5 Preludes (Fine, Vivian)
|Work Title||Five Preludes|
|Year/Date of Composition||1939-1941|
|First Performance||1951-03-04, Montclair, New Jersey, Montclair Art Museum, Vivian Fine, piano|
|Average Duration||5 1/2 minutes|
“…[Five Preludes] are full of diversity, with brilliant fast movements and an exceptionally beautiful slow movement….”
- —Rotterdamsch Nieuwsblad (Rotterdam, Netherlands), Fall, 1962
“full of charm and virtuosity”
- —Haagsche Courant (The Hague, Netherlands), Fall 1962
“Pianistically clever and original”
- —Her Vrije Volk (Amsterdam), Fall 1962
- —Louis Chapin, Christian Science Monitor, January 2, 1963
“easily accessible…[the last movement], featuring runs in the upper register, is a virtuoso piece.”
- —Richmond News Leader, November 27, 1984
Though Fine considered these works among her finest piano pieces, Five Preludes was not officially premiered until 1962, when pianist Robert Guralnik performed them in New York City.
The Preludes are a set of five individual studies that bridge Fine’s early atonal and subsequent tonal period. Each prelude exploits a different musical element, explores consonances and dissonances, and conclusively resolves to a major chord. Its is as if Fine were simultaneously struggling to maintain her strong atonal connections and attempting to move in the direction of tonality
The first prelude, suggesting C major, features chromaticism and major and minor thirds presented in a recurring sixteenth-note pattern. The opening measure, with this motive of sixteenth-note thirds, immediately presents key ambiguity: A minor or C major?
Each presentation of the motive retains this sense of tonal ambiguity until the final measure, where Fine resolves the question of key by concluding with a simple C octave. Although the final C octave does not contain the third and fifth of a C major chord, I suggest the prelude’s key is C major because the opening and recurring motive of thirds contains the tonic and missing third.
In addition to the chromaticism used in the motivic thirds, Fine writes a series of chromatic octaves and single line chromatic passages throughout the prelude. Although the tonality of the piece is continually questionable, one feels a sense of cohesiveness and a less harsh dissonant quality than the solo piano work from her first style period (Four Polyphonic Pieces), due to the frequent interjections of the opening motive’s major and minor thirds.
The second prelude, marked adagio calmato, captures the “wonderfully lyric quality” of which Zuponcic speaks. With this prelude, Fine explores a more homophonic style of writing than she previously used in earlier solo piano works, presenting a lyric melody with a traditionally classical left-hand accompaniment. The piece begins and ends in E-flat major, yet few other segments present the key as clearly. An influence of jazz harmonies may be noted in this prelude in its use of extended and altered chords.
Rhythm and meter are two of the more interesting elements that Fine exploits in the third prelude. The beat continually shifts between eighth and sixteenth notes, and the first eight measures alone include five different meters: 3/8, 5/8, 6/8, 13/16, and 4/8. The sixteenth note serves as the common unit between the meters, and sixteenth-note motion helps maintain an uninterrupted rhythmic and melodic flow.
A lyrical melody, interspersed with long passages of flowing chromatic sixteenths, remains throughout in the right hand, but the left hand shows Fine’s continued affinity for linear writing. It serves alternately as accompaniment, countermelody, and harmonic (consonant and dissonant) complement. The prelude bears no key signature, but A-flat often appears at significant structural points and the final figure is an arpeggiated A-flat major chord.
The octave, a consonant perfect interval, was rare in Fine’s earlier piano writing, but emerges as a significant interval in Five Preludes. The rising importance of octaves suggests, along with a prominent use of thirds) as seen particularly in the first prelude), Fine’s growing interest in consonant intervals, harmonies, and tonality. The first two preludes uses octaves intermittently; however, the fourth prelude prominently features them. Differing from the other, more lyrical preludes, this virtuosic prelude exhibits driving energy, a result of the octave’s exploitation and incisive articulation. Although Fine does not mark a key signature, the first two measures, which occur repeatedly in various guises, suggests D-flat major, as does the last octave-fifth: D-flat/A-flat.
The last prelude of the set moves with the same driving energy initiated in the fourth prelude. Although this piece is not entitled “toccata,” its flashiness and rhythmic verve suggest this designation. Fine explores new techniques, such as bitonality and glissandi, in this prelude, but again chromaticism is the core of her writing. To create a toccata-like effect, Fine divides a chromatic line by alternating the pitches between the hands.
The left hand has a key signature of G-flat major, while the right hand has none. Fine subtly focuses attention on the pentatonic nature of the left hand, and diverts attention from the chromatic framework. However, in the middle section of this ABA form, she abandons the pentatonic idiom for chromaticism. Fine changes the left hand’s key signature to no sharps or flats, yet she relies heavily on accidentals in both voices. She also reveals a melody hidden in the texture by double-stemming notes in the left hand, changing the dynamic marking dramatically (f to p), and indicating a change of mood to grazioso.
To delineate the sections clearly, the transition measure (m. 31) contains the only pedal marking in the prelude, one of the two pedal indications of the entire set. The second A section replicates the first until the last two measures. Here Fine momentarily sets up a half-step conflict between D and D-flat before concluding with a black-key glissando in both hands, and a final G-flat major chord.
Perhaps the greatest similarity between the preludes is the triadic or tonal conclusion to each. Despite a degree of tonal meandering in these preludes, Fine always concludes with a nonambiguous ending as if to solidify her tonal intentions. With the preludes, her writing becomes more lyric and homophonic, although she never completely disregards her linear interest.
- —Leslie Jones, “The Solo Piano Music of Vivian Fine,” Doctor of musical arts thesis, University of Cincinnatti, 1994.
The five preludes are short, most one page each, highly technical, and more like etudes than preludes. All, except the last begin tonal and end tonal with many chromatic explorations in between, a procedure Wallingford Riegger later described as ‘tempered atonality.’ Each has a distinctive texture generated by one or two musical ideas….Fine’s compositional technique has become dramatic and terse, due, perhaps, to more command over a restricted use of ideas and more freedom of expression through her work with dancers.
- —Heidi Von Gunden, The Music of Vivian Fine, Scarecrow Press, 1999