September 28 marks the centenary of Vivian Fine (1913-2000) a Chicago-born composer who was profoundly influenced by Yiddishkeit. As Fine, who died in 2000 at the age of 87, told the composer Elizabeth Vercoe in a 1992 interview, her mother came from a “Russian Jewish family and started to work herself when she was 14. But she knew that art and things of the intellect were important … The value of learning and acquiring knowledge is a very important value among the Jewish people.”
Despite her family’s poverty, at age 5, Fine insisted on having piano lessons. Her first teacher, a Miss Rosen, would hit Fine on the hand with a flyswatter if she played a wrong note. Fine escaped the flyswatter by taking classes at a local conservatory. At age 14, Fine found her local grammar school a waste of time, and stopped attending it. She later recalled: “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 around.”
By her teens, Fine was already composing, and in 1934, her friend, the American pianist and composer Israel Citkowitz, urged her to study harmony with composer Roger Sessions. Around the same time, Fine also became the only female composer in the Young Composers Group formed by Aaron Copland. The group was formed soon after Copland wrote his “Piano Variations” and Fine, a skilled pianist, especially in modern music, helped proofread the new work. She recalled that Copland had her “sit down and he said, ‘You play it; don’t worry about the rhythm.’ So he was able to see what notes were wrong.”
Among Fine’s other admirers was the much-feared conductor George Szell, who taught her orchestration in 1943. Composer and critic Arthur Berger was another early fan of Fine’s work, which ranged from piano solos to chamber music and orchestral works. Although Fine never visited Israel, she acquired an increasing sense of her heritage and identity. By her later years, after a long career as a beloved instructor at Bennington College in Vermont, she began to express these feelings in musical compositions.
Fine shared a home in Hoosick Falls, New York, with her husband, the sculptor Benjamin Karp. There she wrote “Canticles for Jerusalem,” a song cycle for voice and piano to translated texts by Yehuda Halevi and Yehuda Amichai , and to passages from Psalm 137. Creating a tribute to Jerusalem as a spiritual center and symbolic home, Fine wrote passages for the pianist to pluck the strings inside the piano, to evoke Old Testament harps and other Middle Eastern clangorous sounds. The sinuously evocative and atmospheric work addresses the situation of the Diaspora artist.