A Conversation with
Vivian Fine: Two Composers Talk Shop
by Elinor Armer
Courtesy of Strings,
March/April 1991 (Volume V, Number 5), pp.
Composer/pianist Vivian Fine is a
distinguished figure in contemporary American
music. She has received many honors, including
grants from the Ford, Martha Baird Rockefeller,
Alice B. Ditson, and Guggenheim Foundations, and
election to membership in the American Academy
and Institute of Arts and Letters. Her varied and
generous output includes a significant body of
work for strings…. She shared her thoughts
on writing for strings, education, and the life
of a composer with her friend and fellow composer
I notice that strings feature prominently
in your works. You have more pieces for solo
strings than I realized; you’ve also used
strings in a variety of combinations with other
instruments. But more often than other composers,
it seems to me, you’ve combined strings
Fine: Yes. In fact, my earliest published work
was a group of four songs for voice and
strings—the first for voice and viola, the
second for voice and two violins, the third for
voice and string quartet, and the fourth for
string trio and voice.
Was this a special commission?
Fine: No, I conceived of the work that way. I
was only 19 years old at the time; I didn’t
know a great deal about string writing and wrote
some very difficult things, including one piece
with many harmonics.
Was this your way of learning about string
writing—to do it?
Fine: Not exactly. I just wrote whatever I
heard in my head and plunged in, and lo and
behold, it turned out to be playable.
Your Missa Brevis is another example of
strings with voice.
Fine: Yes, that was done much later, for an
interesting combination—four cellos and
taped voice. I first heard four cellos when I was
a colleague of cellist George Finkel at
Bennington College. I loved the sound of four
cellos, and the idea occurred to me of writing
this Mass. The tape part was sung by Jan de
Gaetani. Four different vocal tracks were made
initially, then freely combined; I composed with
the tracks, so to speak. That worked very well,
one voice singing four tracks with the
complementary four cello parts.
It can also be done with eight
Fine: Yes, even 16, although that tends to
overpower the voice. Eight work very well.
What are your earliest recollections of
hearing string music?
Fine: I first became acquainted with string
sound when I heard my sister Adelaide practicing.
She’s three years older than I, and by the
time I was five, she was studying violin. This
early experience of hearing someone practice the
violin was critical. Later I remember very well
her playing the Vivaldi Concerto in A Minor as I
accompanied her on the piano. And I remember all
those études for violin. It made me
comfortable with string-writing for life.
That explains a lot, since your principal
instrument was piano. Did you ever study string
playing at all?
Fine: I had exactly two lessons. When I was
eight, my sister was still studying violin. One
day I went with her to her lesson and the teacher
discovered that I had absolute pitch. He figured,
“Jascha Heifitz has absolute
pitch—she too will be a great
violinist!” So he offered to teach me for
nothing. I proved to be a very untalented pupil,
I think partly because I’m totally
left-handed and it’s hard for me to bow
with the right hand. Anyway, after two lessons
the scholarship was dropped.
When did you begin studying
Fine: During my teens. Ruth Crawford was my
first composition teacher. I heard her Violin
Sonata no later than 1927, when I was 14 years
old. It made a great impression on me, especially
her freedom with string writing. I realize now
that this sonata was influential, in that it gave
me an idea of another kind of string sound
besides the classical one, both in expression and
technique. (I later recorded this piece with Ida
Kavafian.) As a young composer I had to find my
own way writing for instruments other than piano,
because I didn’t have the opportunity to
hear my compositions played. Later, when I was
17, I did hear a piece of mine for violin and
piano performed at a student concert in Chicago;
I think it was influenced by the very fine and
somewhat neglected Sonatina by Carlos Chavez. I
later revived the Crawford Sonata, at the Library
of Congress. Both these works gave me a concept
of modern string writing and the freedom to
compose in a new way.
Can you characterize what you mean by
“modern” string writing?
Fine: Well, it’s not like Vivaldi.
Didn’t you also have
“older” sounds in your head from
having studied piano? Usually young composers
proceed in a conservative way, getting on the
shoulders of the older composers and only
gradually evolving a style or a voice of their
own. Yet you set out to be “modern”
as soon as you could.
Fine: Almost from the beginning. The language
of contemporary music was perfectly natural to
me. Ruth Crawford was also a student of my piano
teacher. Djane Lavoie-Herz, who had worked with
Scriabin, and there was a Scriabinesque influence
in some of her early works. Scriabin had actually
left tonality and much of his harmony was built
around fourths; that was the language I was used
to. Then later on, in the 50s, the violinist
Matthew Raimondi said something very liberating
to me when I showed him my violin sonata:
“Don’t worry. I’ll find a way
to do it.” He made no issue of having to
cross strings or jump around, whereas earlier in
my career I had shown a work for cello and piano
to a cellist who balked at double-stop fifths.
You won’t find a string player today who
would do this.
Do you think that contemporary techniques
have expanded among string players?
Fine: Enormously. Young people today can play
I know that massed strings are an
attractive medium for you, too. In Drama, the
work commissioned by he San Francisco Symphony in
1983, for instance, or After The Tradition, which
the Bay Area Women’s Philharmonic did a
couple of seasons ago, the strings were quite
rich. Even though it’s not strictly 20
th-century tradition to feature strings
prominently in orchestral music, you do.
I’m thinking of Stravinsky and other
composers in the first half of the century who
experimented with shifting the balance a little.
Of course, strings are making a comeback with the
“new Romanticism;” but you always
enjoyed that sound.
Fine: Yes, I like that luscious, full string
sound. My Concertante for Piano and Orchestra is
another example. I’ve often told
orchestration students that you can’t get
that opulent quality with any other instruments.
They sometimes try to avoid clichés by
reducing strings and featuring brass or winds,
then wonder why it doesn’t sound more
“orchestral.” There’s nothing
quite as satisfying as having all the strings in
the orchestra playing at once.
In your string writing now, do you go in
for a lot of effects and techniques which are
considered especially contemporary, such as
Bartók pizzicato, glissandi, bowing behind
the bridge, and so on?
Fine: Almost none.
In other words, the actual sounds are
produced in the old way.
Fine: Yes. I’ve had the good fortune of
playing with some very good string
players—violinist Ida Kavafian and Daniel
Kobialka, and the violist Jacob Glick, for
example. All this interplay with the performers
has an effect on one’s writing, because
you’re not listening as an audience would,
but actually participating. The intimate
knowledge of the instruments that I gained this
way has been invaluable.
Do you sometimes revise your pieces as
you’re working with the
Fine: Not often. Occasionally they will
suggest things, but usually what I write is quite
playable. This summer I had the interesting
experience of writing a work for string quartet
and trumpet—Madrigali Spirituali—and
I was a little concerned about the balance. But
with the players I had it worked out
beautifully—Ida Kavafian on first violin,
Pamela Frank on second, Toby Appel on viola,
Warren Lash on cello, and Stephen Burns on
trumpet. I was immensely gratified; there were no
balance problems at all.
Have you done any other unusual
combinations of this sort using strings?
Fine: I have a Capriccio for Oboe and String
Trio from 1946, the same combination as the
Mozart Quartet in F Minor. I knew the Mozart
work, what the combination sounded like, and the
problems involved. Actually, I think one could
write for string quartet and
anything—trombone, for example.
I agree. The blending capacities of
strings that make them so useful in orchestra
also work in chamber music, whereas you
couldn’t do the reverse—brass
quintet, say, and violin.
Fine: That would be a little difficult!
In the biographical entries that
I’ve read about you, it pleases me to see
that they can’t categorize you into early,
middle, and late periods. Reference is made to a
“stern, atonal” style at the
beginning of your career, then you are said to
have expanded your expressive range in recent
years. How do you view your stylistic
development, and where do you think it has
arrived at this point?
Fine: From about 14 through 19, I did have a
rather severely dissonant, atonal style. I
didn’t use 12-tone techniques; I doubt I
even knew about them, but I was familiar with
atonal music, as I said, and I was severe as only
young people can be severe. Then, in the mid-30s,
there was a great shift in almost
everyone’s music. Copland, for example,
went from the modernism of his Piano Variations
into his “American” style. It was
part of a whole cultural and political
manifestation, and my own music became quite
tonal for a number of years. I was very involved
with dance then and this tonal trend showed
itself particularly in the ballets I wrote for
Doris Humphreys and Charles Weidman. Then, in the
mid-40s I turned to a style that was always
anchored in some way to tonality, but not triadic
tonality. I did admit a triad now and then, which
would have been strictly forbidden in my earliest
In these later years, then, you
weren’t composing by avoidance, so to
Fine: No. And I think this tempered atonality
has remained characteristic of my music. One
listener referred to it as “mutating”
tonality, which describes it very well, I think;
the music veers off constantly into unaccustomed
tonal relations. Another element that has
remained constant in my music is its principally
contrapuntal, linear approach. The harmonies fall
where they fall; I hear them, but I rarely start
out with a harmonic scheme.
I love that quality in your music.
There’s freedom and coherence at the same
time, a combination that seems characteristic of
your life. I understand you didn’t actually
have the so-called normal high school
Fine: No. I was just beginning to compose when
I came to high-school age. Classes were large,
and I found myself in a social studies course
where we had to memorize the number of post
offices in the United States. A very wise voice
inside me said, “I don’t want to
learn this. I don’t want to know
this!” So I stopped going. While today
I’d be rushed off to a psychiatrist, my
parents accepted this readily. They themselves
were Russian Jewish immigrants who had not had
the opportunity of going to school but had
educated themselves. They didn’t associate
education with school. There were, after all,
such things as books. My mother once hid me in
the closet when the truant officer came
But you nevertheless had a tremendous
mental appetite at that age, didn’t
Fine: Yes. I was very busy taking piano
lessons, buying music, or getting it out of the
library, and composing. This life gave me the
chance to compose five hours a day. It’s
only now that I’ve retired from teaching
that I have the same luxury.
So you’ve come full circle.
Fine: Exactly. Only I don’t have my
mother to prepare my meals; I have to do that
You spent a number of years teaching,
didn’t you? At Julliard, New York
Fine: Yes. I was at Bennington for 23 years,
with perhaps three years off for various leaves
and sabbaticals. It was extremely gratifying. I
liked it tremendously. I had very supportive
colleagues, both instrumentalists and composers,
and much of my chamber music was premiered there.
Teaching was not the central thing in my life,
but it was always an enjoyable activity.
Did you ever get to the point where you
felt that it was cutting into your composing
Fine: I was never resentful of teaching,
perhaps because I wasn’t responsible for
supporting my family. I knew I could leave it I
wanted to, although that never happened. It was a
connection to the world; far from resenting it, I
Do you miss it now that you’ve
Fine: No. Now it’s time to do something
You seem always to have known what you
needed to do. I think that sureness and that
authority mark your music. There’s a real
voice there, of a person who knows herself, who
has something to say and says it.
Fine: I didn’t call myself a composer
for a long time, even after I’d had
performances. But I always knew that no matter
how many diversions came along, including
important ones like family and children,
composing was central in my life. That was not
only sure, it was unshakable.
That you didn’t call yourself a
composer at first is interesting to me. Nowadays
there are a number of people who make a big issue
of calling themselves composers, more than of
composing. There’s more emphasis now on
image and P.R. and certain carefully-chosen
career steps that will put one in the public eye
and ear—winning the right prizes, getting
the right grants, acquiring an agent, and so on.
You never seemed to hustle in that fashion.
Somehow, the world beat a path to your
Fine: If you hang in long enough, that will
happen. There were many hard times artistically
when I didn’t get many performances.
That’s all I ever wanted, really—to
write the music and have good performances of it.
These are the two components of a good life for a
composer. Now almost everything I write is on
commission from excellent players, so I’m
assured of both.
What about recordings and
Fine: They’re all right when they come
along, but they don’t do the same thing for
me at all.
They’re not the reason you
Fine: No. Some people have more of a talent
for promotion than I have. I’ve learned one
thing, though, and that is: Never say no.
I’ve taken almost all the commissions that
have come my way. Sometimes I’ll even offer
a work to a group that doesn’t have any
commissioning money. One such, called Music from
Angel Fire wanted to do some of my older works,
and I said, “With musicians like that, I
want to write something new.” So I did.
There is nothing more gratifying than hearing
fine musicians play your music. It’s the
Nevertheless, publication and recording
allow people to avail themselves of your music,
also to “hear how it goes” should
they want to play it
Fine: Of course. And the more of that, the
better. But I never went so far as to have an
agent. Most composers I know don’t.
Certainly it would be nice to have someone to
answer the correspondence that accumulates,
someone who knows your life and is involved with
what you are doing.
Someone did say once that every composer
needs a wife.
Fine: I keep my own network going by having a
very yea-saying attitude.
I like the idea of a career happening
organically, as you describe. Yours is certainly
thriving. Are there any biographies of you other
than the Groves article?
Fine: Yes. Judith Cody has written a book
called Vivian Fine, a Bio-Bibliography, which is
coming out soon from Greenwood Press.
And what have you been working on
Fine: I recently did a piece for violin and
piano called Portal, commissioned by a young
violinist, Pamela Frank, who won a commission as
part of an Avery Fisher Grant. She premiered it
at Alice Tully Hall last spring. In July a new
piece, Songs and Arias, for French horn, violin,
and cello, was premiered at Chamber Music
Northwest by David Jolley, Erika Sato, and Fred
Sherry. Later, the work was performed at the
Bravo! Colorado Festival. During the summer I was
also busy writing a commissioned work for the
Williamstown (Massachusetts) Chamber Concerts,
and a version of Madrigali Spirituali for string
orchestra and trumpet which Karen Baccaro
performed with the Bay Area Women’s
Philharmonic in the fall of 1990.
All of these works involve strings. And as
you know—this is where we came
in—Composers, Inc. presented Missa Brevis
on their opening concert in October.
Fine: Yes, I’m pleased about that,
especially that the performance was dedicated to
the memory of Jan de Gaetani.
All told, then, you have described a
wonderfully rich repertoire of activities. You
must be enjoying this time in your life.
Fine: I am. It’s the most productive
period I’ve known.