A Gem Among Giants


By Alexander Gelfand

Published March 24, 2006, issue of March 24, 2006.
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Irving Fine: An American

Composer in His Time (Lives in Music Series No. 8)

By Phillip Ramey

Pendragon Press, 334 pages, $32.

* * *

Flip to the back of Phillip Ramey’s“Irving Fine: An American Composer in His Time,” and you’ll find a clue as to why Fine, once a major figure in American art music, has been largely forgotten. A late bloomer and painstaking craftsman who experienced frequent dry spells, Fine produced fewer than 30 works prior to his untimely death in 1962 at the age of 47. The complete index of his compositions fills a meager page-and-a-half, and includes several pieces that were never actually published.

Fine devoted much of his energy to teaching — he was an early faculty member at the Tanglewood Music Center, and founded the music department at Brandeis University — and to a surprising amount of music criticism, most of which put the work of his own reviewers to shame. In an essay he wrote for Harvard University’s alumni report, Fine wondered if “perhaps too much of my creative energy has gone into activities which are essentially peripheral to my career as a composer.” Aside from such distractions, and notwithstanding his talent for crafting lyrical melodies, Fine lacked the common touch of his friends Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein; though a few of his pieces, such as “Three Choruses From ‘Alice in Wonderland’” and “Partita for Wind Quintet,” have become standard repertoire items, they are hardly household names among fans of classical music. Which is unfortunate, because Fine’s best work is impressive. Much of it was, admittedly, derivative; like many composers of his generation, Fine was a devotee of Igor Stravinsky, whom he met in Boston. Toward the end of his life, however, Fine began to assimilate aspects of serialism, and his music acquired a steely sobriety. Just as he was on the verge of establishing a new and distinctive voice, he dropped dead of a massive heart attack.

That early demise, and the extent to which Fine struggled to cultivate a unique musical persona, adds an unusual degree of suspense to Ramey’s account, even if the denouement is a foregone conclusion. Will Irving cast off his Stravinsky fetish and find his own style? (More or less.) Will he finish that last major work? (Sort of.) Will he ever achieve the degree of fame accorded to his pals Aaron and Lenny? (Irving who?) In addition, Fine was sufficiently flawed to make for an interesting character study: Deeply neurotic, occasionally adulterous, and given to periodic depressions (he called them “blackies”), he was not above the odd bout of temper or professional jealousy. He even had a fondness for the sort of practical joke that involves fake dog vomit.

Ramey, who is himself a pianist and composer, abjures speculation regarding Fine’s “character and motivation,” leaving such psychological analysis to those who knew Fine personally. While noble in intent, this approach has its drawbacks: At times, the book seems to have been cobbled together from interviews with everyone who ever knew Fine, all held together by Ramey’s own workmanlike prose. (As a writer, Ramey specializes in program and liner notes; yet his blow-by-blow descriptions of Fine’s works, while musically informative, are also dry as toast.) Still, the composer’s nearest and dearest do supply some zingers. Fine’s relationship with his domineering father was as conflicted as anything in the annals of Jewish family dynamics, and many of the composer’s friends couldn’t understand how the erudite, elegant Irving wound up with his brash, brassy wife. But Fine’s daughter Joanna, a psychiatrist, nails it in one: “In a sense, my father married his father.” (Fine eventually landed in therapy, with mixed results — though his treatment did result in at least one great line. When presented with composer Harold Shapero’s claim that Fine’s psychoanalysis destroyed their friendship, Fine’s therapist, John Nemiah, responded: “Every man is entitled to his own fantasy of interpretation.”)

Fans of 20th-century music will find the book to be one giant vicarious thrill. From his days at Harvard, where he faced some good old-fashioned Yankee antisemitism, to his stints in Paris studying with Nadia Boulanger, Fine got to know and work with some of the leading lights of classical music at mid-century. In addition to having close ties with Bernstein and Copland, Fine was a protégé of Serge Koussevitzky; a colleague of Lukas Foss, and an associate of Darius Milhaud, Olivier Messiaen and avant-garde pioneers Pierre Henry and Pierre Schaeffer.

It would be easy to overlook Fine’s own significance as a composer in light of his dazzling circle of acquaintances. But the true worth of “Irving Fine: An American Composer in His Time” lies in the potential it holds to spur renewed interest in the music that made Fine worth writing about in the first place. To that end, some recommended listening would seem to be in order: “An Irving Fine Celebration at the Library of Congress” (Bridge) and “Fine: Blue Towers” (Delos) contain most of Fine’s major works, and either one would make a splendid soundtrack to this tale of an artist who was literally struck down in his prime.

Alexander Gelfand is a writer and musician living in New York.

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