Roger Sessions: Symphony no. 1 

performed by the Japan Philharmonic under Akeo Watanabe

…coming back from Europe I found America a very strange place. Some of the musical life had become quite European, with the arrival of so many distinguished musicians who had fled the Nazis. At the same time, some American composers seemed determined to “invent” American music by external means. I had to discover who I was and what my music was.

Roger Sessions, Prausnitz p. 5

(cover image by Clem Onojeghuo)

Roger Huntington Sessions was born on December 28, 1896 in Brooklyn, New York, into a very American family. His mother, Ruth Huntington Sessions, was a direct descendant of one Samuel Huntington, a signer of the U.S. Declaration of Independence.

Another book, to which I have already referred in a previous article, and cannot recommend enough, is Frederick Prausnitz’s Roger Sessions: How a “Difficult” Composer Got That Way. It’s a fantastic presentation of Sessions’s career, largely in his own words, and most importantly his experience and thoughts that inform his aesthetic. His convictions could not be more convincing. I read the first few chapters in preparation for this article, and the result was that I was so overwhelmed and impressed by the man and his thoughts, that I ended up avoiding this article for quite some time because I didn’t know how I’d compress it down into something brief and yet still convincing.

The title of the book was enough to compel me to borrow it from the library, but once one hears the passion and seriousness that Sessions, even as a youngster, had for music, and one cannot avoid hearing the genuineness in his work. In fact, on page 34, he quotes the composer relating his revelation of the joy of composing from something as simple as whistling. He says:

Suddenly I was aware that I was whistling tunes of my own concoction instead of tunes I had played. I enjoyed the sensation of “composing” and decided to write down what I had sung.

Sessions studied at Harvard from the age of 14, and Yale after his graduation from Harvard at 18. As mentioned, he studied briefly under Horatio Parker, but it is evident he grew the most under the tutelage of Ernest Bloch. He relates an experience of an initial impression of Bloch’s teaching methods, as they specifically relate to his first symphony, which he was playing at the piano for his new teacher. He says that Bloch “took up a position” behind Sessions as he played his first symphony at the piano, and called out “the names of the composers he ‘recognized’ in the music.” Sessions then tried to anticipate Bloch’s identifications and beat him to the punch. The lesson? Prausnitz quotes again Bloch’s words:

It’s no disgrace to show the influence of other composers. We all learn from someone. But there’s an important composer missing in this music, Mr. Sessions – you! If you want to study with me, you’ll have to make a hard decision: forget about this symphony for now. You’ll have to work very hard for two years, and after that you’ll be able to do whatever you want.

And as I recall, this he did. He set the work aside and I seem to remember his actual first symphony being an entirely new work. In any case, these are the kinds of insights we get from Prausnitz’s biography. We are also privileged to read letters between Sessions and his mother, whom he adored, where we get to hear both of their opinions on music, politics, school life, and all the rest.

Sessions taught at Smith College before spending something like a decade in Europe with his wife in what turned out to be not a very happy marriage. Upon return to U.S. soil, he taught at Princeton, then the University of California, Berkeley, and eventually part time at Juilliard. His students include John Adams, Milton Babbitt, Frederic Rzewski, Einojuhani Rautavaara, Dika Newlin, Ross Lee Finney, David Diamond, David  Del Tredici, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Benjamin Boretz, and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, among many others.

I would consider Roger Sessions one of the few true greats in this series, someone by whom I have become so impressed and interested, even with such a meager familiarity with his work, simply because of his deeply intense thought processes about music, how he valued the creative process, and the effort, the real effort, he put into composing.

Prausnitz tells us that what eventually did become the first symphony was originally a string quartet, and only “after years of metamorphosis from string quartet to symphony” did the work come together quickly “through the powerful filter of that emotional crisis,” the composer, alone in Italy without his wife in their “unraveling marriage”, getting the news that his father had passed.

Prausnitz says on page 82 that Sessions’s “third attempt in nearly ten years to write a first symphony was a success… Sessions suddenly knew that he had finally found a way for himself.” He then quotes a statement that Sessions would later apparently utter many times to describe his music, and perhaps even what music should be:

Instead of color– movement!… Instead of chordal functions, horizontal unfolding of unconstrained yet interdependent lines; instead of expressive dissonance, linear strands thrusting forward– differing from one another in melodic character as often as not, but clearly separated in orchestral texture.

Be still my heart.

We haven’t even gotten around to describing the first symphony in real detail yet. It is in three movements, and has a duration of less than 20 minutes. It is dedicated to his father Archibald, and was completed in January of 1927, and premiered on April 22 of that year by the Boston Symphony under the ubiquitous Serge Koussevitzky.

While Andrea Olmstead, in her own biography of Sessions, apparently describes all of his symphonies as ‘serious’ and ‘funereal’ Prausnitz says on p. 82 that it “careens along with a joyfully jazzy, organized vigor in its fast outer movements. In stark contrast, these are separated by a somberly reflective Largo that yields nothing to overt emotion in its solemn but spare unfolding, later recalled in a hushed close.”

The opening is almost aggressive at first, but the music reveals itself to be full of life and vitality. Prausnitz is spot on in using the word ‘vigor’. After having read all of the above quotes and descriptions of Sessions’s music, I hope you can feel the same kind of constant pressing ahead in the music, the sense of forward motion, that things are always developing. The first movement really is one of color and unfolding and melodic character, a highly individual and very engaging listen. There’s an ambiguous nature of the work, somewhere between playful and quite stern. That’s all I’ll say about that.

The melancholy second movement reminds us that this symphony is dedicated to the composer’s father, Archibald. You might think of Barber’s Adagio as the quintessential American lament, but this central movement is at least on equal ground with it. It’s melancholy and somber, but colorful and expressive, with soft brass chorales and various solos adding affording it an additional layer of expressivity. It is superb.

Finally, the finale. Brass. But also flute. Listen for the flute that opens the movement after the big brass explosion that breaks the melancholy of the previous movement. It’s bouncy and convivial, folksy. The rhythmic interest in this finale is, I think, the kind of quintessential ‘American’ sound that would make people think of Copland, but I hope this is proof enough that, again, he doesn’t have a monopoly on rhythmic inventiveness and cool harmonies. The movement is marked by a freeness of expression and even a few jazzy phrases here and there. It’s buoyant and bold, just overall enjoyable.

There’s so much I could say about Sessions, his music (or what of I know so far), but this article is already more about the composer than the featured work. I hope it’s a convincing enough piece to generate some interest in his other pieces, even if they’re not nearly as approachable as this work. As Butterworth says on page 93 of his book:

Among the numerous Americans who visited Europe in the early years of the 20th century, only Wallingford Riegger and Roger Sessions adopted Serialism.

So you can’t expect much more of that kind of easy-listening optimism, but Sessions is toward the top of my list for composers who I’d really like to be able to get to know much better and feel I’d probably champion. We shall see.

Stay tuned, though, because Friday will be giving us another equally American-sounding work, but in a wildly different way. Thank you for reading.



One thought on “Roger Sessions: Symphony no. 1 

  1. I’ve always been a Sessions follower. Hi middle works (1935-55) have one foot in neoclassicism, while the other is highly contrapuntal, dissonant and most of all, dramatic. Though we think of him as an academic due to his pedagogical positions, his work rarely sounds formalistic as does that of many post-war serialists in the USA. There is passion in all of those loud passages and a haunting thrill in his slow music. My piano music bears his influence often.

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