Discovering Irving Fine

cover - BMOP Sound 1041

FINE: Toccata Concertante. Notturno for Strings & Harp. Serious Song: A Lament for String Orchestra. Blue Towers. Diversions for Orchestra. Symphony / Boston Modern Orchestra Project; Gil Rose, cond / BMOP/Sound 1041, also available for free streaming on YouTube

Once in a blue moon, Norman Lebrecht’s Slipped Disc website comes up with a real gem, an interesting composer or performer you’ve never heard of before who turns out to be really wonderful. Recently, this discovery was the American composer Irving Fine (1914-1962), a member of Serge Koussevitzky’s Tanglewood-area composers’ group, who died of a sudden heart attack at age 47. Despite the best efforts of his widow to keep his name alive, he has fallen into semi-oblivion.

Irving FineWikipedia informs us that Fine’s music combined elements of neoclassical, romantic and serial elements, and was praised by Virgil Thomson and Fine’s fellow-Bostonian composer Aaron Copland. He studied composition with Walter Piston at Harvard, later taking classes with Nadia Boulanger in both Paris and later at Radcliffe College in Cambridge.

Unfortunately, Fine only left us a finite number of completed works. This CD by Gil Rose and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, issued in 2015, includes all the pieces he wrote for orchestra, totaling just 66 minutes’ worth of music, yet all of it is well-crafted and much of it is interesting. We start off with the very neoclassical Toccata Concertante with its Stravinskian rhythms and focus on wind-oriented orchestration. Fine was adept at writing terse but attractive themes and developing them in nice, tidy structures. Considering that he conducted the music of Copland, Creston, Harris and Stravinsky himself, I’m a bit surprised that at least some of his music didn’t appeal to Arturo Toscanini, but Toscanini wasn’t alone. Outside of the Boston area, Fine’s music received little exposure in symphony concerts, which is a pity.

The three-part Notturno for Strings & Harp is more in the modern French style, possibly learned from Boulanger. Here, Fine uses extended chords in sequences over which the melodic line is built, and much of the string writing is sparse rather than rich and thick. It bears a slight resemblance to some of Milhaud’s music but definitely has its own personality, at times using a moving bass line playing a countermelody. The music sometimes has a playful feeling about it that is not overly geared towards entertaining the listener. I liked the way the first movement ended on an unresolved chord as well as the lively second movement with its almost-constant string tremolos and occasional, quirky pauses.

The Serious Song: A Lament for String Orchestra leans a bit more towards the late romantic style though informed by open harmonies à la Samuel Barber—but once again, the music really doesn’t resemble that of Barber or even Copland, and there are some gritty moments to offset the romantic bias. Around the 5:30 mark, Fine also uses some interesting counter-rhythmic figures played by the basses against the violins, then moves into a passage using six quarter notes to the bar. Blue Towers is a rather splashy piece featuring a lot of brass, particularly the trumpets and trombones, with a jaunty melody and a strong tonal foundation.

Diversions for Orchestra also fall into the entertaining category, with movement titles like “Little Toccata,” “Flamingo Polka,” “Koko’s Lullaby” and “The Red Queen’s Gavotte.” Being flamingos, their polka is kind of loopy and rhythmically loose, with “leaning” harmonies and a quirky melodic line featuring little upward glissandi by the violins that sounds like a very drunken Kurt Weill, and the gavotte of the Red Queen (from Alice in Wonderland) is stiffly formal and just a bit like a military march, albeit with some quirky harmonies tossed in.

The Symphony, written in 1962, was supposed to have its world premiere conducted by Charles Munch, but the famed conductor fell ill and was replaced by Fine himself. Again, we have his curious mixture of neoclassical and bitonal/atonal elements in addition to a touch of wit mixed in with the seriousness. We also have his usual tight-knit construction, consistent and logical. I was fascinated by his continued use of a moving bass line, nearly always in an opposing melodic manner and often in a contrasting rhythm, particularly in the fast second movement with its quirky, bitonal melodic gestures played by the strings, winds and brass. Fine was not a composer who believed in music with much space between notes; everything was very tightly written, and always interesting and original. With that being said, the very opening of the third movement put me in mind of a certain passage from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet where clashing chords remind us of the tragedy behind the drama. The last movement, which is the climax of the work, is not only the longest but the most musically complex, with jagged, stiff rhythms butting heads with each other as the rather astringent melodic line muscles its way along to a conclusion. Towards the end, the tempo becomes slower but the music sounds more fatalistic. An outstanding work.

As a bonus, I would also like to recommend his longest and finest chamber piece, the Partita for Wind Quintet in an excellent performance by the New Art Wind Quintet, also available on YouTube. This begins in a rather jolly manner, something like the wind quintet of Françaix, with (again) short little melodic cells put together to make up a coherent melody. Here, without string basses, it is the bassoon that toodles along with its moving bass line. It’s not very deep music, but it’s very well written and holds the listener’s attention.

So there you have an introduction to Irvine Fine…no relation to Larry!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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