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Legacy Oral History Online Collection

Vivian Fine

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Vivian Fine (1913-2000) was born on September 28, 1913 in Chicago into a family of Russian-Jewish immigrants and began her piano studies at age three.  Recognized as a child prodigy, at the age of six, Vivian was awarded a scholarship at the Chicago Musical College to study piano.  Fine also studied violin from 1923-24 with Silvia Scionti at the American Conservatory, thereafter returning to the piano.  Another of Vivian’s major teachers was Madame Djane Lavoie-Herz, a Scriabin disciple, with whom she studied from 1924-1926.  According to music critics, the influence of Scriabin can be traced through Fine’s early compositions.  Attending Chicago Symphony concerts inspired Vivian, and her musicianship came to the attention of avant-garde composer Henry Cowell.   In 1926, she left high school and, on Cowell’s advice, studied haromony and composition with Ruth Crawford Seeger and counterpoint as a scholarship student with Adolph Weidig at the American Conservatory of Music.  Fine debuted her first composition at Carnegie Hall at age sixteen with her 1929 Solo for Oboe.  Vivian moved to New York in 1931 while still in her teens and became a well-respected dance accompanist. 

As a composer, Fine collaborated with numerous choreographers in the early years of American modern dance including Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman, Hanya Holm, Jose Limon and Martha Graham.  She was known for her willingness to work with choreographers who were expressing the independence of movement as an art form separate from dance and for whom music composition was not intended to pre-figure the structure of dance composition but to complement and interact with it as a peer art form.  Works for dance by Fine include The Race of Life (1937) for Humphrey; Opus 51 (1938) for Weidman; Tragic Exodus and They Too Are Exiles (both 1939) for Holm; Alcestis (1960) for Graham. and My Son, My Enemy (1965) for Limon.

Fine was also recognized as an outstanding performer of difficult contemporary works, and Aaron Copland invited her to join his Young Composers Group in 1932 where she was the only woman in the company.  She was known as a prolific creative artist with a large repertoire of 140 original musical compositions, including chamber, vocal and solo instrumental works. Many works were commissions with sponsors such as the Koussevitsky Foundation, the San Francisco Symphony and the Mirecourt Trio.  Fine wrote two operas, Women in the Garden (1978) that includes text from Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, Isadora Duncan and Emily Dickinson, and the autobiographical, multi-media work Memoirs of Uliana Rooney (1994) with librettist Sonya Friedman (both of which explored feminist issues).  The San Francisco Symphony presented a retrospective week of Fine’s compositions in 1983 including the premiere of their commission Drama for Orchestra inspired by the paintings of Edvard Munch.  Another retrospective week honoring Fine was sponsored in Boston in 1989.  Numerous works are recorded on several labels.

Fine was also an organizer who helped found the American Composers Alliance in 1938 and served as vice president for the organization from 1961-1965.  She also served as the Music Director of the Rothschild Music Foundation from 1953-1960.  Vivian received grant support from the Guggenheim Fellowship, grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Rockefeller Foundation.  In 1980, she was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Fine taught composition at New York University (1945-48), the Juilliard School (1948), State University Teacher’s College at Potsdam (1951) and Bennington College (1964-1987).  Vivian also instituted a series of widely heard lecture-recitals on 20th century music.  She died at age 86 on March 22, 2000 after a car accident.  Vivian Fine: A Bio-Bibliography, a major reference book on Vivian Fine’s life and work, was published by author Judith Cody for Greenwood Press in 2002. Additional texts include Heidi von Gunden’s The Music of Vivian Fine

Audio Clip and Transcript

Data for this biographical statement was derived, with permission, from Vivian Fine, by Jennifer Raymond The Guardian, April 10 2000 http://www.guardian.co.uk/obituaries/story; an unattributed obituary for the NewMusicBox at http://www.newmusicbox.org; a review of Cody’s text on the Classical Music Web by Rob Barnett, editor at http://www.musicweb.uk.net; the Classical Composers Database entry by Judith Cody at http://www.classical-composers.org; and the Shirmer Publication’s web site entry, taken from Cody’s text, at http://www.schirmer.com/composers/fine/.