August 20, 2016

Those who missed the train...

... the most interesting American symphonist is the subtle and introspective Roger Sessions.
The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians

Now I know how Schumann must have felt when he first heard the music of Brahms.
Arnold Schoenberg to his pupil Leon Kirchner after listening to a recording of Roger Sessions' Piano Sonata No.2. (Andrea Olmstead, Roger Sessions: A Biography, Routledge, 2008)

The greatest symphonist since Mahler.
Lighton Kerner, The Village Voice

Everybody loves Roger Sessions except the public.
Donal Henahan, New York Times (Roger Sessions' obituary, March 18, 1985)

He always has been an accomplished technician rather than a very original composer.
Harold C. Schonberg, New York Times (March 5, 1976).

[The music] has almost everything but individuality ... and there is little in this score that rises above eclectic academism.
Harold C. Schonberg's 1968 New York Times review of the premiere of Sessions' 8th Symphony (performed by the New York Philharmonic under William Steinberg).

According to some of the above critical opinions, the complete disappearance of Roger Sessions' orchestral music from public performances should be seen as a proof that the music lacks aesthetic merits required for long-term survival even on the fringes of the standard repertoire.  According to others, it should be seen as a depressing fate of art music in the age ruled by populist demands for instant intelligibility and gratification.
     You can decide for yourself by listening to Sessions' Symphony No.7, recorded live (in stereo) at the October 5, 1967 concert of the Chicago Symphony conducted by Jean Martinon. 


john schott said...

I've had a Sessions #7 on my computer for a while with no identification, this is probably it. Are the times about 8:38, 7:11, and 8:04? Sure sounds good for 1967, if it's the same one. He was a hell of a symphonist, Sessions was.

Boom said...

This must be the same recording (my source, as I recall, was David Royko's tape transfer of WFMT broadcast). I did however fix a few minor dropouts (noticeable on headphones).

Speaking of Sessions' reputation, I recall having read somewhere that his photograph was among those which Shostakovich kept on his desk. (Sessions once visited USSR around 1959 as member of some 'cultural exchange' delegation.) Can't remember where I read this, though..

john schott said...

Re: Shostakovich - to me, that seems extremely unlikely, but sure, why not. Thanks for Sym 7!

Boom said...

In a review of Andrea Olmstead's book "Conversations with Roger Sessions", the reviewer relates the following:

>>> [Sessions] also knew some Russian, enough to converse with Shostakovich. Indeed, Shostakovich became a Sessions admirer.<<<

centuri said...

Sessions is a captivating composer. Thanks for this beautiful post under the great Martinon who was also a good composer. More Sessions please.....

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

After I read this post, I listened to the recording again and enjoyed it.

I would like to see some of the bigger orchestras take up Sessions again, as that might be the only way to get his music on many radio stations. The playlist at the classical music station in Cleveland, WCLV, is very conservative, but the station is sometimes forced to play modern, interesting music because it carries broadcasts from several orchestras. Your comment about the dearth of public performances also reminds me that there ought to be at least one Internet radio station, or radio station that broadcasts on the Internet, that plays the full range of modern classical music. If there is such a station, I haven't found it yet.

Boom said...


Compared to American classical music stations (a nearly extinct species), some classical music stations in Europe - e.g., WDR3 and SWR2 (Germany), Radio 4 (Netherlands), BBC Radio 3 "Hear & Now" programs - offer a decent amount of modern (post-war) music as on-demand streams or live webcasts. (Although mostly by European composers, with Elliott Carter and the minimalists Adams and Glass being occasional exceptions).

Robert said...

Spotify also has a decent number works by RS.