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An interview with Ross Lee Finney.

Ross Lee Finney, an outstanding American composer of the twentieth century who wrote works in numerous genres and for various media, was born December 23, 1906, in Wells, Minnesota. He attended the University of Minnesota and Carleton College. Subsequent work included composition study with Nadia Boulanger and Roger Sessions. In 1937, Finney was awarded both Guggenheim and Pulitzer fellowships. In 1948, he accepted a position at the University of Michigan, where he taught composition and served as composer-in-residence until 1973. His students include George Crumb, William Albright and Roger Reynolds; perhaps more impressive than the list of his students is the wide variety of compositional styles represented by these world-class composers.

Finney's compositional history paralleled that of many great composers of the twentieth century. His earlier works exhibited nationalistic and neoclassical tendencies. After 1950, Finney's works incorporated a serial technique involving symmetrical hexachords.

Finney's orchestral writing includes several concertos (two each for piano and violin), four symphonies and several works with programmatic titles. Some of his chamber works are the eight string quartets, two piano trios, two piano quintets, a piano quartet and sonatas for violin and cello. Finney also wrote for the voice; he produced several song cycles, two operas and ten choral works. His piano works include five sonatas, Nostalgic Waltzes, Variations on a Theme by Alban Berg, Lost Whale Calf, Narrative in Retrospect and Narrative in Argument. In addition, he wrote some pedagogical works for piano, including 24 Inventions, Youth's Companion, 32 Piano Games and "Medley ('Campfire on the Ice')." Finney died in February 1997 just before he was honored at the MTNA National Convention with the MTNA Achievement Award, the organization's highest honor.

While preparing a lecture recital focusing on Finney's piano works in my doctoral program at the University of Southern California, I had the distinct privilege of interviewing this outstanding composer. This interview, conducted by phone in May 1990, sheds light on Finney's delightful personality, his keen intellect and his unique compositional style. The following is an edited transcript of this interview.

L: Linda Apple-Monson writes that there is folk material in the Piano Sonata No. 4. (1) I am curious about what folk material is used and where it is found within the work.

F: There is no folk material in the Piano Sonata No. 4. It's rather "folksish" in a way, but the hymn is actually my own hymn. There are things about it that are familiar, but the idea of using an old hymn just didn't fit into the programmatic quality of that sonata because, as you undoubtedly realize, that sonata contrasts my feelings and experiences when I returned from Europe after the war and contrasted the Christmas experience of the Bulge with getting back into the spirit of my family Christmas--the children. So there's a certain "folksish" quality about it, but there are no folk materials.

L: In the third movement, "Nocturne" there are almost vestiges of the "The First Noel."


F: Yes, that's right. In other words, in the Nocturne, you very definitely have the feeling of a family Christmas.

L: Is the idea of complementarity still an important part of your compositional philosophy?

F: Complementarity is a specific idea that comes from physics. It comes from Niel Bohr, as far as I'm concerned, whose thinking on the subject of complementarity came to me when I was lecturing at CalTech once. Complementarity is essentially where, in order to get a complete focus or a complete idea of something, you have to view it from two angles; in physics, the Newtonian theory for the large view and the quantum theory for the microcosmic view. This is usually misinterpreted by critics. They obviously don't know what complementarity is. It isn't anything I invented at all. It simply arose when I found a conflict; there were aspects of my music where the language could best be increased or made to be satisfactory by a larger inclusion of chromaticism. And the controlling factor of this microcosmic aspect of the music, that's the small aspect--that is, what note follows what note--could best be determined, at least in the '50s, by serialization, the twelve-tone technique. The macrocosmic, the large aspects of the work--that is the control of time, events in time--had to do with tonality, or pitch polarity, if you don't like the word "tonality." I like the word "tonality." I don't think it has anything to do with triadic [music], although that's what the critics think it does. After all, you have tonality in modal music; you have tonality in folk music that has nothing to do with the triadic system. So, it seemed to me that in the macrocosmic aspect, the controlling factor was tonality, or pitch polarity. Usually it means the meaning, possibly the substance, of the bass note, but not always. Naturally, I can't give you a full lecture on tonality. I still find that this aspect of complementarity is for me valid, even when the microcosmic aspects of my work are controlled by symmetrical hexachords. I think one has to admit that in the works where I use the symmetrical hexachord, one probably can't any longer speak of my music as being twelve-tone music, that is, certainly not in the academic sense.

L: Were you planning a specific pitch focus in "Narrative in Retrospect"?

F: Oh yes, and you asked me what it is, and I haven't had time to look. Surely, I undoubtedly end on it, don't I?

L: Well, you end with a bass note of "D" and then above that you have the E-flat minor triad.


F: What is the hexachord in that row?

L: E F-sharp G B-flat C C-sharp.

F: It is perfectly true that the work has the ambivalence that you have in the diminished seventh chord, and, therefore, when you're thinking of its tonality, it really could be almost any tonality within that hexachordal situation. So, I think I would have to listen and see whether I felt "D" was the final tonic of the piece, and I would imagine probably I did.

By the way, I've been trying to think of the word that means that you have all of the sound, all of the pitches ... "aggregate." Remember that there are certain things that I have completely given up, but one is that in the symmetrical hexachord, you can have the notes in my music in any order as long as you stay within that hexachord and there is no work of mine in which I have the aggregate of the work. That isn't something that has ever interested me.

L: So in terms of all six pitches being used together....

F: I certainly use the sonority of the hexachord as an associated factor throughout the work. That's really what you were saying about the Narrative in Retrospect, that the diminished seventh chord is the permeating sound in both the Chopin [Ballade in G Minor, which is quoted in the Narrative in Retrospect] and in my work. And in my work it's because of the hexachordal situation. In Chopin, it's a triadic situation.

L: You know, another thing I found interesting about those two works is that a ballad is a narrative poem.

F: Well, of course, when I finally got the work finished I knew by then....

L: ... Then you chose the title.

F: And then I chose the title. At least I never start composing a thing from the standpoint of a title.

L: Has the octatonic scale been important throughout your body of works? I have found this scale in the "Christmastime" Sonata.


The octatonic scale also seems to be the basis for your hexachord [E F-sharp G B-flat C C-sharp] in Narrative in Retrospect and is used in the Chopin Ballade in G Minor.


F: It doesn't exist. You're talking about something that never enters my mind. I don't even know what an octatonic scale is, though I suppose it means eight notes.

L: The alternation of half steps and whole steps.

F: OK, I'm not interested. But you see you're failing to understand the problems, the possibilities of a symmetrical hexachord; let me explain it to you in the very simplest terms: naturally, any hexachord can be expressed in a scale form. Now let's take the simplest symmetrical hexachord that you could have. Incidentally, it's kind of interesting because it shows that a twelve-tone technique is not as radical a revolution as you might think. The added symmetrical hexachord situation would be CDEFGA and the second hexachord F-sharp G-sharp A-sharp B C-sharp D-sharp. Now let us suppose that there is figure work. I like scales as you probably realize, and the reason I like scales is because they give momentum to the work, and movement, and they fit the human hand. In other words, most of our instruments are premised on our fingers and the scalewise pattern. Now suppose I had CDEFGA; well now I might overlap these hexachords, and I might overlap the hexachord that starts on "A" ... A B C-sharp, D E F-sharp. If you stop to think how many overlaps one could have of that sort, where you are taking a couple of notes from the hexachord and forming a new hexachord on another level, well that will make any theorist give up the ghost. I must admit I could analyze it, I'm sure, if I sat down and wanted to give the time to it, but that would strike me as a stupid waste of time. It does result in bizarre scales, you might say that if you want to, but by saying that it results in a bizarre scale is only to admit that you haven't discovered what happens to the hexachordal situation. I'm sure that's what you're referring to. Incidentally, it's a particularly interesting hexachord in Narrative in Retrospect because of the curious organization of that hexachord, which is very traditional. Incidentally, when I composed that piece, I hadn't the vaguest notion when I started it that it had anything whatsoever to do with the Chopin Ballade [in G Minor]. Not a thing. Then all of a sudden I realized that--[Finney proceeds to sing the first three notes of Narrative in Retrospect,


then the first few notes of the "Ballade" theme quoted in Narrative in Retrospect.]


you see? That was not conscious on my part, but it was almost inevitable that in the course of composing it, I'd realized what I had done and then quote.

L: One source says that your efforts toward total serialization ended in 1965.2 Are there any attempts at serializing elements other than pitch in works after 1965? In Narrative in Retrospect?

F: Well, I think he's probably right. I had the feeling in the '50s, and this was when I ended up with complementarity, that I could move in either of two directions. I could move toward total serialization, or I could move toward some reunderstanding of the chromatic situation in twelve-tone music. Curiously, the whole thing started in my Second Symphony, where I had serialization of both rhythm and pitch; that Symphony almost drove me crazy. The Third Symphony, which was composed almost immediately after the Second, has none of that. In other words, I didn't know what direction I was going to move in, but I knew by about '65. I think what happened was that I suddenly realized that very important to my music is memory. Of course, you get one aspect of that in the Narrative in Retrospect, but the work that I composed in, I think, '64 was the Divertissement; it was written in Paris and had a great deal of roots in my memory of that experience.

L: Would you say that there is some vestige of memory as early as the "Christmastime" Sonata even though that was before you actually started thinking about the idea of memory in music?

F: Yes, there's a slight difference. But you're quite right, that does very definitely belong to that. In other words, this interest in memory was not something that was new. It was going back to something that I'd felt before. The memory aspect in that early period, that is in the music I composed up to 1950--and that's incidentally some of my most important work, there's no question about that, certainly it's being played a great deal--was my interest in Americana and the fact that I had grown up in North Dakota and Minnesota. I must admit that looking back on it I'm not sure exactly what makes an American composer American, but nevertheless, I was certainly concerned about it. That's a little different than the memory that you get in Narrative in Retrospect, the memory of my past strong feelings.

L: You were talking about the Second and Third Symphonies. In a dissertation I read, Ross Staples wrote that you no longer used more than one row in one work beginning with your Second Symphony? However, Henry Onderdonk says that you use more than one row in your Third Symphony. (4) Which writer is correct?

F: Well, I think the thing that causes that confusion is that I use different permutations of rows. My sixth string quartet, which is the first work that I did using twelve-tone technique, this does actually use three rows. That's the only time that I ever did that. Then I used permutations. In other words I would choose 1, 3, 5, 7 you see, and then go backwards.

L: So the sixth string quartet is the only work in which you use more than one row?

F: That's right, and in the other works I use permutations of the row. The first work in which I use symmetrical hexachords is the Fantasy in Two Movements for solo violin that I wrote for Yehudi Menuhin, and there you'll find the symmetrical hexachord idea, and you'll find also permutations of that idea.

L: Are the pedal markings in your piano works yours, or are they the editor's?

F: They're all markings by John Kirkpatrick, who premiered all of my piano works except very recent ones, starting with Sonata quasi una Fantasia. I may have put pedal marks in there, but I don't know whether the editor put other pedal marks in too. I couldn't say.

L: Did Kirkpatrick put the pedal markings in for Narrative in Retrospect?

F: No, no. That was written in '84.

L: And so those pedal markings were done by the editor at Peters probably?

F: Maybe. There were various [editors].

L: One writer stated that you seem to favor a pitch focus of E. (5) Is there any basis of truth in that?

F: I don't know. You'd think being a cellist, there might be. I don't know. That would get you into the meaning of pitch, wouldn't it? I have been always skeptical of people that say pitches have specific color; maybe they do, maybe they don't, but I don't really think so.

L: My teacher, Stewart Gordon, was curious about why Helene Berg waited so long to grant permission for you to publish the Variations on a Theme by Alban Berg.

F: Well Helene Berg, this is a funny story, saw Alban Berg after his death every night at nine o'clock, and she had spoken to him about this and he had not wanted it. Now, obviously, this is moonshine. How do you interpret that? She was a rather peculiar person too, and I have a feeling she was a little suspicious of things like this; well, you've read [George] Pearle's book. (6) Berg lived sort of two lives, not that I knew anything about that when I studied with him, but that made Helene a little superstitious about things. Permission must have been given before [her death] because it was granted, and I don't know the reason.

L: Was it the Hartt School of Music where you were on faculty?

F: Yes, I taught at Smith College, Mt. Holyoke College and was head of the Hartt. I had a growing family and needed the income.

L: Was Roger Sessions ever on faculty at Smith College?

F: Yes, but before my time. He was on faculty at Smith College in the '20s, and I worked with him I think in '34 or '35, around in there. I'd known him for some time before, and he happened to move. He was teaching in New York and working in Hadley, [Massachusetts] which was just a few miles away from where I lived, and so it was an opportunity. He taught me. I paid him. But we were also very close friends.

L: Was it a Pulitzer Fellowship that you received for your String Quartet No. 1?

F: That's right. For the first three to four years, they didn't give the Pulitzer Prize, although the Fellowship had just as much importance and paid twice as much money; I believe that the first Pulitzer Prize was in about 1940, and I had the Pulitzer Fellowship in 1937.

L: I was curious as to the year you joined the faculty at Michigan.

F: Well, I taught during a couple of summer schools, but I didn't join the faculty. I just was invited for the summer. I accepted a visiting professorship; they wanted me to come to Michigan but I didn't want to make the decision without spending a year there, so I spent '49 there. So, really, my first year there was '49, I think.

L: When did you retire from Michigan? Some sources list 1973 and others 1974.

F: 1973. But the reason there is confusion there, is the last year one is on terminal leave, you have both your terminal leave and you have also your pension, so I suppose that '74 is right. That's when I became emeritus.

L: What kinds of teaching and activities have you been involved with since your retirement?

F: None if I could avoid it. But that isn't quite true. Every year we have students that take care of us. They come over and use my studio when we're in New York, and they come over and "whoops" the vacuum through the house. Many of them have had Prix d'Romes and Guggenheims; they've become a very distinguished group of composers. I don't teach them, but I can't help but look over their works.


For a discography of solo piano works, as well as a glossary of terms, go to the MTNA website at, click on "American Music Teacher," then click on "Tell me more about Bonus Bytes."


(1.) Apple-Monson, Linda. "The Solo Piano Music of Ross Lee Finney," (DMA Diss., Peabody Conservatory of Music, 1986), 7.

(2.) Borroff, Edith. Three American Composers (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1986), 145-46.

(3.) Staples, J. G. "Six Lesser-known Piano Quintets of the Twentieth Century," (DMA Diss., University of Rochester, 1972), 224.

(4.) Onderdonk, Henry. "Aspects of Tonality in the Music of Ross Lee Finney," in Perspectives on American Composers, ed. B. Boretz and Edward T. Cone (New York: Norton, 1971), 125-26.

(5.) Amman, Douglas D. "The Choral Music of Ross Lee Finney," (DMA Diss., University of Cincinnati, 1971), 5.

(6.) Most likely Finney is referring to Serial Composition and Atonality: An Introduction to the Music of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern (London: Faber and Faber, 1962).

Victor Labenske earned a masters degree in piano performance from the University of Missouri-Kansas City, Conservatory of Music. He earned a D.M.A. degree in piano performance from the University of Southern California. Labenske is professor of music at Point Lorna Nazarene University in San Diego, where he teaches piano and music history.
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Author:Labenske, Victor
Publication:American Music Teacher
Article Type:Interview
Date:Dec 1, 2004
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