both Crawford and the pioneering American composer Henry Cowell. After she relocated to New York in 1931, she worked as a pianist at the Gluck Sandor Dance Theater. That same year, her music was heard at a concert in Hamburg devoted to works by women composers, where she and Crawford represented the United States. In 1934 she began composition studies with Roger Sessions, and her music gradually underwent a move to a less dissonant idiom. At the same time, her involvement in the world of contemporary dance—and her associations with leading choreographers—led to several dance works. The first of these was The Race of Life (1937) for Doris Humphrey, which represents the high point of her openly diatonic approach. That work was followed by Opus 51, written for Charles Weidman and first performed at the Bennington Festival in 1938. Later works for dance include Alcestis (1960), for Martha Graham, and My Son, My Enemy (1965) for José Limón.
In 1977 a commission from the National Endowment for the Arts led to the composition of Fine’s opera TheWomen in the Garden. Premiered in 1978, it is an imagined encounter among Emily Dickenson, Isadora Duncan, Gertrude Stein, and Virginia Woolf, with a libretto based on quotations from their writings. A second opera, Memoirs of Uliana Rooney (1994), was commissioned by the Dallas Opera. This so-called multimedia work recounts the story of a 20th-century female composer.
Fine was involved in the founding of the American Composers Alliance in 1938, and she served as its vice-president from 1961 to 1965. She taught at New York University and at The Juilliard School during the 1940s, and she was the music director of the Rothschild Foundation from 1953 to 1960. In 1964 she began teaching at Bennington College in Vermont, where she remained until her retirement in 1987. She was killed in an automobile accident on March 20, 2000. She was 86.
In a 1989 interview with TheNew York Times, Fine expressed the hope that the term “woman composer” would soon be discarded, thereby aligning herself with the view of such composers as Miriam Gideon and Shulamit Ran. “Women are accepted in literature, painting, and sculpture,” Fine pointed out. “We don’t talk of ‘poetesses’ anymore.” Her honors included her election to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1979, and a Guggenheim Fellowship for composition in 1980. Her Drama for Orchestra, a five-movement work based on paintings by Norwegian expressionist Edvard Munch, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for music. It was commissioned and performed by the San Francisco Symphony as part of a weeklong retrospective of her work in 1983.