Music: The Lucky One

Of the older generation of American composers, there are four whose names, thirty years ago, used to crop up in any serious discussion of American music. They are Aaron Copland, Roy Harris, Walter Piston, and Roger Sessions, and a more heterogeneous group would be hard to find. Harris and Sessions are poles apart, while Piston and Copland have spent most of their careers pulling in opposite directions. It would be hard to explain what alchemy has gone into making these men pre-eminent, but the fact is that everything either fresh or stagnant among succeeding generations of composers goes back to some sort of attachment to one or another of this quadrumvirate.

Of the four, Sessions has been the most fortunate. It was his extraordinary good luck to come into vogue only after middle age. Now, at seven ty-three, it is he (more than any other living American, at least) who commands the allegiance of powerfid factions of younger men. He is not a popular composer yet, and very likely he never will be. However, it is only since the end of World War II that he has consistently found virtuoso performers who are at ease in his music, and audiences who like to listen to it. Under this attention he has flowered and become prolific, with eight symphonies and two operas to his credit. And he can look forward with tranquillity to knowing that what he has done well is not likely to be challenged during his lifetime.

The most compelling feature of Sessions’ work is its seriousness. He is as serious as Johann Strauss the Younger was frivolous. Apparently, there is no time off for good behavior. Bach had his Coffee Cantata, Mozart his cassations, Brahms his Liebeslieder, Copland his Appalachian Spring. But there are no Appalachian Springs in the Sessions canon. The closest he comes to kicking up his heels is in the music for The Black Maskers (1928), which would be his Opus 1 if he had one, and it is heavy frivolity indeed.

The only thing difficult to follow in his work is the development from his beginnings to his mature style. At an early point, he shot an arrow into the air, and it fell to earth someplace left of center. But his growing years were tortuous. Between the First Piano Sonata (1930) and the Violin Concerto (1939). he found his true voice, precisely as an adolescent boy finds his. But he did not find fluidity. This came only after years of laboring with the elements of a style so personal as to make comparisons rude, even if they may be helpful.

In the mature Sessions style, the words “tonality” and “atonality,” vague at best, have no relevant meaning. The most familiar elements of music—melody, harmony, counterpoint, and orchestration—are all there. And the flow of these elements is controlled by a rhythmic regularity that many composers since Schoenberg have successfully tried to avoid. In Sessions, the drive is incessant. Furthermore, by rather simple harmonic sleight of hand, he imbues his music with an extraordinary restlessness which excites and ggerates the forward movement. He_ gmes the impression, an incorrect one, of turning out counterpoint of the greatest possible density. But the sound of Sessions in full cry is the sound of a lot going on.

Sessions has been accused of being meticulous to the point of being bloodless, and if it is understood that this aspect of his craft is also a side of his expressive nature, it will be a surprise that he has chosen the operatic stage, of all places, as the locus of his most intense and carefully developed musical self. He has written two operas: The Trial of Lucullus, based on a play by Bertolt Brecht, which was performed several years ago in California, and Montezuma, with a libretto by G. Antonio Borgese. Montezuma was done first in Berlin and in German, which must have helped a lot. Playing Russian roulette with the score, I fetched up this:

Holy is mystery,
Cihuatl or Marie,
Bloomed virginity.
Unsubstanced airseed,
With fresh fount agreed,
Firms ripple, roots seed.

These lines cotdd not appear in this journal without a good excuse.

The shape of the opera is something else. No Italian horse opera, not even Aida, could be more clangorous or physically demanding than Montezuma. But Sessions has written an elegant and beautifully melodious work. While the competition from the orchestra will be formidable, it is a singable opera, and interval by interval the vocal writing is transparently clear. Line by line, it is as if “Annie Laurie” had been flung into a laundry drier. The materials are no surprise, but the colors sometimes are.

As for the tunes (not to be confused here with themes), Sessions makes it clear in his introductory note that they are what count. And if this is so, he has succeeded superbly well. The American premier, set for Boston on October 18, should make Mr. Sessions a happy man.