British Classical Music
John France
July 12, 2015

Just to show that I listen to, and enjoy, music that is not British. I recently reviewed this excellent CD of music by one of the United States great composers. As I noted at the conclusion of my review, 'this is an exciting and desirable retrospective of Irving Fine’s orchestral music.' It was first published on MusicWeb International.

I was delighted by this exciting new CD from the Boston Modern Orchestra Project. Apart from the Symphony, I have not consciously heard these works before: Irving Fine is, I guess, little known in the United Kingdom. He was one of the Boston Six Group of composers which included Arthur Berger, Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, Lucas Foss and Harold Shapero. Fine’s music was neo-classical, neo-romantic and latterly serial in its style. All his works are approachable and all are written with fine craftsmanship and an excellent understanding of orchestration. He is often regarded as one of ‘the great American composers of the twentieth century.’

Some brief biographical notes about the composer may be of interest. Irving Gifford Fine was born in Boston Massachusetts on 3 December 1914. After an education at Boston and Winthrop, he gained his B.A. and M.A. degrees from Harvard University. Fine’s musical education included composition with Edward Burlinghame Hall, Walter Piston and conducting with Serge Koussevitzky. There was a period in Paris as one of Nadia Boulanger many protégés. Fine joined the Music Faculty at Harvard in 1939 as Assistant Professor. Subsequently, he occupied many posts in musical education, including Tanglewood and Brandeis University.

Fine’s musical catalogue is not extensive: he has contributed a number of important chamber works, songs and choruses as well as the orchestral music presented on this disc. Copland has suggested that he belongs to the ‘American Stravinsky School’, although the influence of Hindemith is also prevalent. Irving Fine died in Boston on 23 August 1962.

The Toccata Concertante was Fine’s first completed orchestral work. It dates from 1947. The composer wrote that he wished to ‘to capture the “fanfare-like character” of concerted Baroque music as displayed in certain professional toccatas of the 16th and 17th century’. In fact, this neo-classical work is more likely to remind the listener of Stravinsky rather than ‘Back to Bach’. There is also a definite ‘American’ feel to this music, without it ever descending into a parody of ‘jazz. Contemporary critics defined the work as ‘deftly constructed’, ‘well proportioned’ ‘logically constructed’ and sparkling. It is an approachable piece that succeeds in its attempt to ‘modernize’ the Baroque toccata. However, from my point of view, it lacks just a wee bit of ‘edge’. The work was dedicated to the composer’s wife Verna. It was premiered by Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1948.

In 1951 Fine wrote his Notturno for strings and harp which is a decidedly romantic work. It is written in three movements: Lento, Animato and Adagio. The work is not ‘concerted’ with the harp being used to provide instrumental colouring rather than as a soloist.

The publisher’s programme notes suggest that this reflects the composer’s ‘own blend of styles of Chopin, Mozart and Stravinsky.’ Once again I feel that the Russian is the strongest influence. There is much warmth and lyricism in this work, although I feel that the neo-classical element is not as absent as commentators have suggested. The string writing is masterly, especially in the short ‘animato’.

Leonard Bernstein wrote of Fine’s Serious Song: A Lament for String Orchestra ‘it’s my favourite work of his…this is rich, sensitive, emotional music.’ Fine himself suggested that this work was ‘essentially an extended aria for string orchestra.’ I am not sure what the composer is ‘lamenting’ or what the unwritten text described, but this a powerful work is at once passionate, tender and invoking considerable grief. This haunting works does reach some serenity and closure on the final bars.

Blue Tower (1959) had its origins as a ‘University Marching Song: The Blue and the White’. This short work is bright, full of fun and a sheer pleasure to listen to. Think ‘Malcom Arnold meets Sousa’ and the listener will not go far wrong. This should be in the Classic FM Top 100 as a matter of course. It is a great place to start an exploration of Irving Fine’s orchestra music.

In 1959-60 Fine orchestrated four of his unpublished piano pieces and presented them as Diversions for orchestra. Once again Bernstein summed these pieces up well: ‘In these four pieces we can behold a personality, tender without being coy, witty without being vulgar, appealing without being banal, and utterly sweet without ever being cloying…’

The first of the four movements is a ‘Little Toccata’ which allows Stravinsky to attend a hoe-down. The ‘Flamingo Polka’ and the final ‘Red Queen’s Gavotte’ were originally part of incidental music for a production of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. The wistful third movement was inspired by the composer’s family poodle Koko. There is nothing serious in these charming pieces: the clue to their success is in the work’s title.

The Symphony (1962) was Irving Fine’s largest work: it was also to be his last. The composer conducted a private performance of this work at Tanglewood just days before he died. The key to understanding this symphony is to see it as being composed using serial techniques, but fused with Fine’s neo-classicism (and occasionally, his romanticism). It does not strike the listener as being serial at all: the composer manages to hide his technical scaffolding.

Interestingly, the composer recalled that he ‘…was applying the last finishing touches to the orchestration on February 20, 1962, nervously watching the television, set out of the corner of one eye when the news of Colonel Glenn's return from outer space was announced.’

The symphony is is three movements. It opens with a typically lyrical ‘Intrada’ displaying ‘…choreographic action in which characters enter, depart, and reappear…altered and in different groupings.’ This is followed by a dancing, ‘brassy’ Capriccio which is effectively a ‘scherzo’ with the traditional trio replaced by a series of ‘episodes’. The symphony concludes with a much grittier and hard-won ‘Ode’ which is dramatic and dissonant but resolves itself into a hugely positive epilogue.

The symphony was composed for large orchestra with piano, celesta and harp. It was commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and received its first public performance under Charles Munch on 23 March 1962.

Aaron Copland described the work as ‘…strongly dramatic, almost operatic in gesture, with a restless and somewhat strained atmosphere that is part of its essential quality.’ He also suggested that in this work Fine was ‘…reaching out toward new and more adventurous experiences.’

This is a great symphony that should be at the heart of the American symphonic repertoire. It should be given an airing in Europe as well. It is a masterpiece.

The liner notes by Nicholas Alexander Brown are excellent and include good descriptions of each work, a brief notes about the composer, the Project and the conductor Gil Rose. I noted above that I have not heard most of this music before, but my impression is that they are enthusiastically and sympathetically performed. All in all, this is an exciting and desirable retrospective of Irving Fine’s orchestral music.