The Symphonies of Roger Sessions (1896-1985)

Pista Gyerek

New member
I don’t know how many of you are familiar with the symphonies of Roger Sessions (1896-1985). I mentioned before that he’s a woefully underrated composer, a high-profile American modernist who gave concerts with Aaron Copland. His works were too unconventional for the conservatives of his day, but not radical enough for the revolutionaries.

Sessions was a formidable composer, teacher, and theorist. He wrote nine symphonies full of vision, invention, and optimism for a more spacious artistic century. These works are neither nostalgic throwbacks to an old-fashioned musical tradition, nor perverse anti-symphonies meant to deconstruct the definition of the form. They are solid statements of intent from a master of symphonic forces, and they deserve to be heard and appreciated.

His neoclassical First (1927) shouldn't scare away anyone even mildly familiar with American symphonists like Piston. The energetic opening is rhythmically complex, yet contains the surreal woodwind interlude that would become a Sessions trademark. The Largo features another Sessions fingerprint: a heart-rending string theme developed with patience and sensitivity. A pastoral theme for oboe lightens the mood somewhat until the string theme returns to end the movement in despair. The piccolo drives the finale by dancing demonically over staccato horns and trading solos with oboe and clarinet.

The Second (1946) is a quantum leap forward in complexity. The opening Molto agitato alternates between chaos and calm. A baffling profusion of themes for brass and woodwinds leads to an abrupt collapse, after which the strings linger ominously. With each advance and retreat of the stormy opening material, the calm is more suspenseful than ever. The brief Allegretto Capriccioso is as charming as any Prokofiev trifle. However, this leads into the existential Adagio, where mournful strings and ominous brass overwhelm the initially hopeful oboe. A propulsive marching theme serves as the engine of the finale, leading the symphony to a thrilling close.

Sessions’s Third (1957) is a vast creation. The colorful opening Allegro bursts with energy and ideas, but the woodwind interlude leads to a quiet coda on low strings. The second movement is a busy scherzo, and the brass defends its forward motion from the same low strings that pulled the plug on the first movement. Woodwind whispers lead back to the insistent rhythms of the scherzo’s beginning, and flute and xylophone draw a question mark at the end. The Andante that follows takes its time: many voices contribute to the development, including a harp that creates moonlit ripples on the movement’s calm surface. After a brief detonation from the aggressive brass, the calm returns and the ripples slowly fade. The finale is a kinetic Allegro con fuoco. Despite occasional breathers, the symphony charges to its fiery finish with xylophone flourishes and blaring brass.

The Burlesque that begins the Fourth (1958) is another roller-coaster scherzo. This movement weaves themes together tightly, and never allows the orchestra’s energy level to drop. Despite nocturnal birdsong at the beginning as well as some lyrical passages, the Elegy is very energetic as well. The bright string theme intrudes every time things get too quiet, but finally a solo horn takes the movement back into the dark. Just as the horn is dying away, the night-birds return. The Pastorale is a strange finale for the symphony, a sensitive movement with soaring strings overwhelming the brass and woodwinds. There is one last burst of energy before the strings finally surrender.

Sessions’s Fifth (1964) was his most nocturnal symphony. The shadows that haunt many of his works were never more forbidding than in this streamlined work, played in three brief, continuous movements. The first movement begins with an undulating figure in the woodwinds that recurs throughout the movement, seen through curtains of strings or hidden behind aggressive brass outbursts. The transition to the second movement is marked by a flourish passed from piano to harp to xylophone. Then the muted brass announces the turbulent Lento, dominated by a sad string theme. A woodwind passage leads to the return of the strings, which die away into silence. The Allegro deciso climaxes almost immediately. Then a wealth of material becomes more and more complex until it unravels in a quiet, sinister finale for clarinets and low strings.

The remainder of the Sixties saw Sessions composing symphonies that conveyed his anger at the Vietnam War. His Sixth (1966) starts with a furious Allegro, which contains mournful passages amid its rage and ends very emphatically. Plaintive reeds introduce the Adagio, then lush strings join in, but the tone is despondent all the way to the close of the movement. The closing Allegro seems frustrated and collapses in despair, but then Sessions increases the suspense and mounts a robust, drum-heavy finale.

The structure of the Seventh (1967) is reminiscent of its predecessor: two energetic Allegro movements flanking a contemplative slow movement. However, this symphony is an even more profound accomplishment. The opening Allegro is a complex, kaleidoscopic movement that begins with resolute brass exclamations. After a sprint through a percussion-laden minefield, the movement stops briefly to admire faraway birdsongs before rushing to its abrupt end. The desolate Lento has the strings playing mournful themes to accompany some stunning woodwind solos. The closing Allegro starts with a woodwind-and-xylophone theme that sounds like a cry of despair. Then a rhythmically complicated ballet develops, driven by honking brass and insistent percussion. The symphony ends with a subdued epilogue that is the opposite of the finale of the Sixth: here, a solitary horn dies out over a drum that beats slower and slower.

The Eighth (1968) is a strange creation, a very dramatic work in two movements. The Adagio first has the strings announcing a theme accompanied by maracas. The movement spends most of its time in the shadows, with only occasional relief from the oppressive sense of dread. The Allegro begins emphatically with loud brass and percussion determined to lead the work out of the dark even after woodwinds manage a brief retreat into the shadows. Then the entire orchestra unites in a dance of defiance, with blaring horns, shrieking strings, booming percussion, and bleating woodwinds. Finally the maracas return, the string theme recurs, and there are muted farewells from the woodwinds before the strings bring the work to a subdued close.

Sessions’s Ninth (1978) is in three movements, a vast work in his expansive late-period style. The suspenseful beginning of the Allegro explodes into drama, but soon becomes exploratory. The solo instruments are allowed more space than in previous works. Finally, the explosive brass and percussion announce the close of the movement, but the woodwinds and low strings have the last word. The Adagio is relatively compact, starting with a trombone solo and moving through a bustling interlude and quiet woodwind solos before ending with the trombone song again. The final Allegro’s stormy opening drifts off and reveals beauty in its wake: a sensitive woodwind interlude accompanied by strings. The brass and percussion build again, a sardonic dance breaks out and dies away, then we hear a slow funeral march on horns. The symphony ends on an optimistic note, however, as the woodwinds lighten the mood before the final exclamation.

I also highly recommend When Lilacs Last In the Dooryard Bloom’d, the immense cantata Sessions composed for vocalists, chorus, and orchestra. A setting of the poem by Whitman, this late-period work is a ravishing love letter to Nature, a meditation on mortality, and a musical masterpiece.
 

Fretless

New member
These all sound very intriguing. I've been working on exploring our last century of symphonic composition more, and these sound like a series of works I would like to know.
 

Pista Gyerek

New member
Fretless,

Glad I piqued your interest. Sessions is an unjustly neglected American modernist.

I'm interested to hear about your exploration of 20th and 21st century symphonic work. I noticed there's some Robert Simpson on your playlist. Which other composers have you discovered?

Regards,

Pista Gyerek
 

Ouled Nails

New member
OK. When I scanned the threads I could not find this one on Roger Sessions. I must be blinded by all that snow.

As I wrote on the Piston thread, Sessions has some very good symphonies, like four and five. But some others sound like academic exercises. He was more of a modernist than Walter Piston and, to my ears, not all of his works have the coherence of the neo-classical Piston. But that's just my little opinion.
 

Pista Gyerek

New member
OK. When I scanned the threads I could not find this one on Roger Sessions. I must be blinded by all that snow.

As I wrote on the Piston thread, Sessions has some very good symphonies, like four and five. But some others sound like academic exercises. He was more of a modernist than Walter Piston and, to my ears, not all of his works have the coherence of the neo-classical Piston. But that's just my little opinion.
Fair enough. A lot of his symphonic work is dense, and you have to pay attention or it just never seems to untangle.

Do you like Schoenberg? You shouldn't have a lot of trouble with Sessions if you're used to listening to old Arnold's stuff.

Regards,

Pistike
 

Fretless

New member
Fretless,

Glad I piqued your interest. Sessions is an unjustly neglected American modernist.

I'm interested to hear about your exploration of 20th and 21st century symphonic work. I noticed there's some Robert Simpson on your playlist. Which other composers have you discovered?

Regards,

Pista Gyerek

Robert Simpson is the symphonist I've been delving into the most deeply, but I have been listening this year to the symphonies of Martinu, Tippett and Nielsen, exploring the string quartets of Henze and Schoenberg, and trying to get to know works I haven't really heard from composers I'm already familiar with such as Bartok and Stravinsky. A couple of others I hadn't heard until this year were Ligeti (a capella choral works), Nono (string quartet), and Szymon Kuran (requiem). My library has four of Session's symphonies and I will try them soon.

Works on my shelf that I haven't listened to yet:
Scelsi--Natura Renovatur
Xenakis--Orchestral works
Wallfisch--Escape Velocity
Kurtag--Music for string instruments
Pettersson--Sym. 7 & 11
Norgard--Sym. 3 and piano concerto
Gubaidulina--Offertorium and St. John Passion
Hartmann--Sym 1 & 6
Silvestrov--Sym. 6

Um, yeah.......I'm a little behind in my listening.
 

Pista Gyerek

New member
Fretless,

exploring the string quartets of Henze

I love the Arditti's set of Henze's string quartets. The fourth, in particular, is my favorite. I wrote this description in a review of the Arditti set:

"The sardonic fourth SQ is, in my opinion, the masterpiece of Henze's cycle. After a discordant opening that seethes with tension, the first movement explodes into ferocity, employing every conceivable sound a stringed instrument can make. At various times the players rant, gasp in horror, brood, or groan with fatigue, but the intensity never lets up. The cello has some impressive solo passages amid the turbulence. The viola is the focus of the surreal, satirical Adagio. The other three players complement the dramatic atonal soloing of the viola one minute, then the next launch into a parody of a Baroque melody by Holborne to produce a jarring discord. If this isn't intended as deadpan humor, I don't know what it is. The Allegretto is somber, and the attempts to start either a dance or a singalong end in grotesque failure. Chaos returns in the finale, even more vehemently this time than in the opening movement. Collapse seems likely as the playing fades into moans, but then the work ends in a horrifying scream."

Regards,

Pistike
 
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