Irving Fine was a Boston boy through and through. Born on December 3, 1914, in East Boston to Latvian Jewish immigrants, he grew up in Winthrop and went to Harvard. The Boston in which Fine grew up was, through the influence of the Boston Symphony and its conductors Pierre Monteux and Serge Koussevitzy and the Harvard Music Department and its composition professors Edward Burlingame Hill and Walter Piston, among other factors, a world center of new music (or at least francophile new music) activity, and the work of Harvard’s choral conductor Archibald T. Davison at Harvard also made it the center and exemplar of serious music education and choral training in the United States. Possibly the high water mark of this importance was when, during the time Fine was a graduate students at Harvard, Igor Stravinsky came to Boston as Harvard’s Charles Elliot Norton Professor of Poetics; Fine was designated as a minder for Stravinsky, and was also assigned to help with the initial translation of his lectures, which became The Poetics of Music. In 1940 Fine joined the faculty of the Harvard Music Department as a teaching fellow; in 1942 he was appointed an instructor, a position he held until 1948.
From the beginning Fine’s association with Harvard was intertwined with Anti-Semitism. He was one of two students at Winthrop High School to apply to Harvard; the grades of the other student, who was not Jewish, were less good, but he and not Fine was accepted. (All of the Ivy-League colleges had quotas of the percentage of Jews they would admit.) After a “post-graduate” fifth year of high school at the Boston Latin School, where he met Leonard Bernstein, who became a life-long friend, Fine applied again to Harvard and was admitted. When as the vice-president of the Harvard Glee Club, Fine applied for membership to the Boston Harvard Club, which, although not directed affiliated with the university, had a policy that all officers of Harvard clubs were entitled to membership, he was informed that “his kind” were not accepted. Later, when he was on the faculty at Harvard, he was nominated for membership in the Harvard Musical Association, a private club unaffiliated with the university, but maintaining a close relationship with the music department; he was blackballed because he was Jewish. When Fine was not accepted for membership in the HMA, all of the members of the Harvard music faculty except the musicologist Tillman Merritt, resigned from the club in protest. In 1948 Fine was denied tenure at Harvard, which ended his teaching career there. Since Merritt and the composer Randall Thompson, two of the most powerful professors in the Harvard Music Department, were openly anti-Semitic, Fine’s being Jewish was almost certainly a factor in the decision, even though there was also a certain amount of friction between Fine and Merritt regarding the proper role of performance in the department, and Merritt apparently distrusted Fine, who he considered an empire-builder.
Fortuitously, just as Fine’s career at Harvard was ending, he was invited to join the faculty of the Brandeis University, in Waltham, Massachusetts, newly founded in order to provide a university education of the highest quality for Jewish students who were kept out of the Ivy League universities due to quotas. Entrusted with the task of building the university’s music department, he immediately enlisted his life long friends Harold Shapero, Arthur Berger, both of whom he had met at Harvard. He also enlisted the assistance of another Harvard friend, Bernstein, to help with fund raising and to establish the Brandeis Fesitval of the Creative Arts. Between 1952 and 1957, Fine and Bernstein organized and brilliantly executed four festivals, which garnered great acclaim and notoriety. That notoriety and the great distinction of the music department’s faculty quickly made it one of the most important in the United States, especially at the graduate level.
Fine, Berger, and Shapero, and to a lesser extent, Bernstein and Lukas Foss, were allied by common aesthetic aims and influences and by their friendships with Stravinsky and Aaron Copland, and their devotion to their music. They are certainly the most important of the American Neo-Classic composers, and were sometime referred to as the Boston School or the Boston group. The sunniness of their situation about the time of the founding of Brandeis was increasingly clouded by a spectre. It had several names, but using the common short hand, one could call it “twelve tone music”.
In The Dyer’s Hand, W. H. Auden writes about Utopian visions, “our dream pictures of the Happy Place,” of which he says there are two, which he names Eden and The New Jerusalem. “Eden is a place where its inhabitants may do whatever they like to do; the motto over the gate is, ‘Do what you wilt is here the Law.’ New Jerusalem is a place where its inhabitants like to do whatever they ought to do, and its motto is, ‘In His will is our peace.’” For better or for worse, I think this describes the situation of American composers in general, and Fine, Berger, and Shapero in particular, starting sometime after the Second World War and lasting sometime into the late 1970s and early 1980s. It seems that for many composers, especially those in the neoclassic camp, whose music, generally positive and sunny, albeit serious, often consciously intended to sound “American,” informed by the love of certain composers: Haydn, Beethoven, Stravinsky, and Copland, existed in a sort of Eden. At a certain point they felt a sort of irresistible moral pressure, undefined and from an undefined source, to write another kind of music, even though they regarded it with a certain amount of distrust if not down right hostility. Writing this different music seems to have represented a sort of submission which they ought to make, and the ensuing effort and struggle was the cause of something between vexation and anguish. Most composers seemed to accept the historical inevitability of twelve tone music; it doesn’t seem to have occurred to many of them that they didn’t need to write it if they didn’t want to do.
Fine, Berger, and Shapero each approached this situation in his own way. Berger, at the age of eighteen, had been overwhelmed by his encounter with Schoenberg’s Die glückliche Hand, which was the companion piece in the concert at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in which Leopold Stokowski and Martha Graham presented the first New York staged performance of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, and for a while attempted to write music in Schoenberg’s manner. Unable to imagine how he could write such music which was free from the German aesthetic, which he found distasteful, and which would satisfy the demands of his radical politics for music which would appeal to the masses, he put composition aside to study musicology with Hugo Leichtentritt and music theory with Walter Piston at Harvard. Eventually the path to composition was reopened to him by the neoclassic music of Stravinsky. But the post-war rise of interest in twelve tone music was for him a return to the preoccupations of his youth. Shapero’s attitude was one of rejection of what he considered anti-music. Shapero’s daughter Hannah told me that after his death she had found in his papers a cartoon imitating Da Vinci’s The Last Supper with pictures of his cohort’s faces pasted in (Lukas Foss was in the position of Jesus); the caption was “One of you will betray me,” the betrayal being a turn to twelve tone music. For a considerable time he was mostly silent as a composer, although like Berger he continued to teach at Brandeis until he retired.
For Fine grappling with twelve tone music was indeed the source of great anguish. The composer Malcolm Peyton was a student of Fine’s at Tanglewood, and remembers a series of lectures Fine gave that summer on neoclassic music. He began by talking about works that he really loved, including the Stravinsky Octet; as the lectures went on they became progressively darker and dispirited. At the end he announced that this was all over, more or less saying “The twelve tone boys have beat us.” Fine continued to produce works in the neoclassic style, alternating with twelve tone works (such as his String Quartet of 1952) but he considered them to be trifles. Feeling unable to write satisfactory large serious works of substance in the stylistic language he felt was required, he developed a writer’s block and he went into analysis, against Shapero’s recommendation, to deal with his problem (his psychiatrist eventually began to tell him that his friendship with Shapero was the problem). But he also discussed twelve tone theory thoroughly with another friend, Milton Babbitt, during the summers that they taught together at Tanglewood.
In 1962 Fine finished his Symphony. Commissioned by the Boston Symphony, it was performed by them, conducted by Charles Munch, at Symphony Hall in Boston. In the following summer they repeated the work at Tanglewood. After suffering an angina attack, Munch withdrew from the concert; Fine conducted his work on August 12. Eleven days later Fine died from at heart attack at the age of 47. The Symphony is an intense, expansive, muscular piece, clearly a major work. Under the circumstances it is hard to think of it as anything other than the culmination of Fine’s career; how that career might have continued and what place the Symphony might have had in that continued career–maybe as a breakthrough into a newly liberated language and manner– is unimaginable.
On May 16 in Jordan Hall, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project joined with the Fine Family, the Irving Fine Society, and Brandeis University to present A Fine Centennial, a celebration not only of Fine, at the centennial of his birth, but of his music and that of his friends Harold Shapero and Arthur Berger, and of their joint aesthetic vision. The program opened with two of Fine’s later trifles, Blue Towers, which was originally intended by Fine as the official Brandeis University fight song, and Diversions for Orchestra, four piano pieces which Fine orchestrated for a children’s program of the Boston Pops. All of these pieces were expertly and elegantly done and pretty forgettable, the one exception being The Red Queen’s Gavotte which has some of the vitality and charm of Fine’s Alice In Wonderland chorus pieces.
Harold Shapero’s Serenade for String Orchestra, from 1945, is a beautiful and graceful work It is also ferociously difficult–intricate in texture and harmony, complex rhythmically, technically difficult for the instruments, treacherously exposed, and thirty-five minutes long. Just about the only music contemporary to the Serenade of equal difficulty and complexity is that of Milton Babbitt (to whose music Shapero had a great antipathy). Nonetheless, just as Babbitt once wrote that Berger’s ‘Cello Duo could be described as white note Webern, the Serenade might be called diatonic Babbitt. Berger’s Prelude, Aria, and Waltz for String Orchestra was originally Three Pieces for String Quartet, amplified for orchestra at the suggestion of his friend Bernard Hermann; they were further revised in 1982. The performances of both these pieces reflected great understanding and sympathy with the music and were technically sure. The Shapero was cautious, with good reason, but had great grace and clarity and sweetness, even if is was lacking in the ease and élan that more rehearsal time would have afforded.
Fine’s Symphony is a dramatic and noble piece and Rose and the orchestra performed it with enormous drama and passion, making it a moving experience. As soon as the Symphony was over, the person I was sitting with said, “That piece killed him. No wonder he died. It’s full of death.” For Fine coming to terms with the stylistic crisis of the time was a life and death matter. I was struck by how much commonality it had with the Stravinsky Symphony in Three Movements, particularly in its second movement. So just as with the time the similarities between with the Shapero and Babbitt, which seemed inconceivable when it was written, with time the “serial” aspects of the Fine are less striking than its simple reflection of Fine’s personality in all his music and of the music that he loved.
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This article points up a very serious and potentially catastrophic, it seems to me, situation which everybody should know about. There is a very possibility that the Boston University Tanglewood Institute, which is clearly one of the preeminent summer music programs for pre-college students (and a very important program for pre-college composers) in the United States, may not exist NEXT YEAR. Tell all your friends….
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Every year’s Proms has several thematic threads, often celebrating anniversaries and birthdays. This year, no exception, had a large number of performances commemorating the centennials of the births of Benjamin Britten and Witold Lutoslawski, and a bunch of them occurred during the slice of the Proms that I was around for. In the concerts in the Albert Hall Britten was represented by Les Illuminations, performed by Ian Bostridge and the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Daniel Harding, in their concert on August 20. Les Illuminations sets poems of Rimbaud, a poet whose work was introduced to Britten by W. H. Auden; Britten began it with settings of two poems for Swiss soprano Sophie Wyss, and she sang them at the Queen’s Hall under Henry Wood. Later that year Britten added settings of seven more poems, connected by the refrain “J’ai seul la clef de cette parade sauvage” [I alone have the key to this savage parade.] Wyss was the soloist for the first complete performance in 1940 in London, but by 1941 the work had become the property of Peter Pears, who sang the first American performance with the CBS Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Britten. Ian Bostridge has become a major performer of a lot of the music that Britten wrote for Pears. He delivered a performance on this concert with a good deal of confidence, even swagger, which is appropriate for this piece. This listener has never warmed up to Les Illumination, or, for that matter, to Bostridge as a performer of Britten’s music, and this performance didn’t change anything. The concert began with a brief fanfare, derived from his oratorio The Mask of Time, by Michael Tippett, which was followed by his Concerto for Double String Orchestra, his earliest work. Britten and Tippet were contemporaries and friends; when the first recording of the piece was made, during the Second World War, while Tippett was imprisoned as a conscientious objector, Britten was the co-producer. Read the rest of this entry »
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The late night Prom presented by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ilan Volkov on the 19th of August is the kind that is guaranteed to draw an audience whose interest and enthusiasm is in inverse proportion to its size. I think there used to be more of them, but it’s hard to be sure. John White, born in 1936, is a rather legendary figure of one wing of the British avant garde, associated with composers such as Cornelius Cardew, Gavin Bryars, Howard Skepton, Roger Smalley, and Dave Smith, as well as Michael Finnissy. He is best known for his piano sonatas, of which there at least 200. People who know his music are devoted to it, but it rarely gets played. This performance of his Chord-Breaking Machine from 1971 was the first one I’ve encountered. The piece involves short rhythmic patters repeated at different rates in the winds and strings, while the brass sustain the harmonies produced thereby, against conflicting rhythmic patters in the percussion. The process as set up blurs the edges of the boundaries of the movement in time from one harmony and the next. It’s really an early minimalist process piece dating from a time before the genre had been conclusively named. This was a very good example of it, with lots of energy, and it was enjoyable and interesting, although it seemed a bit short. Read the rest of this entry »
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On the Proms Chamber Music concert at Cadogan Hall on Monday, August 12, the women of the BBC Singers, along with flute player Philippa Davies and harpists Lucy Wakeford, Helen Tunstall, and Hugh Webb, of the Nash Ensemble conducted by Nicholas Kok, performed the UK premiere of Harrison Birtwistle’s The Moth Requiem. During the short interview before the performance, Birwistle said that as a young man he had had an interest in natural history, and was particularly interested in moths. Moths, he said, have a bad reputation because “they eat your cashmere,” going on to say that of the more than a thousand species of moths, only two eat cashmere. He sees the moths as emblematic of thing which are disappearing, both in the world, and in his life. “A lot of people seem to be going from my life,” he said, “and soon I’ll be going.” He wanted to write a piece which dealt with that, but he didn’t want to write anything morbid or sugary; he wanted it to have some idea of the anger he feels about it all.
Like Ravel in Daphnis and Chloe and Vaughan Williams in Flos Campi, Birtwistle uses the chorus instrumentally. Unlike those other composers, he gives them words to sings, although making it clear from the beginning that the perception of those words is not the point. The text of The Moth Requiem is the Latin names of twelve extinct species of moths, along with a poem by Robin Blaser, who Read the rest of this entry »
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Mark Anthony Turnage’s Frieze, performed by the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, conducted by Vasily Petrenko, on August 11, and Nashit Kahn’s The Gate of the Moon, a concerto for sitar and orchestra, performed by Kahn himself with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, conducted by David Antherton, on August 12, both raise the question of how one in a new piece can meaningfully reference other music. Turnage’s work was commissioned by the Royal Philharmonic Society to celebrate the organization’s bicentennial and to be on the same program with their most famous and, probably, greatest commission, the Beethoven Ninth Symphony; this shorter work which is clearly modeled on the Beethoven in its general layout, is a sort of gloss in his own language on the older one. Kahn’s Concerto joins an orchestra of western instruments and a single Indian one and aims at joining their indigenous musical languages in a meaningful way as well. Read the rest of this entry »
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Tuesday night’s Prom concert, by the BBC Philharmonic, conducted by John Storgårds, included, as part of a commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the Queen’s coronation, Edmund Rubbra’s Ode to the Queen, performed regally by Susan Bickley. Rubbra’s music is close to being completely unknown now, but in its day was rather successful; in 1961 on the Third Program, what is now BBC Radio 3, there were more of his pieces played than works of Berg, Copland, Ives, Janacek, Messiaen, or Tippett, according to the program notes for this concert. That all was changed by William Glock, who, apparently, when he took over as comptroller of the BBC, decreed that no more of Rubbra’s music would be played, and that had its effects on the possibilities for the music’s dissemination. I have to say that absolutely nothing about Ode to the Queen seemed to indicate that that was a bad move. Occasional pieces are usually not the best indication of a composer’s music, but although somewhere in all of Rubbra’s music (and there seems to be lots of it) there must be something to support Adrian Boult’s remark, quoted in the program, that Rubbra “goes on creating masterpieces,” this wasn’t it. The program started with Walton’s march Orb and Sceptre, which was written for the coronation; which seems to me to be far less successful than Crown Imperial, the march he wrote for the previous coronation.
The program also included another work which ran afoul of stylistic fashion, the Symphony in F#, Op. 40, of Erich Wolfgang Korngold. By the time Korngold finished his symphony and it was played, in 1952, he had already been more or less forced by events
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Maybe the BBC didn’t pull out all the stops to celebrate the John Cage centennial, but they did pull out quite a lot of them. August 17 was Cage day at the Proms. In addition to a mammoth-length concert mostly of his music in the evening presented by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra (who only the night before was playing an all Vaughan Williams concert–more about that later) and the chorus Exaudi along with conductor Ilan Volkov and a cast of almost thousands, including such super-stars of the avant garde as Joan La Barbara, John Tillbury, Aki Takahashi, and Christian Wolff, they staged earlier in the afternoon a “Music Walk.” The Music Walk involved guided group walks around the area of South Kensington in the general vicinity of the Albert Hall, where along the way ten composers and sound artists, some in collaboration, including Alwynne Pritchard, Ian Dearen and David Sheppard, Dai Fujikura, John Woolrich, David Sawyer, Tansy Davies and Rolf Watlin, Claudia Molitor, Alvin Curran, Jose Cutler, and Judith Weir were present for playings over mp3 players of their music at specific sites.
Periodically one met groups of people carrying placards with pictures of Cage or of mushrooms. The composers were at their assigned sites holding placards which said “I am…(whoever they were);” in some cases — that of Dai Fujikura, for instance, who seemed to be having a picnic with his family — they were just present, in others there were other non musical elements which involved the composers: Alvin Curran sat on a platform in the loading dock of the Albert Hall seeming to be having a sort of television interview with somebody, which we didn’t hear because we were listening to his piece; David Sawyer had a skit in which he was dismembered and presented at the end in a bag; Joe Cutler swept the street in front of the Royal College of Music while somebody threw crumpled-up pages of his score down at him from one of the rooms in the College, and so on. There were several groups, none of which visited every site; the group I was in heard/saw Curran, Fujikura, Sawyer, Cutler, and Weir. All of the groups converged at the Serpentine Gallery for Weir’s music, which accompanied a model of the Albert Hall floating in the pond in front of the building. After that the composers led everybody in a march back to the Albert Hall and the main concert.
The concert itself was, as I said, a massive affair. Since it had not been clear to me that it was going to be about four hours long, I had made plans for later and as a result, wasn’t able to hear the second half of the concert, which included the Concerto for Prepared Piano and Orchestra, Branches, But what about the noise of crumpling paper..., and a quartet improvised by David Behrman, Takehisa Kosugi, Keith Rowe, and Christian Wolff. I was very sorry not to have heard the Concerto. Read the rest of this entry »
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On August 13 the violist Lawrence Power and the Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by Susanna Mälkki, presented the first UK performance of Olga Neuwirth’s Remnants of Songs… an Amphigory. The title of the work is a reference to the book of the same title by Ulrich Baer, which is a discussion of the varying responses of artists, as exemplified by the poets Baudelaire and Celan, both to the shocks of everyday modern life and to catastrophic historical events: works reflecting desperate seriousness or antic playfulness, but also sometimes combining the two, producing works which are amphigories (defined by the OED as “a nonsensical burlesque composition”).
Neuwirth’s work combines a serious, if not tragic, expressive quality, with a great stylistic variety, ranging from severe, albeit serene, modernity to a what Paul Griffiths in his program note described as “a landscape of brightly colored tonal debris,” somewhat in the manner of the third movement of the Berio Sinfonia, but consisting of generalized material rather than quotations of specific works. The title of the second movement refers to Sadko, the hero of the Russian epic, but the other movement titles, the first “Wanderer,” and the third “..sank to the bottom of the sea…)–“ (the fourth and fifth movements don’t have titles) may imply that the whole work has something to do with that legend. The writing for the instruments, both the soloist and the orchestra, is imaginative and effective, and the balancing of the soloist with the orchestra is controlled in a masterful fashion (including the moments where the orchestra overwhelming the viola seems to be the point).
The whole work is always engaging and powerfully compelling. Neuwirth is yet another composer whose music I have encountered for the first time; this piece makes me want to seek out more of it. The performance of the Neuwirth by Powers and the orchestra was magisterial. The concert also included a performance of the first suite from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, and a magnificent and moving performance of the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra. Read the rest of this entry »
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One of the most appealing and satisfying things about the Proms is the way that they support and showcase British composers. There are a number of commissions each year (a Proms commission is a sort of right of passage moment for up and coming composers), and not first performances of recent works as well. It is very surprising, and a just cause for sorrow and consternation, then, that the Proms Matinee on August 11 at Cadogan Hall, given by Britten Sinfonia, with soloists Nicolas Hodges, Susan Bickley, and Nicholas Daniel, conducted by Clark Rundell, was the occasion of the first Proms performance in twenty-four years of any music of Michael Finnissy. Finnissy, as well as being one of the most vital and interesting composers alive, is undoubtedly one of the major figures of British music, as a teacher as well as a composer, and the absence of his music from the Proms for so long, let alone his not having received a Proms commission, over all that time is simple inexplicable, as well as being sad for all of us who have lost by such an omission.
The Finnissy work included on this particular concert was the 36-year-old Second Piano Concerto, with Nicolas Hodges as soloist. One of the usual memes having to do with the concerto, that it is a piece opposing the soloist as the one against the many in the orchestra is not exactly operative in this case. First of all the band is a small one, strings and two flutes, and rather than opposing the solo part, they pick out and highlight details in the stream of the work’s continuity which is entirely in the almost ceaseless piano part. Finnissy’s music is often thought of as fearsome, and it can be extremely difficult to play (not that you could tell that from Hodges’s beautiful and lucid performance), but the sound of it, when it’s done well, as it was here, is downright beguiling–gossamer and shimmering, and its continuity, a sort of stream of consciousness, clear and convincing, and easy to follow. It is to be hoped that it won’t be another 24 years before there’s more Finnissy on the Proms.
Hodges also presented the UK Premier of Harrision Birtwistle’s Gigue Machine for solo piano. Making the difficulties and complications (and they are considerable) obvious is one of the points of this piece, which is an exploration and deconstruction of the rhythms and phrasings of the old dance form, and they were presented and dispatched both compositionally by Birtwistle and pianistically by Hodges, with flair and aplomb, and obvious relish. Read the rest of this entry »
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