Some Virtues But Too Many Voices

For New Music Connoisseur

by Barry Drogin

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Phillip RAMEY: Irving Fine/An American Composer in His Time. Pendragon Press ISBN 1-57647-116-0.

Leonard Bernstein said that Irving Fine (and his music) possessed "true charm… tender without being coy, witty without being vulgar, appealing without being banal and utterly sweet without ever being cloying." Also, according to Bernstein, Fine "was rather a tragic person inside, but he never bothered anybody with those problems of his."

As to Fine's career as a composer, his wife, Verna, tells us that "[h]e never had trouble getting performances. Somebody wanted every piece he wrote. He never had anything rejected. Of course, he was in academia and had connections, and he never rubbed people the wrong way. Others wanted to promote his music, so he didn't have to do it himself. He was always lucky that way, and he felt more at ease promoting other composers' music than his own."

When Fine took an academic sabbatical and used a Guggenheim grant to go to Rome to compose, the apartment, according to a letter Fine wrote to his parents, contained furniture "in an indescribably bad condition – filthy and broken down… [The kitchen is] too disgusting even for our Roman maid, who is no paragon of cleanliness, [and the children's bedrooms are] too primitive to describe."

You have just had the experience of reading Phillip Ramey's eponymous biography of Irving Fine. Rather than write a biography and base it on the testimony of his 27 interviewees, collected correspondence, newspaper articles and institutional archives, Ramey directly quotes his sources, which is not writing, it's typing. And if you wondered why a book review would quote a description of children's bedrooms, it is to illustrate that, although writing by quotation can be effective, and interviews themselves can be worthwhile reading matter, judgment in editing is required. I also feel compelled to point out that the first three quotes are from pages 265, 293 and 247 of the book (!), and that the "problems" Bernstein mentioned include occasional instances of depression, hypochondria, insomnia, adultery and wife beating (!!).

Since Ramey is not only a composer himself but a professional writer of program and liner notes, he does provide excellent source material of same for every one of Fine's compositions, most in his own words, with integrity and balance, a quality which can be lacking from biographers with limited musical training and experience. Since program notes are read before listening to a performance, I suggest you Google Nonesuch B000005IYT and follow the first link to the US Amazon's page, which [used to contain] 1-minute excerpts from every movement of Fine's most significant work: the Notturno, the Partita, the String Quartet, the a cappella choral piece, The Hour Glass, and Serious Song (for string orchestra). You'll hear for yourself that Fine was not a bad composer, although you'll also hear that his music is often derivative and unoriginal. Bernstein presented Serious Song at multiple NY Philharmonic seasons, and considered it Fine's best work. Based on the excerpts, I agree with Bernstein's assessment.

But let me tell you that Fine's significance to history is not as a composer but as an enabler of others: Copland (Tanglewood), Bernstein (the Brandeis Creative Arts Festival), Shapero and Wernick (financial opportunities), and the first Jewish university ever (Brandeis's School of Creative Arts). Fine had extensive experience with amateur choruses, and his greatest musical accomplishment was not as a composer but as a choral arranger, of Copland’s Old American Songs, which Copland gave Fine a fifth of his royalties for, rather than a standard (and far less lucrative) flat fee.

Of course, I have independently drawn these conclusions from the information provided in this book, whereas, prior to reading it, I would not have been able to tell you who Irving Fine was (and now I'm really interested in learning more about Harold Shapero, Fine's best friend, who was both a better composer and a more interesting personality). But the purpose of writing a review of a biography is to review the book, not the subject. Read Chapter 12, which is breathtaking, and describes Fine's importance and accomplishments as a teacher and administrator. As to people who enjoy reading program notes, Ramey provides an unusual separate index of compositions with page numbers.

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Last Updated: August 4, 2007