Vivian Fine





Drama for Orchestra
(after paintings by Edvard Munch)




20 minutes


4*4*4*4*, 6421, bs trmb (1), timp, perc (3), pno-celeste (1), harp, strings


Dr. and Mrs. Ralph Dorfman for the San Francisco Symphony


January 5-8, 1983, San Francisco Symphony, Edo De Waart, conductor


Available on demo CD

  1. Midsummer Night
  2. The Embrace
  3. Jealousy
  4. The Scream
  5. Two Figures by the Shore

program notes

     Midsummer Night: A woman in the fullness of life stands with uplifted face, experiencing the magic of the summer’s night. Over the strings in octaves appears a melody for oboe, the strings sustaining a different pace from that of the oboe. The English horn repeats the oboe theme. Sudden, sharp, muted sounds of brass instruments are a third element; the harp and lower strings enter to create a moving line; and there are bird-like trills in the wind instruments. These materials recur in the course of the movement, transformed in timbre, line, and rhythm .


     The Embrace: Two lovers rush toward each other in surging movements of ardent love. The tempo is quickened with a warm, lyrical impulse flowing through the wide-ranging melodic line played by strings reinforced by winds. This is taken up by lower strings and is an inversion of the top line. Over the bass and cello, which invert the opening melodic sweep, is a motif in thirds added by wind instruments that moves in another rhythm. An additional element comes in blocks of minor chords. These materials are freely developed and combined, the movement ending quietly with a solo violin accompanied by vibraphone, harp, pizzicato cellos, and double basses.


     Jealousy: The orchestra itself seems to be undergoing the violent agony of obsession. The basic motif is a twisting five-note figure that appears in many guises: The timpani has a motif related to it; the piano and xylophone double the speed; there are also violent insistent chords. Throughout, the constant small increases and decreases in sound contribute to the agonized pulsation. A slow section, marked “dolente” (mournful), allows a respite before the resumption of the original material, in inversion…


     The Scream: The expression of the ultimate existential agony, when the world is experienced as fragmented horror. The long drawn-out sounds of the scream are interspersed by dissociated memories. In addition to the long-held tone, there is a motif of a descending half step that becomes a wail (trumpets); lyrical material played by the winds and strings, sometimes punctuated by loud chords combined with the “Scream” sound; and a section for percussion and piano in which the fabric of the sound disintegrates. The movement ends with a series of convulsive chords.


      Two Figures by the Shore: This is sustained by an oceanic rocking rhythm over which appear motifs from previous movements. The effect is almost as if a kaleidoscope were used to combine the same elements in new ways. The ending moves to an assertion of the power and joy of life

–Vivian Fine, notes for San Francisco Symphony


Drama For Orchestra possesses the dynamic impulse of romantic music but not the same vocabulary….The central compositional technique used is described by Fine as “layering.” She works here with linear ideas that are written separately, later finding ways of combining them that realize her expressive purposes. This way of composing came about rather recently during her work on the tape sections of Missa Brevis, for four cellos and taped voice….In the electronic studio she worked—with no set idea of what might come of it—to combine the [vocal] parts into an expressive whole. She discovered that this freer process of combining parts enabled her to find fresh ways of realizing her music. Behind the process and evidently guiding it is what she calls “the background image” the to-be-realized energy that moves the music in the directions it seems to be seeking.
      It may be pertinent to Drama for Orchestra that Fine now describes her technique as a free pluralism which is neither tonal nor atonal. The rigors of her technique and her lack of sentimentality allow for deep probings of emotional states, as in the present work. It is rare that a prodigy even lives the long productive life that this composer has, and has the chance to move through maturing phases that allow for the tapping of old resources and influences. Fine now composes with a great sense of freedom, knowledge, and still that insistence upon her own voice. Her collage technique is a recent development, not for radical purposes, but as a sudden releasing device that elicits yet another range of music.

–Josephine Carson, program notes for San Francisco Symphony, January 1983


“Drama for Orchestra finds Fine speaking out as independently as ever, and differently from the last large work of hers to be heard here, ‘The Women in the Garden,’…and differently from other works we have heard of her prodigious output. ‘Drama’ is her musical response to five paintings by Norwegian expressionist Edvard Munch. It’s not an attempt at pictorialization, but more an evocation of the emotional states suggested. Music can go beyond or beneath the painting’s fixed image, exploring in a dynamic medium the constantly evolving emotional processes. Munch’s famous ‘The Scream,’ that agonized face with distended mouth and vibrant radiations, is an intensity relentlessly sustained. In Fine’s fourth movement, ‘The Scream’ emerges as a sporadic series of piercing events. The background, the melancholy melodic lines, the brooding, the nervous, fluttering percussion passage, establish the force and meaning of the occasional chordal shrieks and the final short, climactic outcry.
      “In the first [movement], ‘Midsummer Night,’ long melodies over spare harmonies and sustained octaves set the emotional atmosphere in motion. The wide-spaced range of the scoring, the sparseness, suggests the dimensions of night and its stillness, while coloristic ideas, splashing and penetrating, create inflections with compelling overtones. The harmonic strength in Fine’s music originates in part with chordal structures formed from her melodies. At times, too, there are real bass lines. but this is not old-fashioned technique, and not systematic, but the consequence of the music’s need. This quality and the potent rhythmic impulse that courses through and generates Fine’s music made one movement, “The Embrace,” the most impressive for me. The flow and sweep are beautiful. Novel sounds and colors are found in the work, but not calling attention to themselves, serving rather the expressive purposes. ‘Jealousy’ (No. 3) and the final ‘Two Figures by the Shore’ have rhythmic thrust, with eccentric meters and patterns creating the sense of distortion in the characterization of ‘jealousy.’ ‘Two Figures,’ the work’s resolution, is steadier, more joyful.”

–Robert Commanday, San Francisco Chronicle, January 7, 1983


“... the repertory of modern American music gains a dramatic, lively and intriguing work.”

The Peninsula Times Tribune, Palo Alto, January 6, 1983


“[Fine] most brilliantly realizes her art in ‘The Scream.’ The San Francisco audience absolutely loves Vivian Fine and her music.”

–Paul Moor, High Fidelity/Musical America, April 1983


“…[Fine is] a master orchestrator with a very personal style…a wealth of ideas and colors, in gestures of sometimes abruptly different character, emerge and develop. The [first] movement, like most of the others in the piece, has an overall arch form–growing to an intense climax.”

Bay City News Service, January 6, 1982


“Impressively successful…does brilliantly well what it tries to do…The first and longest movement alternates strikingly between delicately reflective effects and big sounds full of portentous drama. The last builds tension with brass chords, agitation in phrases that fly up from all over the orchestra, and excitement in a huge final chord. But ‘The Scream,’ as you might suspect, is the most arresting of all, with high flutes and piccolos, followed by trumpet smears, inescapably conveying feelings of human agony.
      “Drama for Orchestra ought to have a long career in the concert hall. Fascinating for ‘pure’ musical reasons, it is also a powerhouse of dramatic musical communication.”

–William Glackin, The Sacramento Bee, January 7, 1983

audio files

The Embrace

Jealousy (excerpt)