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Book Review

The Correspondence of Roger Sessions

The Correspondence of Roger Sessions
Olmstead, Andrea, editor
Boston: Northeastern University Press. 1992. 539 pp
ISBN 1555531229
Find it at AmazonFind it at Amazon UKFind it at Amazon GermanyFind it at Amazon CanadaFind it at Amazon FranceFind it at Amazon Japan

Roger Sessions belongs to a small group of "composers' composers," enormously respected inside the charmed circle and practically unknown outside it. I'm a modern-music freak, and, excepting early works through the Violin Concerto of 1935, his music took me a very long time to make sense of. I don't think it an accident that I actually had to go through the intense experiences of rehearsal and performance of the late works before the fog lifted, as it were. I realize that most people don't have the same opportunities. Sessions, like Schoenberg and Webern, requires a great performer far more than even Stravinsky, whose textures are generally less opaque and who frequently presents you with an immediately-exciting surface.

The value of books like this one, in my opinion, usually lies in providing a confirmation or a clearer view of a composer you admire. If the music doesn't interest you in the first place, reading the composer's correspondence won't usually awake that interest. Few composers lead especially interesting lives. Other than the wife-killer Gesualdo or the murder victim Léclair, the lives won't have you turning pages as quickly as the unauthorized Madonna bio. It's also the rare composer who pours his thoughts on art into letters, although he may very likely let fly with a nasty remark on a contemporary or, more rarely, a bit of praise. Letters usually get written to satisfy the demands of living or even getting a living. Discussions about art usually get written down because someone's willing to pay, although the Internet may have begun changing this, perhaps profoundly.

Anyone who has heard a Sessions work should recognize at least a musician of uncompromising integrity. Sessions wants to give you only what's good for you and hopes that it's what you want to hear. If he makes things hard for the listener, the letters reveal that he made things much harder for himself. He composed slowly and refused to release what he regarded as inferior work. Despite good intentions, he repeatedly missed commission deadlines (sometimes by several years) and antagonized patrons by his delays, but he stood firm against sending out less than his best. He disliked the emphasis on modern music and on American music as such, feeling that every composer sooner or later had to compete with the greats of the past, and he preferred sooner to later. Therefore, he often writes about his unease with the ghetto of new-music and American-music concerts, while at the same time he recognizes and deplores the routine and unhealthy domination of money in our concert life.

The book confirms Sessions's wide reading and deep culture and his desire to connect to the great Western European artistic tradition. He writes fluently in several languages, including Italian, German, French, and Russian, as well as English. He reads great literature in several languages, and corresponds not only with musicians but with writers as well. He is comfortable enough with his learning that he never lets it bog him down. The letters fly.

The big surprises even among at least some people familiar with the composer's output will probably be the composer's deep Romanticism toward performance and toward the art itself and his impatience with certain modernist musical trends. He repeatedly wants the "singing line" to come out in his music, rather than an obsession with details. For him, performers must absorb the details so that they can get to the music. He talks again and again about the "psychology" and the spirit of a work. He praises such unfashionables as Bloch (although he tempered his early hero-worship, he never lost his admiration completely), Swiss composer Jean Binet, and Roy Harris (whom, incidentally, Sessions also seems to have regarded as an idiot in everything except music), as well as those whom you would expect, like Schoenberg, Krenek, Mahler, and Stravinsky. However the Italian composer Luigi Dallapiccola probably came closest to his own heart, and the two formed a close friendship. Sessions admired not only the music, but the man. The letters back and forth show two extremely erudite men playing with ideas and having a great time. Dallapiccola's sudden death broke Sessions's heart. "I no longer have anyone to talk to," he reportedly said.

There are personal revelations as well as concealments. His divorce from his first wife, Barbara, comes as a surprise, since the letters to her do not so much as hint at trouble – not that it's any of my business, of course. There's also the scoop that Sessions considered himself a connoisseur of sexual paraphernalia and in Europe took friends on shopping expeditions. His political commentary, fairly sparse, nevertheless hits the heart of things in a very original way, from my end of the political spectrum. Here's a sample from the Johnson-Goldwater campaign:

Unfortunately the current political situation here is both critical and dangerous. There is no doubt that Goldwater represents a very ugly part, unfortunately not altogether new, of our country. One mustn't speak of Fascism or even or war but rather of politics that are not geared toward every probable or immediate consequences, and of a blind and idiotic simplicity.

Or this, of Germany and the U.S. in the 1930s:

I must say that it seems to me a wholly perverted liberalism that invites, broadcasts, such statements such as that of Major Barnes, + and also of Ciuscolo, + begs people to be courteous about them! – "die Diktatur des Lächlns" ["The Dictatorship of Smiles"] as an Austrian friend of mine recently, + not without a good deal of justice, characterised the United States. If falsehood is to be listened to, and diffused, on exactly the same plane as truth, it seems to me that liberalism has become sick to death. And if certain sporadic and alarmingly consistent indications which I have recently had are as significant as I fear they are, Hitler's successes have already begun to poison influential opinion in this country, at least to the extent of lending aid + comfort to a very real + dangerous trend toward Fascism in the U.S.. .. perhaps anyway I am impatient + even intolerant myself. But I know my compatriots quite well + am all too aware of what is at bottom nothing but indolence + passivity masquerading as good humour – a profound unwillingness to face unpleasant or even merely difficult or complicated facts.

I wish there were more.

Andrea Olmstead ranks, I suppose, as the leading Boswell of Sessions, since she has also published a book of her interviews with him. The editing is good. Footnotes are helpful. It's a solid job.

Copyright © 1999, Steve Schwartz.