The Roger Sessions Society

Barry Salwen, Executive Director

About the Roger Sessions Society

            Piano Music Recording

New Sessions Piano Work Discovered

Overview

Recordings and Scores

Principal Works

Brief Biography

Biography by Frederik Prausnitz

   

About the Roger Sessions Society

The Roger Sessions Society is an international non-profit (501(c)(3)) organization founded in 1988. The Society is dedicated to promoting study and performance of the music of the American master Roger Sessions (1896-1985), and to disseminating his music to the widest audience possible.

The Society promotes Sessions’ music through performances and radio broadcasts of his works, through recordings, by stimulating scholarly study of his music, and via the Society’s newsletter, which publishes information, analytical articles, recollections of Sessions, interviews, and reviews of performances of his music.

The Society’s tax-deductible membership dues are $20 per year for individuals, $30 per year for institutions. Membership includes a subscription to the Society’s newsletter, which appears twice per year.

Please note that for the time being the membership structure is on hold, as we evaluate possibilities for web-based newsletter publication.  Please feel free to check with us on the status of this, or any other inquiry you may have relating to Sessions.

The organization’s Executive Director is Dr. Barry Salwen, concert pianist, Sessions scholar, and Associate Professor of Music at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, where the Society is located.

 

For information or membership, contact the Society at:

Department of Music
University of North Carolina Wilmington

601 South College Road
Wilmington, NC 28403-5975

Telephone: 910/962-3890
Fax: 910/962-7106

E-mail: Salwenb@uncw.edu

 

Piano music recording released

Barry David Salwen's critically-lauded recording of Sessions' complete solo piano music has been reissued on the Albany Records label.  Salwen, the Executive Director of the Society, remains the only artist to record all of this music, and his disc is still the only one containing all of the pieces together.

The music includes the three piano sonatas (composed between 1930 and 1965), the four-piece group From my Diary, the brief Waltz, and the complex late group, Five Pieces for Piano.  As such, the recording reveals the development of Sessions as a composer through the unifying vision of a single artist.

The catalogue number is TROY802.  It can be obtained directly from Albany Records.  The link is http://www.albanyrecords.com/Merchant2/merchant.mv?

 

New Sessions Piano Work Discovered!

Andrea Olmstead, who wrote the first biography of Sessions, is now at work on another, to be publishd by Routledge.  In March 2006, in the course of her research, she worked in the library of the University of California at Berkeley.  There she made the remarkable discovery of a previously unknown solo piano piece of Sessions.  Composed in 1947, it is a two-page Adagio, rich in texture and dark in tone.  It is dedicated to Dr. Monroe Deutsch, then the president of the university, on his retirement.  The dedication reads:

For

Dr. Monroe Deutsch

With admiration and sincere affection

(and apologies that this is a somewhat gloomy piece!)

Roger Sessions

Berkeley  August 1947

This 3-minute work is an unexpected little jewel added to the Sessions catalogue.  Ms. Olmstead has now made the score available on Casa Rustica Publications.  To order, go to www.LarryBellmusic.com/contact.  There you will find all needed contact information.  The score costs $5.  Hopefully it will enter the repertoire of pianists who play Sessions's music, and others who will get to know Sessions through this piece.

Roger Sessions (1896-1985)

Overview

Roger Sessions was one of the leading American composers of the 20th century. His published works span the gamut of genres from symphonies to chamber music, opera to solo piano music. He had pieces commissioned by many leading orchestras and soloists, and was twice awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

During his 50-year teaching career, Sessions taught at Princeton University, the University of California at Berkeley, and the Juilliard School. Composers such as Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, Vivian Fine, David Diamond, and John Harbison were among his students. Sessions was also a distinguished thinker and author; his books and articles remain significant contributions to 20th century letters.

Sessions’ music is characterized by melodic beauty, rhythmic vibrance, structural cohesion, and emotional intensity. It often poses great technical and expressive challenges for performers and listeners. It is music that reveals its strength and richness with repeated hearings, over time.

What we ask of music, first and last, is that it communicate experience - experience of all kinds, vital and profound at its greatest, amusing or entertaining at another level. But communication is two-sided - vital and profound communication makes demands also on those who are to receive it...demands in the sense of concentration, of genuine effort to receive what is being communicated.

--Roger Sessions, in an article from 1948

Many aspects of Sessions' life and work are dealt with in the three books by musicologist Andrea Olmstead.  All are valuable, well-documented sources, and all have gone out of print.  Now, however, they are accessible again, this time on the web.  The first is Roger Sessions and his Music, which was the first biography of Sessions.  This is followed by Conversations with Roger Sessions, a distillation of the years of oral interviews Olmstead conducted with the composer during his years teaching at Juilliard.  The final book in the trilogy is The Correspondence of Roger Sessions, a substantial compilation of letters.  All of this is obtainable at www.AndreaOlmstead.com.  The books can be read in full and downloaded without charge.  A wonderful resource!

Recordings and Scores

Recordings of a number of Sessions’ principal works are available on CD - though unfortunately not as many as was the case a few years ago.  These include three of the symphonies, all of the piano music, and two of the string pieces. (More chamber music will become available with the expected reissue of several works recorded by Barry David Salwen, Curtis Macomber, and Joel Krosnick.)  The Concerto for Orchestra and the great Lilacs cantata are available, and First Edition records did a wonderful service by reissuing the Idyll of Theocritus and the Divertimento.  Larger classical music outlets and online CD stores should have them in stock, or can order them readily.  Out of print recordings may sometimes be available on internet auction sites.

Scores to many works are in print, or may be available by special order. The best place to turn for directly obtaining scores of the orchestral works, as well as the operas and cantatas, is the Theodore Presser Company. Their web address is http://www.presser.com/  They can be contacted by phone at 610/525-3636. Their music store may have some scores available: 610/527-4242. Their address is Presser Place/Bryn Mawr, PA 19010.

Presser is also the source for scores of the two string quartets, the quintet, and the violin-cello duo.

For other solo and chamber music, the publisher is Edward B. Marks.  Their web address is http://www.ebmarks.com/ and emails can be sent to ehause@carlinamerica.com  The phone number is 212/779-7977; mailing address: 126 E. 38th St./New York, NY 10016.

Note that results from these outlets are mixed, according to people who have contacted the
Society.  It may take determination to obtain some of the scores.  The Society may be able to provide guidance or assistance, but generally buyers are subject to the whims of publishers, and current whims do not always, it would seem, run favorably to Sessions. Now and again scores, like recordings, come up on internet auction sites.  What we can say for certain is that if you succeed in getting the scores you want, the work will have been worth it!

Principal Works

Chamber and String

String Quartet #1 (1936) 30’
Duo for Violin and Piano (1942) 15’
String Quartet #2 (1951) 25’
Sonata for Solo Violin (1953) 33’
String Quintet (1958) 32’
Six Pieces for Violoncello (1966) 12’
Duo for Violin and Violoncello (1981) 10’
(Incomplete, 1st movement extant)

Solo Piano

Piano Sonata #1 (1930) 15’
From my Diary (1940) 9’
Piano Sonata #2 (1946) 13’
Piano Sonata #3 (1965) 21’
Five Pieces for Piano (1975) 15’

Orchestral

The Black Maskers (Incidental Music, 1923; Orchestral Suite, 1928) The orchestral suite is the      published version 22’
Symphony #1 (1927) 18’
Symphony #2 (1946) 25’
Symphony #3 (1957) 30’
Symphony #4 (1958) 24’
Divertimento for Orchestra (1959) 20’
Symphony #5 (1964) 18’
Symphony #6 (1966) 18’
Symphony #7 (1967) 23’
Symphony #8 (1968)
Rhapsody for Orchestra (1970) 12’
Concertino for Chamber Orchestra (1972)
Symphony #9 (1978) 25’
Concerto for Orchestra (1981) 15’

Concerto

Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (1935) 28’
Piano Concerto (1956) 18’
Concerto for Violin, Violoncello, and Orchestra (1971) 20’

Opera and Cantata

The Trial of Lucullus (1947) One act opera
Idyll of Theocritus (1954) Monodrama 42’
Montezuma (1963) Opera in three acts 2 1/4 hrs.
When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d (1971) Cantata 42’

Books by Roger Sessions

Roger Sessions on Music; Collected Essays. Ed. Edward T. Cone. Princeton University Press
Questions About Music. Harvard University Press; W.W. Norton & Co.
The Musical Experience of Composer, Performer, Listener. Princeton University Press; Antheneum
Harmonic Practice. Harcourt, Brace & World.

Brief Biography

Roger Sessions was born in New York City in 1896, of a family with old New England roots. He spent the bulk of his childhood at the family’s ancestral home in Hadley, Massachusetts. Sessions showed his intellectual gifts early, and entered Harvard University at the age of 14, graduating four years later, at age 18.

During these four years Sessions wrote numerous articles for the Harvard Musical Review and became its editor. This was the start of his decades-long career as a writer on music. His articles dealt with some of the most important recent music of the time. This was followed by study with Horatio Parker at Yale (previously the teacher of Charles Ives) and with Ernst Bloch. At age 20 he began what would become a brilliant teaching career, winning his first job at Smith College. The Black Maskers, one of Sessions’ most often heard works, was composed for a performance at Smith College.

In 1925 Sessions began a European sojourn of eight years. He received two Guggenheim fellowships, a Prix de Rome and in 1931 a Carnegie Corporation grant. He and his wife Barbara lived primarily in Florence and Rome; in 1931 they moved to Berlin. Sessions also traveled extensively in Europe and met some of the luminaries of the era, such as Pierre Monteux, Otto Klemperer, and Alban Berg. During this time he co-founded the legendary Copland-Sessions new music concerts.

Sessions left Europe in 1933, shortly after the Nazi takeover of Germany. Works written during this period include the first piano sonata, the first symphony and the three organ chorale preludes. A good deal of the violin concerto was also composed in Europe.

A year after his return from Europe, Sessions took up a post at Princeton University, beginning a continuous teaching career of nearly 50 years. During his years at Princeton his reputation as a composer began to develop, and there were more performances of his works. In addition to the completion of the violin concerto, his compositions from this period include the first string quartet, the piano set From my Diary, the violin-piano duo, and much of the second symphony.

In 1946 Sessions moved to the University of California at Berkeley, where he remained for eight years. This, his fiftieth year, marked the beginning of a veritable explosion of compositional creation. The bulk of Sessions’ music was written between the ages of 50 and 75. The list includes, among other works, six of his nine symphonies, the string quintet, the second and third piano sonatas, and his magnum opus, the opera Montezuma. Sessions worked on the composition of this opera for 25 years.

A signal compositional event took place in 1953. Sessions’ harmonic language had, since the 1935 violin concerto, become increasingly chromatic. His second piano sonata of 1946 is completely atonal. In 1953, at the start of composition of his Sonata for Violin, Sessions "realized" that he was writing twelve-tone music. For most of the next 30 years, Sessions composed in a free application of this system, of which he had once been profoundly suspicious. The hallmark of this development was its organic quality, in which Sessions evolved gradually toward the idiom, and finally adopted it seamlessly into his musical language.

In 1954 Sessions returned to Princeton University. He was by now widely esteemed as a teacher of composition who knew how to free the individuality of each student and build compositional technique, without imposing his own style. He contined to teach, travel, and compose intensively. In 1965, after his "retirement" from teaching, Sessions took up an appointment at the Juilliard School, which he maintained, on an increasingly part-time basis, until 1983, well past his 80th birthday. The first years of his appointment at Juilliard were also the period during which Sessions composed what some consider his greatest work, the cantata When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d. The words are by Whitman, one of his favorite poets, and the theme of freedom was one close to Sessions’ innermost convictions. The combination called up some of the most affecting music in the 20th century literature.

During the last 12 years of his life, Sessions continued to compose, if more slowly. Some of the major works written during this period were the Five Pieces for Piano, the 9th symphony, and the valedictoryConcerto for Orchestra, his last completed work. Commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the piece was composed and premiered in 1981. Shortly after the premiere, Sessions, for this piece, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.