A few years ago, while exchanging emails with a writer I deeply admire—a novelist and essayist with impeccable cultural tastes—the subject of 12-tone composition came up. Learning of his reservations about a good deal of 20th-century music, I urged him to listen to the Violin Concerto of Alban Berg, a seminal 12-tone score that is lyrical, melodic, and intensely emotional. My correspondent, however, was unconvinced. “I listened to you and got the Berg violin concerto,” he wrote. “But you see, I am really a complete ignoramus when it comes to dodecaphonic music. … You mention how moving certain fragments are, but they don’t reach me, or I don’t know how to hear them.” A bit of advice that I might have offered could well have driven my friend insane: to give the concerto not just another chance, but several chances, to listen to it over and over again, as if he were learning a foreign language. Berg’s concerto isn’t difficult for me to digest mainly because of its familiarity: I’ve heard it at least 50 times, and I can hum many of its passages. Yet listen to a challenging 20th-century piece just once or twice, and it is bound to remain elusive.
In his essay “The Composer and His Audience,” Roger Sessions, one of the preeminent American composers of the last century, underscored just how important repeated listening can be:
Once, with a class of fifty students, all relatively unprepared and some quite innocent of contact with contemporary music, I tried the experiment of familiarizing them, at the beginning of the course, with Schoenberg’s Fourth Quartet, one of the composer’s most “difficult” works. My whole effort was to bring them into contact with the music, and I deferred speaking of the problem of tonality, or the twelve-tone system, until the students knew the music thoroughly. By that time—believe it or not—one could hear the opening theme of the quartet, or other passages, being whistled by students on the campus. At the end of several weeks I spoke only briefly about the technical questions involved and they fell, it seemed to me, in their proper place. My students had learned to know—some to love—the music; their ears had been conquered.
Sessions knew a thing or two about difficult music. He was an uncompromising modernist who composed only according to his own impulses and dictates, without concern for popular preferences. Consider the subtitle of one biography of the artist: How a “Difficult” Composer Got That Way. This difficulty is one reason why Sessions, though venerated by fellow musicians and the academy—he was the recipient of two Pulitzer Prizes—was largely neglected by the public. Aaron Copland wrote abstract, thorny music, too (the Piano Variations, to name one piece), yet populist scores such as Rodeo and Appalachian Spring guaranteed him a permanent place in the concert hall.
Born in Brooklyn in 1896, Sessions was a precociously talented child, composing his first opera at the age of 13 and matriculating at Harvard just a year later. While in Cambridge, he wrote for the Harvard Musical Review, eventually becoming its editor. Upon graduation, he attended Yale, where he studied with Ernest Bloch and Charles Ives’s onetime teacher, Horatio Parker. Then, at the age of 20, Sessions went to work at Smith College, embarking on what would be a fruitful, highly influential career as a teacher.
His earliest compositions owed a great deal to Stravinsky and neoclassicism (listen, for example, to the joyously rhythmic Symphony No. 1), many of these pieces emerging from the eight years he and his wife, Barbara, spent abroad in Florence, Rome, and Berlin, beginning in the mid-1920s. It was at this time that Sessions emerged as one of the most prominent voices in American music, joining the likes of Copland (with whom he started a series of landmark new-music concerts), Walter Piston, Roy Harris, and Virgil Thomson. While in Berlin in the early 1930s, Sessions came into contact with composers of the Schoenberg school, but when the Nazis came to power, he and his wife returned home. He took up a series of teaching positions—at Princeton, Berkeley, and Juilliard— that would sustain him for decades. John Harbison, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, David Diamond, Milton Babbitt, Leon Kirchner, Vivian Fine, and David Del Tredici are just a few of the distinguished composers who thrived under his tutelage.
Musically, Sessions’s idiom underwent a change in the mid-1930s, with the composition of his Violin Concerto. His scores were now more expressionistic, atonal, and densely chromatic. Without quite realizing it, he had been edging toward serialism, and when Sessions showed Babbitt the score of his Piano Sonata No. 2 (1946), the younger composer said, “Do you realize you’re on the brink of the twelve-tone system?” (I’m reminded here of Webern, who had found himself writing in this idiom, checking off each of the 12 notes of the chromatic scale before moving on to the next idea, well before Schoenberg codified it in 1921.) In 1953, Sessions wrote a Solo Violin Sonata that was entirely 12-tone, yet if he adhered to the system for the subsequent three decades—in all, he composed nine symphonies, three piano sonatas, many songs, the opera Montezuma, and the intensely elegiac When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d, set to Whitman’s poem—he was no slave to rigidity. He relaxed the rules in the interests of expression, of the melodic line, and yes, of beauty.
Among other gifts, Sessions had an unimpeachable trust in his own ear. Yes, much of his polyphonic, contrapuntal music poses obstacles for the new listener, but the pleasures—the rewards of patient and repeated listening—are many. Take the Symphony No. 8, which Sessions completed 50 years ago and was performed for the first time on May 2, 1968, by William Steinberg and the New York Philharmonic. The piece is mournful in character, yet explosive, too: it’s hard not to think of the tumult of that historic era when hearing those chords falling like hammer blows in the first movement. The piece opens with a 12-note phrase in the strings, with a wide leap from low to high that sounds very much like Webern. What distinguishes this melody are the maracas underneath it—neither exotic nor erotic, but sinister. Every time those eerie maracas reappear, it’s like we’re experiencing yet another intimation of death. Indeed, there’s a pervasive sense of menace throughout, but as is typical in Sessions’s music, the melodies are rich and attractive, offering moments of glowing respite. The violin lines at the end of the first movement, full of yearning and desperation, recall certain tender, unsettling moments in the Berg Violin Concerto.
The second movement of this relatively brief symphony is energetic and intense, a kind of danse macabre, full of impish, darting figures and propulsive rhythms. It’s all highly infectious. Again, the melodies are lyrical and plangent, with a serene violin cadenza leading to a coda of sorts (there are those maracas again) and an enigmatic, beguiling final note: a disorienting major chord that sounds in my ear long after it has ceased to be—a magical effect.
“I have sometimes been told that my music is ‘difficult’ for the listener,” Sessions wrote in The New York Times in 1950. “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 so far as it is so, it is the way the music comes, the way it has to come.” Listen to the Symphony No. 8 once, twice, three times, as many times as you can. It’s what Sessions would have wanted and expected. With any luck, such familiarity should breed the precise opposite of contempt.
Listen to the Symphony No. 8 by Roger Sessions, with Leon Botstein conducting the American Symphony Orchestra: