Sonata for Violin and Piano (1946)

Born 3 December 1914, Boston, U.S.A.
Died 23 August 1962, Boston, U.S.A.

The American university environment has been a godsend for teachers, students, scholars, and researchers in the humanities and sciences, but not for creative artists.   Poets who teach a full load in English departments tend to produce far less creative work than those outside academe.   Composers who teach music theory, analysis, orchestration, and composition also suffer a decline in production. Faculty meetings, committee activities, curriculum adjustments and problem students in classes and seminars take so much time and effort that a composer has little left to focus and concentrate on his or her own musical ideas. And when the academic composer suddenly dies at the age of forty-seven, it should come as no surprise that his final catalog of completed compositions seems disappointingly small.

Irving Gifford Fine (1914-1962) left us with just sixteen published pieces in his mere twenty-two years of compositional activity. The Sonata for violin and piano to be heard this evening appeared in 1946, bursting on the musical scene with critical acclaim and general public approval. This first instrumental success would differ somewhat in style from Fine's work in the 1950s, and radically from his two final works of the 1960s. Like Stravinsky, who late in life tended to be embarrassed by his own early work, especially Firebird, Fine publicly denigrated this early achievement. I knew Fine reasonably well at Brandeis University, though I only took one course from him, and I argued with him even then about the worth of this Sonata and some of his other early work that I liked more than he did.

One should rarely take a composer's personal evaluation and descrip­tion of his work terribly seriously. Most composers think of their own work as they had when in the process of working it out, rather than as the completed entity it became, and so hear it quite differently from the way it sounds to intelligent, sensitive listeners. When Fine wrote the Sonata, his style echoed that of neo-classic Stravinsky and to a lesser extent of Poulenc and Copland. By the time I knew him, he had become interested in the serial language that had been pioneered by Schönberg and Webern, and was no longer sympathetic to the tonal language he had employed in the Sonata. He then not only called the work a student piece, a youthful folly, but described the form of the outer movements as in sonata-allegro form and the central one in language that included various types of recapitulatory devices.

I agree that he had thought in sonata-allegro terms when he began the Sonata, but by the time he finished, with all his form-making alterations, elisions, insertions, and continuous developments, little of the original design remained. The most one can say now, that the work's outline and internal mechanics might be "informed by sonata form" rather than fall into it, seems fair to the composer and most of all to the piece that outlives him and will be admired for a very long time. In this sense the work no longer belongs to the composer, but to all who perform and listen to it, particularly if we do all we can to observe his intentions as written in the score.

The Sonata's three movements stand as a monument to the one composer whose technical mastery Fine loved and respected above all others -- Franz Joseph Haydn. The sort of game Haydn played in works composed after 1785, in which he set up the educated listener's expectations only to thwart him and keep him guessing, abounds in the Fine Sonata. The delicate motivic development and growth process that marks Haydn's string quartets from op. 50 onwards, recurs in a new dialect in the Fine sonata. One may hear ideas that recall Ravel's Sonata for violin and violoncello, Copland's Four piano blues, or Prokofiev's Fifth piano sonata, but these resemblances only concern a momentary wisp of melody or harmony. The deepest factors that control the Sonata's marvelous sense of momentum and continuity proceed directly from Haydn.   Fine admitted to my class that he thought Haydn far more seminal and formally influential than Mozart or Beethoven, and this work, as well as his wonderful Partita for woodwind quintet of 1948 and the Notturno for strings and harp of 1951, a work that deserves to be performed far more than at present, clearly illustrate that influence.

The first movement opens with a significant slow section setting up the main fast part of the movement. In normal classic and neoclassic music, this would be an introduction bearing no resemblance to the material in the rest of the opening. This so-called introduction, however, employs motives that will not only appear in this movement but in the second and third as well. This preview of coming attractions (technically called a "prolepsis") Haydn used in at least a dozen works, most notably the "Drum roll" Symphony. The use of similar motives throughout the sonata, a process called "cyclic," also apes the great Haydn, but had been a feature of the music of a hundred 19th-century composers, particularly those of the Liszt "thematic transformation" school. Whenever a thematic passage recurs after its first statement, Fine goes far to vary it, sometimes to the point of totally disguising it, including turning it upside down and shifting the rhythms and accents of the passage.  The sophistication of all these interlocking parameters, not to mention surprising  phrasing, dynamics, and balances between the two instruments, challenges the deciphering ability of even the most experienced listeners. Even with the score on my lap, I find it easy to miss connections that unify the whole without making it tedious or unduly repetitive.

The limitations of program notes preclude me from going into detail about the tonal language of the Sonata, no matter how attractive I find it. Let me just say that Fine's published description of it as "mildly dissonant" is both technically inaccurate and aesthetically misleading. Most simultaneous intervals normally considered dissonant in music before the 20th century never resolve, never need to resolve and thus cannot by definition be dissonant.   And by 2008, this language has been so totally absorbed into our aural consciousness that we do not need to find excuses for it. I hope that some day, someone writes a 500-page Ph.D. dissertation about this sonata, preferably at Brandeis. Philip Ramey has written a serviceable account of the events of Fine's life; now someone needs to write a fair evaluation of the accomplishments of his music. Increased performances of his masterworks, like the one on this program, will go a long way towards contributing to a full and permanent Irving Fine resuscitation.

Joel Sheveloff (2008)