Irving Fine: Symphony

performed by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project under Gil Rose, or below by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under the composer’s baton

(cover image by Andrew Yardley)

Irving Gifford Fine was born in Boston on 3 December 1914. He earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Harvard, where he studied under Walter Piston. He also studied conducting under (who else in Boston?) Serge Koussevitzky, was pianist for the Boston Symphony, and, you guessed it, even studied at Fontainbleau with Nadia Boulanger!

Beginning in 1939, he taught music theory at Harvard, “becoming a close associate,” Wikipedia says, of people like Copland, Bernstein, and Stravinsky. In 1950, he began teaching at Brandeis. Sadly, he died at only 47 years of age, from heart disease.

This is a work I decided to give a listen to only after having read praises of it from various sources, including, of course, Neil Butterworth, much quoted below. It’s wonderful to have this, though: the access to album reviews, program notes and the like, because I was compelled to give the piece a listen as a result and was nothing short of stunned at how powerful a piece it is.

Neil Butterworth says Fine’s works are “neo-classical, much influenced by Stravinsky,” and we’ll hear a bit of that. He discusses Fine’s only symphony on p. 136 of his book The American Symphony, stating that the premiere was given on March 23, 1962, five months to the day before the composer’s passing. Aside from Stravinsky and neoclassicism, he “turned to the 12-note system, following a lyrical romantic course modelled on Schoenberg and Berg.” Butterworth says:

This symphony, conceived on a larger scale than any of his other works, represents a synthesis of these two conflicting styles to produce a definitively personal language.

(Interestingly, Wikipedia says in their article on Fine that the symphony premiered “less than two weeks before his untimely death following a heart attack (Fine conducted the premiere when Charles Munch, who was originally to have conducted, fell ill).” Butterworth specifically mentions Munch having given the premiere of the work, and that Fine’s conducting was a recording of the piece 11 days before his death, not the premiere, although it could have been the premiere recording.)

Although possessing no programme as such, the composer suggested that the first movement Intrada (originally entitled Eclogue) ‘is a kind of choreographic action in which characters enter, depart and reappear altered and in different groupings… all of this serving as background for a lyrical or at times pastoral narrative.’ (Butterworth p. 136)

As stated by Butterworth above, we get a very interesting first movement. It’s immediately transparent, clear as a bell and vibrantly full of color. It abounds with textural and rhythmic interest. Instead of sitting down and watching a film, it’s more like being in a room, with things going on everywhere, all related but distinct, and as we ‘turn’ our ears throughout this piece, as it progresses, we hear all the things mentioned above. It begins with a bassoon solo, almost languid, but there are turns of great tension and drive here, a modern, distinct sound with whiffs of Stravinsky, maybe even, in its 12-tone-ness, Schoenberg, or Webern’s passacaglia, an intriguing and engrossing first movement.

The second, titled Capriccio, is certainly no slow movement. After the quiet whisper that ended the first movement, we’re awakened by an energetic scherzo, something between Copland and Stravinsky, a fun, boisterous and driving movement, the shortest of the three, in which we hear the composer’s talent for orchestral color and balance at an even greater level. If you’re under the impression that you can’t enjoy 12-tone music, this movement, really this work as a whole, will do quite a lot to change that opinion. This movement embodies a playfulness that one generally doesn’t associate with the raw, often more ‘pained’ sounding harmonies of Schoenberg or Berg, although he may not be following serialist procedures as strictly.

The finale, Ode, is described by the composer (quoted by Butterworth) as:

a dithyrambic fantasia with a concluding recessional or epilogue. In the fantasia, much of the material employed in the Symphony recurs highly metamorphosed in fragmentary statements or outbursts… The prevailing mood is darker than in the first movements.

Indeed.

The opening is ominous and quiet, but still possesses the transparent quality that marks this entire work. It is the longest movement. Listen for the first statement in this movement from the trumpet, because it is the seedling for what is one of the most searingly powerful gestures I can remember hearing as of late.

There are some absolutely stunning magical moments that glimmer here and there throughout the more static tapestry, like shards of glass catching the sunlight just right. There are constant elements that reappear throughout this movement, like the framework upon which it grows, like a crystal forming its angular, regular shape seemingly out of nowhere. From a seemingly thin, transparent tapestry of individual lines and sounds there eventually is created an incredibly strong, tragic, towering, roaring sound, something to be in awe of. There’s a brief climax at the center of the movement (and listen for that ornate trumpet), but the real climax of the work, as it grows, is only at the very end, with an incredible sense of conflict about what that end will be, torn between serenity and tragedy. Or are they one and the same?

The blazing trumpet announces either triumph or impending doom, but does it with piercing intensity, for a memorable finish to a work that proves more enjoyable with each listen.

If you’ve never thought much of 12-tone or ‘serial’ music, here’s a really outstanding work that’s, granted, in quite a different idiom than much from Schoenberg or Stravinsky (who took up serialism only after Fine’s work here, I think) or Webern, etc., but makes a fantastic argument for the vividness and power of a work written in such a modern idiom. It is certainly a highlight of the series, and one I’m very glad to have stumbled upon. The recording I referenced above, with Gil Rose, is an outstanding performance with great sound, the only one I’m aware of that’s available commercially, certainly the most modern of them all. Go give it a listen.

And also stay tuned for the last few weeks of our rather long American symphony series. There’s going to be some more great stuff coming up. Thank you so much for reading .

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