4 Polyphonic Piano Pieces (Fine, Vivian)

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Publisher. Info. Vivian Fine Estate
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General Information

Work Title Four Polyphonic Piano Pieces
Alternative. Title
Composer Fine, Vivian
I-Catalogue NumberI-Cat. No. IVF 55
Movements/SectionsMov'ts/Sec's Four pieces
  1. Moderato
  2. Canon
  3. Scherzando
  4. Vivace
Year/Date of CompositionY/D of Comp. 1931
First Performance. 1932-04-30, First Yaddo Festival of Contemporary American Music, Saratoga Springs, New York; Vivian Fine, piano
Average DurationAvg. Duration 7 minutes
Composer Time PeriodComp. Period Modern
Piece Style Modern
Instrumentation solo piano

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...Fine herself characterized her early style of composition as stark, linear, extremely dissonant, and atonal; Four Polyphonic Pieces exemplifies this manner of writing.

Three major features dominate this early piano work: the use of canons, the predominance of tritons and seconds, and the manipulation of rhythm and meter. Form becomes secondary to these elements, and is generated by the astute handling of contrapuntal devices, rhythmic groupings, metric freedom, and intervallic treatment. Although each piece is unique and has its own character and particular emphasis, the four pieces reveal several unifying features.

The entire work, as the title suggests, is a study in polyphony; three out of the four pieces employ extensive canons. All except the last are for three voices, and the favorite contrapuntal device utilized is inversion. Following Scriabin and Crawford’s examples, Fine uses no key signatures. The pieces are panchromatic, highly dissonant, and atonal, though tonality is occasionally suggested by the manipulation of intervals and various pitch sets. Similarities to Scriabin and Crawford can also be found in areas of rhythm and meter. Metric shifts and rhythmic patterns that ignore the barline contribute to a feeling of seamlessness and the weakening of a regular pulse. Fine relies heavily on syncopation, repetition of rhythmic motives, and complex rhythmic groupings as a means of accomplishing this goal.

Melodically, Fine displays an affinity for balance and symmetry. She uses conjunct and disjunct melodic movement equally, but within a framework that clearly emphasizes balancing ascending and descending motives, phrases, or statements. In her melodic writing, one is reminded of Vivian Fine’s pianistic abilities and her interest in Scriabin. Large melodic leaps, coupled with widely spaced chords divided between the hands, and the use of extreme ranges of the keyboard require a large hand span or adeptness in covering a considerable space quickly. By writing similar harmonic structures, rhythmic patterns, and common intervals within a contrapuntal framework, Fine unifies and links the four pieces into a complete set.

—Leslie Jones, “The Solo Piano Music of Vivian Fine,” Doctor of musical arts thesis, University of Cincinnatti, 1994.


Vivian Fine is a talent of no small magnitude. She is already technically equipped for almost any problem in music and inwardely possesses…such a real love for music in its purest form that in her Four Polyphonic Piano Pieces heard in Yaddo, one could not help being moved by the sheer truth-beauty which emanates from them.

—A. Lehman Engel, The Symposium: A Critical Review, October 1932

Vivian Fine, 73…has kept her grace, wit and alacrity intact….These were evident in her music as well as her warm personal bearing, and it’s one of the happier events of the North American New Music Festival that a retrospective program of her works could be presented.

The concert comprised works that bracket both ends of Ms Fine’s career, starting with a performance by Stephen Manes of Four Polyphonic Piano Pieces, which date from the early 1930s. These short works are stern, declamatory statements written in a dissonant counterpoint that recalls Bach’s dense voice-leading. But they end in quizzical wistful cadences, which presage the balancing of poetic intuition and formal integration that characterize Ms. Fine’s later neoclassical style.

—Richard Chon, The Buffalo News, April 27, 1987