Blog written by Kendra Preston Leonard
Vivian Fine (1913-2000) was a child piano prodigy who turned to composition as she entered her teens, studying with Djane Lavoie-Herz and Ruth Crawford. As a performer, Fine premiered numerous works by her colleagues, including those of Aaron Copland, Henry Cowell, and Dane Rudhyar; as a composer, she wrote for both established genres, including string quartet, voice and piano, and orchestra, as well as more novel ones, such as percussion ensemble, cello quartet, and mixed ensembles. Many of her works combine voice and strings, including her Four Songs, written for soprano and string quartet when she was 19 and published in 1933.
Rachel Lumsden has analyzed the Crawford’s influence on Fine, noting that Fine cited the older woman as “her first significant musical mentor.” Crawford not only helped Fine to understand that women could be equal to men in composition, but that women did not have to compose using the conservative musical language that had often been deemed appropriate for women composers in the decades before. Crawford encouraged Fine to find a compositional approach that mixed dissonance and consonance and that allowed Fine to express her emotions in such a way that resonated with musical cognoscenti and lay audiences. (Lumsden 2017)
The Four Songs are an example of Fine discovering that balance: the New York Times called the work “a particularly pristine, angst-free distillation of Alban Berg—spare, contrapuntal music that is angular but always singable.” (Page 1986) Like other composers of her generation, Fine used freely adapted serial techniques with the frequent occurrence of tonal centricity in her works from this period. While Fine would experiment with more traditionally tonal approaches in the 1930s and 40s, it was an idiom similar to this, first used in her 20s, that Fine would implement throughout her career. She later described her works by saying “most of my other pieces, while not atonal, are freely atonal and freely tonal at the same time.” (Duffie 1986)
For her texts for the Four Songs, Fine chose a lyric from an anonymous sixteenth century poet; “Comfort to a Youth that had Lost his Love,” by seventeenth-century poet Robert Herrick (best known for his “To the Virgins to make much of Time”); and two pieces by James Joyce, “She Weeps Over Rahoon,” and “Tilly.” None of the texts are long, and Fine sets them without repeating any phrases or words, and the result is short but intense miniatures. “When the text is used up,” she once said, “there’s no more text” and therefore no more music. (Duffie 1986)
Fine titles the first of these songs “The Lover in Winter Pineth For The Spring,” but the text she uses is normally referred to as “Westron Wynde” or “Western Wind.” The verse, its spelling modernized, is brief: “Western wind, when wilt thou blow,/That small rain down can rain./ Christ, if my love were in my arms/And I in my bed again.” (Anon.) Scored for voice and viola alone, this first song includes both serial elements and musical palindromes. While the ostensible meter is 4/4, Fine makes it clear that the real meter is fluid, as indicated by the slurs in the viola line hat group pitches irregularly, in twos, threes, and fours. Fine begins the song with a viola line that states a twelve-tone row that completes in bar 4, and then begins to repeat the row, shifting into a new form of the row after three notes. However, Fine soon departs from the row to emphasize half step, major third, and perfect fifth relationships that widen into larger and larger intervals, spanning a major tenth at the largest. The vocal line also initially hints at serialism, but close examination of its phrases reveals that the end of the second phrase is an almost exact palindrome of the beginning of the first phrase. Throughout, the voice is rhythmically positioned in complex groupings against the steady quarter notes of the viola, and Fine creates further counterpoint between the two through contrary motion and very deliberate range extremes, placing the viola’s line high when the singer is reaching the lowest pitches of the line and vice versa. These contrasts, the use of repeated, albeit fragmented, pitch class sets, and the palindromes of opening and ending make this song feel complete and whole and deeply satisfying despite its brevity.
Like the first song in the cycle, “Comfort to a Youth” is also highly contrapuntal. Fine scores this setting of Herrick’s six-verse lament for voice, violin, and viola and assigns each a very specific texture. The text, which speculates about the afterlife, provides Fine with the opportunity to create different planes mirroring those the narrator cites in the poem.
What needs complaints,
When she a place
Has with the race
In endless mirth
She thinks not on
What ’s said or done
She sees no tears,
Or any tone
Of thy deep groan
Nor does she mind
Or think on’t now,
That ever thou
But changed above,
She likes not there,
As she did here,
And lull asleep
Thy woes, and weep
No more. (Herrick 1648)
The violin line, with its high, sustained notes, serves as the heaven in which the beloved now resides, while the viola’s part is lower, more complex, more hesitant, more earthy and befitting of a less perfect realm. Finally, the syllabic setting of the poem, with large jumps and numerous sighs (in the form of descending minor seconds), is that of a mourner speaking to another struck by the same grief. Fine also develops interest through her use of irregular and frequently changing meter. Moving freely from 6/8 to 5/8 and 7/8, Fine rejects the poem’s straightforward rhyming iambs and instead captures the manner in which someone who has just lost a loved one would speak of them. In bar 7, for example, Fine sets line 6 in 7/16 meter [misprinted in some scores as 7/8], giving “thinks” and “not” dotted quavers, that descend from a D on “thinks” to a B-flat on “not.” She then indicates a breath mark before the line continues with “on”—a semiquaver that then rushes on, as if the singer cannot pause again without breaking down, to the “What’s” of the following text line, also set as a semiquaver. Accompanying this emotional vocal line, the violin sustains an E for a dotted crochet for the duration of “thinks not” before rising to a quaver F-sharp as the voice finishes the line and begins the next with “on. What’s.” During this bar the viola plays only a semiquaver with a grace note, a D leading to a C-sharp, on the second half of the third sixteenth of the bar, accented and staccato, a reminder of the mortal world below.
At the very end of the song, in the last four bars, the violin and viola come together, playing the same rhythms. Beginning an octave apart on C, they then spread apart to an F-sharp (violin) and G (viola), then move to an E-flat and D, respectively, finally coming to rest on an E-natural and C-sharp. Above this slow, dissonant cadence, the vocal line moves mostly in semitones and minor thirds. Fine employs the same method to setting the text here as she did at the beginning: we hear the difficulty of the narrator to get the words out and to breathe. In the final bar, “weep. No more” begins on a G, jumps an augmented fourth to C-sharp, and then resolves to the D below the C-sharp, and painful and exhausted end.
Fine turns to James Joyce for her final two songs in this set. Joyce’s “She Weeps Over Rahoon” had already been set to music several times before Fine composed her version for voice and string quartet, but the wealth of settings of this poem speaks to its popularity, at least among the white, middle-and upper-class audiences who are interested in art song. Like the first two songs in Fine’s Four Songs, it speaks to loss and longing for an absent person.
Rain on Rahoon falls softly, softly falling
Where my dark lover lies.
Sad is his voice that calls me, sadly calling
At grey moonrise.
Love, hear thou
How soft, how sad his voice isever calling,
Ever unanswered—and the dark rain falling
Then as now.
Dark too our hearts, O love, shall lie, and cold
As his sad heart has lain
Under the moon-grey nettles, the black mould
And muttering rain. (Joyce, 1927)
“She Weeps Over Rahoon” is the only song in the set that uses all four of the instruments from the string quartet with voice, and the texture of the song is much more dense than the previous two. Throughout, the first and second violins have parallel rhythms, usually long, sustained notes separated most frequently by a minor ninth. Both violins’ lines are set in a very high tessitura, perhaps evoking the height of the sky or the moon or the ineffable pain the narrator is experiencing, or, as in “Comfort to Youth”, an afterlife.
Against this persistent and very quiet dissonance, the viola and cello have a solo interlude each and a duet. The viola first enters after the voice has sung the poem’s first two lines: in a series of quavers, slurred like the crochets in the firs song to indicate phrasing and metrical beginnings and ends, the viola line moves chromatically, focusing on semitone and whole tone relationships. This seems to prepare for the change drastic change in the vocal line that begins at bar 22. For the first section of the song, the voice is almost static, reciting the text on an A or B. dropping to G# at the end of the first stanza. In bar 22, however, the voice becomes louder and much more active, anxious and chromatic for 3 bars, before returning to a drone, albeit higher pitched, for 3 bars. With the higher drone, the cello enters for the first time with a plaintive solo that rapidly expands into counterpoint with itself, requiring the performer to maintain two melodic lines at the same time. As the voice and cello parts before more complex—the voice again becoming active—the viola returns to add yet another contrapuntal line, repeating some of the previous gestures from its quaver passage but with different rhythmic values. Finally, the viola and cello lines slow and become simple, and the voice returns to the drone, this time on an A-flat, again.
Fine’s setting captures the varying moods of grief. The unfeeling, numb, or trudging sensation is represented by the drones, where each syllable is clearly articulated, but where there is no or little melodic interest. At the other extreme is the highly chromatic and intense declamation of a more restless state, the panicked loss of control of grief. The contrasts between the highest and lowest instruments in the string quartet enhance the sense of disparity: the high dissonance of the violins is an unemotional heaven beneath which the earthier timbres and complicated writing of the lower voices suggest the living seeking meaning and resolution.
Fine chose as her final text for the Four Songs another Joyce poem, “Tilly.” The title refers not to a person, but references the meaning of the word as something that is “a little bit extra.” The first two stanzas suggest a rustic and not unpleasant scene, the drover moving his cattle in a familiar pattern and state. But the final stanza breaks away from this form to refocus on the poem’s creator, unhappy, injured, and alone. (O’Grady 2010)
He travels after a winter sun,
Urging the cattle along a cold red road,
Calling to them, a voice they know,
He drives his beasts above Cabra.
The voice tells them home is warm.
They moo and make brute music with their hoofs.
He drives them with a flowering branch before him,
Smoke pluming their foreheads.
Boor, bond of the herd,
Tonight stretch full by the fire!
I bleed by the black stream
For my torn bough!
Ultimately, this poem too is about grief and mourning: the narrator mourns for themself.
Fine embraces the poem’s binary by composing contrasting textures and time signatures for the first two stanzas and the last. Her setting is for the two violins and cello of the string quartet, and begins in 6/8 with the first violin and cello in octaves playing a repeated figure of G-sharp crochet-C-sharp quaver, F-sharp quaver-F-natural crochet, a seesawing gesture that could represent the movement of the cows or the drover’s calls to them. The vocal line, which moves from time signature to time signature independently from the strings, nods to the descending fifth of the string figure by descending from E to A on “He travels” before asserting its own melodic identity. Twice, for lines 2 and 4, Fine uses a short tone row: D F E-flat A-flat C-flat D-flat in the same rhythm to create musical a rhyme.
As the second stanza begins, the first violin and cello have begun to diverge, and the second violin enters just after the voice, setting the stage for the texture of the final stanza with sustained double-stops mostly in major and minor ninths. The vocal line becomes more fluid and less speech-like, with large jumps between notes and less correlation between syllables and note length. The first violin’s line is a carefully constructed improvisation-like variation on the crochet-quaver, quaver-crochet motif from the song’s beginning, while in the cello, a similar exploration moves radically away from its origins into chromatic triplet and quintuplets played pizzicato.
Both improvisatory passages come to an end with the last lines of the second stanza, and the second violin alone holds an E-flat-D double-stop as the tempo slows slightly for the third stanza. Fine sets the stanza in the free and chromatic style as the previous text-setting, still emphasizing major and minor seconds and fifths. The last two lines of the text are marked lento, and the second violin drops the double-stop and moves to a very high G-sharp as the singer descends from G-sharp to C-sharp to A.
Fine’s Four Songs are small but exquisitely detailed, short but rich, and packed full of meaning, emotion, and interest. Fine shows her mastery of creating musical puzzles and solutions, using established methods in conjunction with the free spirit of improvisation, and in setting text in meaningful and multiply fascinating ways. In these four pieces about grief and loss and mourning, there is text and music to touch any listener.
Anonymous. c. 1515-1540. “Westron wynde”. British Library ms Royal Appendix (RA) 58.
Duffie, Bruce. 1986. Interview with Vivian Fine. November 8. http://www.bruceduffie.com/fine.html
Joyce, James. 1927. “She Weeps Over Rahoon”. From Pomes Penyeach(Paris: Shakespeare and Company).
Lumsden, Rachel. 2017. “‘You Too Can Compose’: Ruth Crawford’s Mentoring of Vivian Fine”. MTO23, no. 2 (June 2017), 2. http://mtosmt.org/issues/mto.17.23.2/mto.17.23.2.lumsden.html
Herrick, Robert. 1648. Hesperides: Or, The Works Both Humane & Divine. Early English Books Online. https://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/eebo/A43441.0001.001/1:5.1035?rgn=div2;view=fulltext
O’Grady, Thomas. 2010. “Poetry and Grief: James Joyce’s ‘Tilly’”. The Boston Irish Reporter21, No. 10 (October), 18. http://irishmatters.blogspot.com/2010/10/poetry-and-grief-james-joyces-tilly.html
Page, Tim. 1986. “Music: Song Cycles of 20’s and 30’s”. The New York Times(September 30), 15. https://www.nytimes.com/1986/09/30/arts/music-song-cycles-of-20-s-and-30-s.html