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James Joyce at the Piano in Paris, 1939 James Joyce: Music in the Novels and Poems
CD #2 Song List
Artwork for CD #2 cover

James Joyce Quote
The American Ross Lee Finney is one of the few composers to have set Chamber Music in its entirety.
James Joyce Unquote

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Suite from Chamber Music

Musical settings by Ross Lee Finney;
words by James Joyce

Courtesy of C.F. Peters Corporation

Composer Biography

Ross Lee Finney (1906-1997)

Ross Lee Finney at work

ROSS LEE FINNEY [View source]
See the Personal Appreciation below.

Born December 23, 1906 in Wells, Minnesota, Ross Lee Finney began playing and composing music as a child, learning cello and piano, as well as guitar. Indeed, Finney retained an interest in the guitar and folk music throughout his life, and folk song and melody continued to be important elements in his music.

He took his first serious music courses at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, where he studied under Donald Ferguson. He received a B.A. from Carleton College in 1927, after which he traveled to Paris to study composition with Nadia Boulanger. Finney's other teachers included Edward Burlingame Hill (1928-29), Alban Berg in Vienna (1931-32), and Roger Sessions (1935), with whom he enjoyed a long friendship.

As a 20-year-old student in Paris in 1927, Finney treasured his copy of James Joyce's Chamber Music and recalled seeing Joyce at Left Bank cafés, where he tried to catch some of the fascinating conversations between the famous author and his distinguished friends. Later, while stationed in Paris during World War II, he began to think seriously about setting those poems. "By late 1951, the work had become so clear in my mind that I composed the entire cycle in a matter of a few months."

A prolific artist, Finney's other works include eight string quartets, four symphonies, numerous chamber works and song cycles, two stage works, and an unfinished opera, A Computer Marriage. He received the 1927 Pulitzer Prize for his First String Quartet. Other awards followed throughout his career, including two Guggenheim fellowships, the Boston Symphony Award, the Brandeis Medal, and election to both the National Institute of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Finney joined the faculty of Smith College in Massachusetts in 1929. From 1943 to 1945 he served in the Office of Strategic Services in France, where he sustained combat injuries and received a Purple Heart.

In 1949 he was appointed professor of music and composer-in-residence at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where he attracted many students who went on to become important composers, including Robert Ashley, William Albright, Leslie Bassett, George Crumb, and Roger Reynolds. Until his retirement in 1974, Finney headed both the Composition Department and a graduate program in composition at the School of Music, and he continued composing through the mid-1980s.

Paul C. Boylan, dean of the School of Music and Vice Provost for the Arts at the University of Michigan, praised Finney as "an extraordinary musician and human being. The remarkable success of his students, and their devotion to him, are ample testament to his achievement as a dedicated, inspiring and challenging teacher. He was a teacher whose own creative activity enriched and informed his students."

Finney's music was tonal and melodic while sometimes employing serial technique, particularly after 1950; he lectured and wrote about the evolution of his style and his continuing interest in tonal resources.

He was also interested in setting poetry to music. In the course of his career he composed for many musical settings, including soloists, chamber groups, choirs, wind ensembles, orchestras, opera, and dance. His output was prolific and his music was performed often in his lifetime, both at the University of Michigan and by major orchestras and chamber groups around the country. He frequently served as a guest artist and lecturer at universities and symposia and wrote about composition and music education for both children and advanced students.

Finney died in Carmel, California, on February 4, 1997. He had two sons, Henry and Ross Jr.

• • • • •

[View source]

See also this University of Michigan obituary »

Ross Lee Finney and His CHAMBER MUSIC

A Personal Appreciation

By Kevin McDermott

Inscribed cover page of Chamber Music

Inscribed title page of the published edition of Chamber Music. [click to enlarge]

In the summer of 1974 — during the period when the original Music in the Works of James Joyce concert was being created — I took a voice lesson from my father, Raymond McDermott. One of his long-time accompanists, David Tice, sat at the piano. During a break, David asked what was I doing; I told him about the project in hand and he replied, "Really? You know, one of my old composition teachers, Ross Lee Finney, set all of Chamber Music!"

This was news to me — and to just about everyone else, presumably; although written in 1952, the song cycle had never been published. David offered to approach Ross about letting me have a look at the work. And then we went back to my lesson.

Several weeks later, a thick brown padded envelope arrived in the mail from Michigan. On opening it, I practically fell through the floor: it was the unique, fair-copy autograph of the score, as well as the original typescript of Ross' introductory remarks. How good, how trusting a man, to send such priceless objects to an undergraduate singer whom he had never met!

When I managed to collect myself, I headed straight to the piano and, from the first notes I played, was drawn into the work — the beginning of an admiration and affection which have now lasted more than thirty years.

As can be seen from his prefatory remarks, it was extremely important to Ross that the work be understood and experienced as a whole; I therefore owe him an additional debt of gratitude for his willingness to allow me to abstract a few songs from the cycle for my recital. In granting this permission, he also mentioned that my performances would be world premieres. And so in April 1975, at the initial performance of Music from the Works of James Joyce, two of Ross' beautiful songs ended their quarter-century of gestation and were born into sound.

Thanks in large measure to the support of noted musical Joycean Zack Bowen, Music from the Works of James Joyce was well known and much in demand during the Joycean centenary of 1982. John Hannay arranged a performance at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, in March. Knowing that Ross, although by then emeritus, was still active at the university, I wrote to tell him of the concert in hopes that he might finally get to hear his children in performance, and I might have the opportunity to meet and thank him personally. Sadly, it was not to be: Ross would not be in town at the time of the concert.

Once 1982 ended, the demand for live Joyce concerts...diminished. In the succeeding doldrums, it appeared that my decade of activity in Joycean music might be a closed epoch. At the time, I was managing the retail shop of the von Huene workshop, The Early Music Shop of New England. A fixed point in the year was the visit of Mr. Walter Bendix, representative of C.F. Peters Corporation. At the time, Walter was a hale and corpulent eighty-something; a sheet-music drummer of the old school, he wined and dined his contacts. And what meals those were!

Walter's life was quite a tale: born the scion of a prosperous linen-mill family in the German-speaking part of what would become Czechoslovakia, the first and second wars put "paid" to all that. Walter had been one of those individuals who, mysteriously and at considerable personal risk, spirited many of the copper printing plates from the "original" Leipzig Peters — the publisher of Beethoven and just about everyone else — out from under the Iron Curtain even as it was crashing down. Arriving in New York, he began his long association with the "new" Peters.

Which brings us back to one of those chatty, elegant, gemütlich meals with Walter. He asked, as usual, what I had been up to and — on hearing about the Joyce concerts — said, "Why, we have just published a Joycean work by one of our composers, Ross Lee Finney!" When I told him about my — even then — lengthy association with the piece, Walter said he would arrange to have a copy of the score sent to me.

Ross' inscription in the score would, unfortunately, be the last contact between us. Ross had died by the time Mr. Richey and I were contemplating recording the Suite from Chamber Music for GLORY SONGS!: MORE Music from the Works of James Joyce.

It is both an honor and a pleasureable duty for me to remember him here, not only as a musician — a composer willing (and able) to write tuneful, singable songs in a generation devoted to serialism and dissonance — but also as a human being — a great talent who made an immense gift to, and a lasting impression on, an unknown admirer.

Score of Twilight Turns

Autograph fair-copy of "Twilight Turns from Amethyst," from Finney's setting of Chamber Music.

View the Ross Lee Finney Gallery »

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