Sessions, Roger Huntington

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SESSIONS, Roger Huntington

(b. 28 December 1896 in New York City; d. 16 March 1985 in Princeton, New Jersey), one of the most influential composers and teachers of the twentieth century.

Sessions's parents were Archibald Lowery Sessions, a lawyer, and Ruth Gregson Huntington, a writer and musician. When Sessions was four years old, his father quit his law practice to become a writer. The family was plunged into dire financial straits, and Sessions's mother took her four children to Hadley, Massachusetts, to live with her relatives, beginning a twenty-five-year separation from her husband.

A child prodigy, Sessions started playing the piano at age five and began formal lessons with his mother three years later. In 1906 he was sent to Cloyne, a boarding school in Newport, Rhode Island, but he left after three months because he found the school too regimented. In 1908 he enrolled at the Kent School in Kent, Connecticut. He wrote his first opera, Lancelot and Elaine, inspired by Alfred Tennyson's Idylls of the King, in 1910. After graduating from high school in 1911 at age fourteen, he enrolled at Harvard University. He received his B.A. from Harvard in 1915, then enrolled at Yale University, receiving his B.Mus. in 1917. While at Yale he studied with composer Horatio Parker.

From 1917 to 1921 Sessions taught music composition at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, where he met Barbara Foster, whom he married in 1920. His first important composition, The Black Maskers, incidental music for Leonid Andreyev's play, had its premiere at Smith in June 1923. Sessions worked as composer Ernest Bloch's assistant at the Cleveland Institute of Music until 1925. He then went to Europe, living on money from his father and various grants.

In August 1933, with the rise to power of the Nazis in Germany, Sessions left Berlin and returned to the United States, where he tried to warn Americans about the threat of Nazism. Sessions and his first wife divorced in September 1936. He then married librarian Sarah Elizabeth Franck on 26 November 1936; they had two children.

Until 1935 Sessions taught in Boston at the Boston Conservatory, the Dalcroze School of Music, and the Malkin Conservatory. He took an instructor's position at Princeton University in 1935, working his way through the academic ranks, and then in 1945 became professor of music at the University of California, Berkeley, only to return to Princeton as the William Shubael Conant Professor of Music in 1953.

During the 1940s and 1950s Sessions published several books about music, including Reflections on the Music Life in the United States (1956). In 1957 the Boston Symphony Orchestra performed his Symphony no. 3, a commission to celebrate the orchestra's seventy-fifth anniversary. The symphony marked the beginning of a very productive period for Sessions and helped cement his creative reputation.

Sessions had worked on his opera Montezuma periodically for twenty-eight years. After his librettist Antonio Borghese died in 1952, Sessions rewrote the libretto. The opera had its premiere in 1964 in West Berlin's Deutsche Oper. According to various accounts, the opera was either a great success or there were riots in the streets because of it. The subject of Montezuma was the conquest of the Aztecs by Cortez. Sessions was gripped by the idea of the futility of conquest and made it the theme of the opera. Told in three acts, Montezuma is very ambitious, incorporating Sessions's experimentation with twelve-tone music. Sessions greatly admired Verdi, and his lush orchestration in Montezuma reflects the Italian's influence.

The Japanese Philharmonic Orchestra recorded Sessions's Symphony no. 1 in 1960. It was well received by the critics and also marked the beginning of popular interest in Sessions's works. The Fromm Music Foundation of Chicago (January 1961) and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City (October 1961) both presented Sessions's works, the latter to commemorate his sixty-fifth birthday. That same year he was made a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

In 1964 he finished Symphony no. 5, and it was well received as an accessible piece from a composer noted for the difficulty of his works for both musicians and audiences. Sessions was unapologetic about his music's complexity. He said that once audiences became accustomed to his style, his works were usually easy for both musicians and listeners. Despite that, many violinists have pronounced his Violin Concerto unplayable.

In 1965 Sessions was forced to leave Princeton because he had passed the mandatory retirement age of sixty-eight. Harvard University made him Charles Eliot Norton Professor from 1966 to 1969; he also taught at the Julliard School in New York City from 1966 to 1983. He finished three more symphonies: no. 6 (1966), no. 7 (1967), and no. 8 (1968). Each successive work became more complex, featuring his usual inventiveness and long passages without repetition. Critics complained Symphony no. 8 was awkward, noisy, flashy, and incomprehensible.

The 1960s were memorable for the creation of several major works in a short period. Although never immensely popular, during the decade Sessions won a following that appreciated the complexity of his works and admired their thoughtfulness. In 1974 the Pulitzer Prize committee awarded Sessions a special citation for the excellence of his musical career, and in 1982 he received a Pulitzer Prize for Concerto for Orchestra. He composed over forty works in all, including nine symphonies, two string quartets, several concertos and piano sonatas, two full-scale operas, and a cantata, When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd (1964–1970), which some consider his most appealing work. In February 1985 Sessions suffered a stroke; he died in March of pneumonia. He was cremated and his ashes returned to Hadley, Massachusetts, where they were interred in Old Hadley Cemetery.

Session's biography is Andrea Olmstead, Roger Sessions and His Music (1985). Sessions's essays are in Edward T. Cone, ed., Roger Sessions on Music (1979). An obituary is in the New York Times (18 Mar. 1985).

Kirk H. Beetz