by Barry Salwen
In 2002, Oxford University Press released a new biography of the great American composer Roger Sessions. This 300-page volume is a major contribution to the Sessions bibliography. It deserves to be read and studied by anyone interested in this master’s life and music. The author is Frederik Prausnitz, the conductor who commissioned Sessions’ ninth symphony, and who has championed his works in performance.
The Prausnitz biography is only the second such book on Sessions to appear. The groundbreaking first biography, by Andrea Olmstead, was published in 1985 and has been out of print for several years. The new book is different in scope and intent, and even readers thoroughly familiar with the Olmstead work will find it engrossing.
This is an intensely humanizing portrait. Via oral interviews, detailed fact assembly, extensive study of primary sources, and thoughtful analysis, Mr. Prausnitz has probed deeply into his subject. Sessions the man becomes real and immediate, so finely is he evoked with a wealth of detail and observations. The descriptive writing makes much of the book a pleasure to read. Some passages are quite moving, such as the introduction, and the book’s last page. Mr. Prausnitz takes the time to discuss manifold details that give color and specificity to life incidents and to the people who populated them. The courting of Sessions’ parents reads like a novel. The account of a mountain climbing trip in 1929 is memorable. The discussion of Sessions’ relationship with Dallapicolla is built with care and insight.
A strong asset is the book’s evocation of the places where Sessions lived. The particulars and history of the political situation in Italy and in Berlin during the 1920’s and ‘30’s, for instance, add to the story and build understanding of Sessions himself. The same is true for the teaching environment at Princeton University; the reader can almost feel himself in the halls of academia as Sessions experienced it beginning in 1935.
All of this is the stuff of fine biography. Of primary importance, of course, is also the discussion of the music; the narrative is naturally laced with the numerous musical events and projects of Sessions’ long career. Discussion of the music specifically is focused in three chapters, which Mr. Prausnitz calls “The Musical Idea.” Here the author examines Sessions’ evolution as a composer with a penetrating discussion of the musical precepts that motivated and dominated his creative life. Through this prism we follow the composer as he inches along his self-determined path. We move with Sessions from his youthful, self-assured early works, in which he is nonetheless in the process of self-definition as a composer; to his struggles as the path leads him in unexpected directions; to the fluent master with a consummate command of his resources who wrote the bulk of his pieces between the ages of 50 and 75. Both the great development and the fundamental consistency of Sessions the composer are clearly revealed. The book is subtitled, “How a ‘Difficult’ Composer Got that Way,” and by the end of the story, the reader has discovered how it happened.
In the sections on the music, the material is deliberately non-technical, aimed at the educated reader and listener, not one with specialized background. Analysis is outside the scope of the book. A musician might still appreciate one discussion giving concrete meaning to Sessions’ integrated use of this crucial element termed “the musical idea.” There is a tantalizing opportunity for such specificity in the presentation of the violin concerto, but Mr. Prausnitz chose to bypass it.
For all its fine detail, the biography has some unexpected gaps. Sessions’ two years of study at Yale University and the following two years of teaching at Smith College are passed over in a total of five pages. Far more disproportionately, this is true as well for the dozen years following the 1964 premiere of Montezuma; this extremely active and fertile period in Sessions’ life is also treated in about five pages. I would have liked to read much more about his teaching at Juilliard, about the music he wrote, and about the performances and accolades he received as a near-iconic figure on the American scene. There are also a few heavy-handed judgments. Even acknowledging the biographer’s need to retain proper objectivity about his subject, a few of Mr. Prausnitz’ evaluations seem almost presumptuous.
The book has extensive footnotes. Some of the details given there are very helpful. Of special value is the careful cross-indexing, by means of which an earlier reference to a topic can be pinpointed. In a long work that emphasizes connections among inner and outer events sometimes far removed in time, this is a tangible asset. The appendices are useful as well, especially the second, which gives capsule definitions of key musical terms as used by Sessions; the third offers intriguing source material on Ernst Bloch. The index to the book is thorough, though not necessarily error-free; on a couple of occasions I was unable to find a reference on the indicated page.
The section on sources gives a thorough listing of the Sessions holdings in the Library of Congress, broken down by the box in which they are contained. This will be valuable for anyone who wants to examine the materials - though of course it is hoped that eventually the library will prepare a catalogue, and perhaps even put all the holdings on microfilm. This list is followed by a compilation of writings by and about Sessions; as this is a source list, not a full bibliography, it unfortunately omits a number of dissertations. More surprising is the absence of a list of Sessions’ compositions. The ground is covered in Appendix I, but the music is mixed in with articles and books, and it is a real effort to sort things out. It would have been far better to include a separate works list giving dates of composition and premiere.
This book’s merits, however, far outweigh the possible improvements. Sessions the man and musician has been treated extensively, warmly, and knowledgably in a substantial work of fine biography. This particular reader didn’t want the story to end.
Roger Sessions: How a “Difficult” Composer Got That Way
by Frederik Prausnitz
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