Roger Sessions: How a "Difficult" Composer Got That Way

Roger Sessions: How a "Difficult" Composer Got That Way

Roger Sessions: How a "Difficult" Composer Got That Way

Roger Sessions: How a "Difficult" Composer Got That Way

Synopsis

For more than half of his long life, composer Roger Sessions was a commanding figure on the American musical scene. He enjoyed the solid respect of his peers, and as a teacher of a generation of composers and author of compelling writings on his craft, his influence on musical thought remains profound. Yet, even in his lifetime, his music endured vastly disrespectful neglect. He was a "difficult" composer. Sessions was well aware of it. In a New York Times article, he wrote, "I have sometimes been told that my music is 'difficult' for the listener. There are those who consider this as praise, those who consider it a reproach. For my part I regard it as, in itself, neither one or the other...it is the way the music comes, the way it has to come." The way Sessions's music "had to come" is a recurrent focus of this biography. As the story is told, often in the composer's own words, the complex picture emerges of a remarkable man who, gradually and not very willingly, learned to accept his unexpected lot as a "difficult" composer. Frederik Prausnitz, an acquaintance of Sessions and conductor of his work, combines personal and musical insights to present this fascinating portrait of an influential, yet often overlooked, modernist composer.

Excerpt

Every composer whose music seems difficult to grasp is, as long as the difficulty persists, suspected or accused of composing with his brain rather than his heart—as if the one could function without the other.

—roger sessions

Close to the halfway mark of the twentieth century and almost halfway into Roger Sessions' creative years as a composer— on January 8, 1950, to be precise— the New York Times published an article of his under the heading “How a ‘Difficult’ Composer Gets That Way. ” As the subtitle of this book, adjusted to the past tense, it affords a focus for the narrative of the composer's life and, given our own vantage point at the end of the century, a workable perspective in which to consider the “why?” and the “which way?” of Difficult and of That Way.

Sessions was well aware of being a “difficult” composer, although he assigned no particular merit or fault to that condition. He affirms that

I have sometimes been told that my music is “difficult” for the listener. There are those who consider this as praise, those who consider it a reproach. For my part I cannot regard it as, in itself, either the one or the other. But as far as it is so, it is the way the music comes, the way it has to come …

I would prefer by far to write music which has something fresh to reveal at each new hearing than music which is completely self-evident the first time, and though it may remain pleasing makes no essential contribution thereafter.

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