Roger Huntington Sessions

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Roger Huntington Sessions

The works of the American composer Roger Huntington Sessions (1896-1985) are characterized by adense chromaticism of an expressive and individual character. He was also an influential teacher.

Roger Sessions was born December 28, 1896, in Brooklyn, New York. He entered Harvard at the age of 14. Later he studied music under Horatio Parker at Yale and Ernest Bloch at the Cleveland Institute of Music (1919-1922) and then stayed on at the institute as Bloch's assistant. Sessions' first major orchestral work, The Black Maskers (1923), is usually heard today in its form as a suite. It remains the best introduction to his music by virtue of its accessibility: the warmth and color of the orchestral writing and the rhythmic ingenuity create an immediacy of excitement not characteristic of his later style; at the same time, he is in command of every compositional detail.

In following Sessions' development, one realizes that his music, though unmistakably "progressive" in style, was independent of the current trend at any given moment. Thus his First Piano Sonata (1930) opens in an atmosphere reminiscent of César Franck or Gabriel Fauré; and Sessions' music of the 1930s, in general, bears only the most superficial imprint of neoclassicism. The pandiatonicism of the Violin Concerto (1935) is perhaps the closest he ever approached to Aaron Copland's manner, while the four piano pieces known as From My Diary (1937-1940) far surpass in harmonic and gestural complexity anything to be found in American neoclassic works of the period.

The 1930s were a time of compositional struggle for Sessions and of readjustment to America after 8 years spent in Europe. Returning in 1933, he immediately began teaching at Princeton, moving to Berkeley in 1945, then back to Princeton in 1953. After he retired from Princeton in 1964, he taught at the Juilliard School in New York until his death in 1985.

The later years brought noticeable changes in Sessions' music. While the pieces of the 1930s and 1940s were produced slowly and sporadically, the works of the 1950s and 1960s came in fair profusion. Six Symphonies, two Piano Concertos, and a Mass were written between 1957 and 1968. The harmonic complexity of the middle years proceeds quite inevitably through the "diatonic atonality" of the Second String Quartet (1951) to a chromaticism reminiscent of Arnold Schoenberg, beginning with the Idyll of Theocritus (1956). He also wrote a String Quartet (1958), Psalm 140 for Soprano and Orchestra (1963), a total of ten symphonies, the Concerto for Chamber Orchestra (1970), and Five Pieces for Piano (1974). The affinity with Schoenberg is seen especially in the later orchestral works, with their motivic elaboration, contrapuntal density, long-breathed lines, and kaleidoscopic play of instrumental color.

Sessions' music has been called difficult, but for those familiar with the more advanced 20th-century works it poses no problems. It is consistently serious in tone; even the most gently lyrical moments are internally too complex to be considered "light" or "charming." But the complexity has expressive force and is entirely appropriate to the scope and grandeur of design typical of his large-scale works.

Sessions was held in high regard by his contemporaries and students. He received countless honors and many commissions. Of his several books and articles Harmonic Practice (1951) and three collections of lecture-essays, of which The Musical Experience of Composer, Performer, Listener (1950), Questions about Music(1970), and Roger Sessions on Music are the most significant. He won a Pulitzer Prize for one of his concertos in 1981.

Further Reading

Posthumously, The Correspondence of Roger Sessions by Roger Sessions (edited by Andrea Olmstead) was released in 1992. There is no full biography of Sessions, but considerable information is in several background works: Gerald Abraham, A Hundred Years of Music (1938; 3d ed. 1964); David Ewen, World of 20th Century Music (1968); and H. H. Stuckenschmidt, Twentieth Century Music (1969). □