Seventy Years of
Composing: An Interview with Vivian
by Leslie Jones
Contemporary Music Review, (1997) vol.
16 pp 21-26
Vivian Fine is among the pioneering women
of contemporary American music. With a career
encompassing seventy years (1925-95) and beyond,
Fine has produced a wealth of compositions, for
which she has achieved recognition through
numerous awards, commissions, and grants. Despite
influences from various teachers, including Ruth
Crawford and Roger Sessions, and contact with
many other high-profile American composers of
this century, the essence of Fine’s music
— her hallmark characteristics of linear
writing and harmony defined by dissonance —
has remained relatively unchanged. In 1996 Vivian
Fine, in her eighty-third year, continues to
compose with a vigor usually reserved for youth.
This interview explores her thoughts on music,
shares reminiscences about past teachers and
associates, and traces her growth as a composer
and an individual.
“Among the composers in the central part
of the United States, the most interesting figure
is Vivian Fine. . .” This statement, made
by Henry Cowell in 1930, describes an emerging
young composer, a Chicagoan, who was at the time
a mere seventeen years of age. In 1996 Vivian
Fine (b. 1913), at the age of 83, continues to be
in the forefront of contemporary American music.
She has proven herself to be not only an
“interesting figure” but a highly
productive, distinguished composer who has
contributed greatly, through her music and
commitment, to the recognition of women composers
as a creative force in the twentieth century.
A scholarship student at the Chicago Musical
College at the age of five, Fine later studied
piano with Scriabin disciple Djane Lavoie-Herz
and theory and composition with Ruth Crawford.
Upon moving to New York, Fine studied piano with
Abby Whiteside and composition with Roger
Sessions, while establishing herself as a
performer and promoter of new music in circles
that included such figures as Aaron Copland,
Henry Cowell, and Virgil Thomson. Fine’s
musical output envelops many and various genres,
including operas, music for chamber, choral, or
orchestral ensembles, and works for solo
instruments. Some of her most successful
compositions over the years have been dance
collaborations with dancerchoreographers
Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman, Hanya Holm,
Martha Graham, and Jose Limon. Fine has served on
the faculties of New York University, the
Juilliard School, New York State University at
Potsdam, Connecticut College, and Bennington
College, from which she retired in 1987. Among
her many awards are grants from the Ford,
Rockefeller, Ditson, Woolley, and Guggenheim
Foundations and the Dollard and Yaddo Awards. She
has also been elected to membership in the
prestigious American Academy and Institute of
Arts and Letters.
Fine’s compositional style has developed
considerably over the course of seventy years,
but the essence of her music — her hallmark
characteristics of linear writing and harmony
defined by dissonance has remained essentially
unchanged. From being described early in her
career as “writing in the grimmest of
styles,” she has continually refined her
craft, experimenting with diverse genres, with
tonality and atonality, serialism, homophony, and
counterpoint. Fine is not content to rest on past
accomplishments, but exudes an enthusiastic
desire to continue to compose. She shared her
thoughts on music and life as a composer with
Your study with Ruth Crawford began in
1925, when you were 12. Thus your career as a
composer was set in motion. Seventy years later
we have a wealth and lifetime of your
compositions. What have been some of the
highlights of your career?
I don’t think of my life in terms of
having highlights. Life somehow does not feel
that way; it simply unfolds. For instance, one of
the nicest things that ever happened to me
musically was a memorial service at Bennington
for George Finckel, a cellist, wonderful teacher
and performer. I wrote a piece for sixteen cellos
and conducted it. I often think back on that and
how marvelous it was to hear music played by
sixteen cellos. So you see, it isn’t
necessarily something famous or something
extraordinary. However, I loved having my
commissioned work [Drama for Orchestra, 19831
played by the San Francisco Symphony, but
I’ve also had performances by groups of
three instruments that have given me enormous
Were there any memorably difficult times
in your career to work through, or obstacles to
Life is entirely an obstacle! Wasn’t it
Shakespeare who said, “Life is a tale told
by an idiot?” I don’t think of life
as a hassle or an obstacle, but it is complex;
it’s never simple. It isn’t as if
there were quiet times and then some awful knot
would appear. There are problems to solve every
day. So I don’t tend to think in terms of
especially difficult times. Of course, there have
been various crises with my children and my
husband, and anybody who says they don’t
have them isn’t telling the truth.
That’s what life is!
Of the many accolades you have received
over the years, do any hold particular
significance for you?
I love them all!
You have associated with many of the great
composers, performers, and music writers/critics
of the twentieth century. Are there any
particular individuals or noteworthy experiences
that come to mind?
Of course, most all of that generation are
gone. In fact, the only one who is left is Otto
Luening, whom I speak to very occasionally. But I
look back with fondness and enjoy thinking at
times of my associations with Copland and Virgil
Thomson. Those are the two composers I knew best.
I think of their personalities — it’s
that which I like to recall.
You served as a dance accompanist for
choreographers Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman,
and Hanya Holm in the late 1930s, which led to
several successful dance compositions — The
Race of Life, Opus 51, Tragic Exodus. What was it
about your music that lent itself well to
At that point I had been playing a lot for
dancers and I seem to have the capacity to feel
the movement that the dancer was making, and to
adjust my playing and composing to that. However,
the choreographers you mention did not use music
that I had already written at all. Everything I
did for them I composed specially.
After these early dance pieces, you
intimated that you did not want to limit yourself
to writing for dance. Do you have any inclination
to write any new dance pieces?
I don’t really feel like writing dance
music today, but interestingly enough, there may
be a choreographer upstate here [in New York] who
is interested in choreographing several of my
compositions. So it has come full circle. Instead
of my writing for dance, choreographers want to
use my existing music. Actually, I have something
very wonderful to add. My granddaughter, Keli
Noton, is a dancer and she very recently
choreographed three small pieces of mine. So I am
connected with dance now and with my
What pieces did she choreograph?
I have a set of pieces for guitar, flute, and
cello called Canciónes y Danzas. They are
all pieces that have a Spanish flavor. They were
commissioned by Joel Brown, who is a guitarist on
the faculty of Skidmore College; these will be
issued on CD. My granddaughter used three of
You studied with Ruth Crawford between
1924 and 1929. How would you describe the role
she played in your life?
She influenced me in a very fundamental way. I
always thought it was perfectly natural to write
music. I never thought of myself as a woman
composer, and of course, Ruth was a woman
composer, so that was something very fundamental
that I got from her. Also, she took a very deep
interest in my compositions and my development
— in a very feeling way. She wasn’t
didactic and she didn’t think of me as just
“some young thing.” We had a real
Let’s talk about your early
compositional style (1925-37). You’re
described by Henry Cowell as “writing in
the grimmest of styles.” What
characteristics gave your early music its harsh
The amount of dissonance. I thought of
avant-garde (although I really didn’t know
the term avant-garde) or modern music as being
dissonant. I would not allow a sense of tonality
in my music. With the brashness of youth, I was
What pieces from this period exemplify
Four Pieces for Two Flutes  and Four
Polyphonic Pieces [for piano, 1931-32], which I
played at the Yaddo Festival in Saratoga Springs,
Between 1937 and 1944 your music changed,
moving in a more tonal direction. What caused
For one thing, I began to study with Roger
Sessions. My composer friend, Israel Citkowitz,
thought that I should have a thorough grounding
in harmony. That was part of it. The other part
was that the world changed. There was the Great
Depression and a lot of artists —
composers, writers, etc. — moved leftward.
It was a very, very different world in the 1920s
and part of this leftward shift involved
communicating with what we called “the
What works from these years best exhibit
your experimentation with tonality?
The ballet Race of Life, for Doris Humphrey,
and the Four Elizabethan Songs were written
during this period, and I still like those. Also,
the Suite in E-flat Major  for solo piano.
I still think they show that they are
compositions, not just glib exercises in
After 1944 you seemed to return to
atonality, but using a more tempered approach.
Can you explain this?
I see this music as a sort of return to my
roots, but with added change, further study, and
exposure to many composers and new music.
An interesting piece that I’ve
studied is the Chaconne [for piano] from 1947.
Twelve-tone technique has never been a part
of your musical language, yet this piece is built
on a twelve-tone row. Is this an
I tried to experiment with twelve-tone
technique in this piece. The basic theme or
material of the Chaconne is twelve-tone, but the
rest of it is not. I could never get myself to
reach the point where I could stick with it or be
locked into it. Many wonderful pieces have been
written in the twelve-tone language, but it just
was not for me.
You agree that your style may be
characterized as linear and contrapuntal. Canons,
retrograde, inversion, stretto, fugal writing,
and exchanging voice positions surface repeatedly
in your works. How did you become steeped in the
use of counterpoint?
I had a fine sense of linear shape very early
on in my composing. By looking at composition in
this way, I bypassed the problem of having to
deal with any kind of conventional harmony. I let
the harmonies happen; the harmonies fall where
they may fall. I continue to do that today.
Many of your solo instrumental works use
generic titles or have a Baroque derivation:
suite, preludes, variations, chaconne. Is there
an apparent reason for this?
Yes; it’s because I am a pianist.
From 1964 to 1987 you were on the faculty
of Bennington College. In the wake of the recent
upheaval at Bennington, how do you view your
I view Bennington College with nostalgia
because the music department as I knew it is no
more. It was a wonderful department and I had
wonderful colleagues. I think there were four
composers on the music faculty and at least that
number of instrumentalists. I enjoyed my teaching
1960-73 was a highly productive period for
you. You wrote many pieces that featured cello,
piano, and percussion ensemble: Fantasy for Cello
and Piano, Missa Brevis, Chamber Concerto for
Cello and Six Instruments, Concertino for Piano
and Percussion Ensemble, among others. Why was
There was a wonderful cellist, George Finckel,
on the faculty, and also a very good
percussionist, Louis Calabro.
You have written in numerous genres. Do
you have a favorite?
I particularly enjoyed writing the two chamber
operas [The Women in the Garden (1978) and
Memoirs of Uliana Rooney (1994)], but otherwise I
have no favorite instrument or genre. The operas
were fun because you are dealing with
Do you compose at the piano?
I stopped using the piano to compose about
1967 because I thought it interfered with
my hearing of instrumental timbres. Even when I
wrote for piano in ensembles, I didn’t use
it. However, I did use the piano until that
You must be an avid reader to have
unearthed many of the texts, titles, or subjects
that you’ve chosen for many of yotlr vocal
works: Meeting for Equal Rights 1866, The Women
in the Garden, Two Neruda Poems, Teisho, etc.
What criteria do you use in finding these
Usually I just start reading. Meeting for
Equal Rights, 1866;  was written for the
two hundredth anniversary of the founding of this
country. I read about the whole struggle for
equal rights, and it was at this time that women
became very active in search of the vote and
general suffrage. The Women in the Garden idea
just popped into my head, and Guide to the Life
Expectancy of a Rose came from the garden section
of the Sunday New York Times.
I know you’ve just had a new opera
premiered. Can you tell us about it?
The title is Memoirs of Uliana Rooney.
It’s the high-speed biography of a woman
composer. It also is a stylistic newsreel,
musical newsreel. She [Uliana Rooney] zips
through life — from a send-up of Pierrot
Lunaire to the turbulence of the 1960s. It
isn’t strictly autobiographical, though,
because I have had one husband for almost sixty
years and Uliana has a tendency to change husband
when her musical style changes. Also, there are a
lot of quotes from my music throughout the opera,
and it has film in it. I collaborated with Sonya
Friedman, who not only wrote the libretto but
also did the film sections. It was a true
collaboration. [Memoirs] was premiered at the
University of Richmond in Virginia, September 9,
1994. Also, it will be performed in New York on
August 1, 1996 by American Opera Projects.
Most of your works are available through
Catamount Facsimile Editions, the company that
you and your sister created. Do you foresee
establishing ties with any other publisher in the
Not speaking financially, I think I have done
as well there, in terms of having my music
available, as I would do anywhere else. However,
I’m not opposed to it.
Your compendium of compositions is large
and continues to grow in the 1990s, and you
continue to compose with unabated zest and vigor.
What drives you?
I love to write music; it’s as simple as
that! My current project is a project with my
younger daughter, Nina, who is a singer. She has
written a text and I am setting it. It’s a
solo dramatic work, like Erwartung, a monodrama
of about twenty to twenty-five minutes’
Is your older daughter musical
Peggy is very musical. She plays the piano
very well, but doesn’t make a living at it.
She’s a social activist in California,
where she resides.
If you could prescribe how you would like
to be remembered, what would you wish?
My children and grandchildren are my best