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Book Review

Roger Sessions

Roger Sessions by Olmstead

A Biography

Andrea Olmstead
New York: Routledge. 2008.
ISBN-10: 0415977142
ISBN-13: 9780415977142
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Likely to remain standard for many years to come.

People either love or hate Roger Sessions' music. I belong firmly to the former camp, even though I admit that, with one exception, it took me a long time to make sense of it. I kept at it, mainly because people I respected liked it. It cost me some effort. Even today, Sessions doesn't figure on too many concert programs, and recordings lie few on the ground and don't stick around all that long. I'm certainly not musician enough to get much from the score alone.

I owe my interest in Roger Sessions to pure luck. At the University of Michigan, I took part in a performance of the final scenes of Sessions' grand opera, Montezuma. The discipline and repetition of rehearsal turned me around. I realized that what I'd thought about Sessions, based largely on what I'd read, was off by 180 degrees. A "cerebral," "academic" (both in the bad sense), hard-ass Modern composer became a big, thumping Romantic one. The dramatic sensibility resembled Meyerbeer's, of all people, although the music was far better. A confused, turgid mass of sound began to clarify into beautiful long lines of music, and the orchestration became clear and handsome. Part of this undoubtedly stemmed from the fact that we were learning to play it better as we went along, but the concentrated hearing a musician is forced to helped as well. Furthermore, the composer himself actually showed up, and we sang and played our hearts out for him, which he appreciated. I couldn't figure out why at the time. After all, he was a major figure of Modernism (I probably had picked that up from things I had read, since I hadn't heard anywhere close to half of his music). Orchestras probably played him all the time. Little did I know.

Andrew Porter, then music critic at The New Yorker, also beat the drum for Sessions, and since I was a Porter fan, I ran out and bought anything he recommended. The late cantata When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd came out as a New World release with Ozawa and the BSO and quickly became one of those "necessary" pieces in my life, as had Hindemith's very different setting.

Not everyone, of course, has had my luck. The situation might change if orchestras and players take up the composer to an extent they haven't before. Sessions, after sixty years, comes down to one piece: the suite to The Black Maskers, an early work written under the influence of Bloch and Stravinsky. Indeed, it has always struck me as an American equivalent of the early Stravinsky ballets. Howard Hanson's wonderful recording has had much to do with the piece's popularity. I wish recordings of other pieces would catch on.

Andrea Olmstead, hands down the leading writer on Sessions, knew the composer and interviewed him for books over many years. Indeed, Sessions jokingly referred to her as his "confidante," and there was a great deal of truth in the remark, as he well knew. The new bio demonstrates the intimate trust between the two. There are three other books: a study of the music, a volume of his correspondence, a book of conversations. I've read the last two and enjoyed them both. Sessions was a marvelous writer and talker. In this latest volume, Olmstead gives us a very detailed account of the composer's life.

As far as I'm concerned, her main achievement lies in creating a consistent portrait of a very complex man. She doesn't gloss over his faults, and she doesn't slight his virtues. The main psychological fact of Sessions' life was his mother, Ruth – talented, domineering, self-centered, and highly neurotic. Sessions came from a prominent Episcopalian family (his grandfather was a bishop), devoted to good works. Ruth left his father, a writer and editor in New York, early on, and took herself and her children to her family in New England.

Ruth tried to dominate all her children. Roger resisted. Music and books, in a sense, became means of escape. Instead of going into the clergy, the family business, he determined to become a composer. Intellectually precocious, he entered Harvard at the age of 15. Musically, especially considered from a professional point of view, Harvard wasn't anything much at the time. Roger got little from his classes but much more from friendships made and concerts of the Boston Symphony under Karl Muck. Determined to become a composer, he did graduate work at Yale under Horatio Parker (Ives' teacher as well). Ruth had a generally baleful effect on her children, whom she expected to give up their own plans to carry out hers. Indeed, her children didn't seem to exist except as adjuncts to her life. For example, Roger's brother, John, threw over his career to work the family farm according to his mother's wish, for which he wasn't suited, and died a relatively young man. At a time when Roger had a solid reputation, her memoires don't mention that he even composed.

Roger cultivated as much distance from his mother as he could. Although charming, throughout his life he let very few people get too close. His extreme self-reliance also informed his attitude toward art. Not only could he not release work he considered inferior, he had a lot of trouble committing to a piece. He missed commission deadlines by years, alienating conductors (most disastrously, Koussevitzky) who might have advanced his music. Still, this bothered him surprisingly little. Influenced by Rolland's Jean-Christophe, Sessions viewed artists as great men "above" their times. Olmstead speculates that he may have been the last composer to believe this. His New England upbringing also frowned on pushing himself forward.

He managed to marry and began to make a small living teaching at various colleges. He never was good with money, piled up debts, and touched his friends and his father for "loans." However, the big event in his career was his meeting and subsequent study with Ernest Bloch, who took him on as an assistant when he became head of the Cleveland Institute of Music. He even managed to win a fellowship, with Bloch's help, to the American Academy in Rome and study with Nadia Boulanger as well. As ever, he continued to make friends among composers. He thought very hard about settling in Europe permanently. He returned to the United States. His first marriage collapsed. He remarried (carefully keeping the information from his mother until the deed was done) and eventually had two children. However, the most consequential event in his life was the death of his mother. Suddenly, his creative blocks vanished. He became, relatively speaking, almost prolific. His second wife managed the household details well enough that he actually began to live within his means, or at least closer to his means. In addition to his composing, he became one of the great teachers of composers, attracting many talented students. He aimed to encourage a young composer's creative individuality and pretty much succeeded. His students include David Diamond, John Harbison, and Milton Babbitt.

However, as with most composers, Sessions' life interests me less than his music does. Olmstead tries to give us a sense of the music (even resorting to analysis at one point), but if you don't know the works, she doesn't really help you. Admittedly, it's a tough job. However, she does include the comments of others more persuasive. Olmstead does the necessary work of biography, but Sessions' music still needs a champion and greater exposure. His first opera, The Trial of Lucullus, has lain unperformed for at least forty years, due solely to permission obstacles thrown up by the Brecht estate. The rarity of performance and the misperceptions at least eighty years old have frightened musicians away from taking up the music. Yet, these days, when the music gets played, the better, more knowledgeable reviewers rave and wonder why they haven't heard it before. As good as some of the recordings are, there are too few of them. In many cases, we rely on recordings at least fifty years old. Sessions, like Brahms, wrote music that cries out for lots of different interpretations. We won't get anything like a just appreciation of Sessions until this happens.

Olmstead has done some great research, ferreting out things about Sessions I, for one, never knew. Although I found her organization a bit bizarre at first, I must admit it pays off for her. She gives a convincing and ultimately sympathetic account of a deep, brilliant, flawed figure. The one thing I miss, however, is Sessions' voice as revealed in his conversations, essays, and letters – charming, warm, insightful, funny. There is a certain distance in this account, as if Olmstead, a good friend, had to step back to take in the whole. However, overall a splendid job.

Copyright © 2009 by Steve Schwartz.