Roger Sessions was born in Brooklyn, New York on December 28, 1896 and died March 16, 1985 in New York City. He entered Harvard University at the age of 14, graduating at age 18. During these four years Sessions wrote numerous articles for the Harvard Musical Review and became its editor. This was the start of his decades-long career as a writer on music. His articles dealt with some of the most important recent music of the time. This was followed by study with Horatio Parker at Yale (previously the teacher of Charles Ives) and with Ernst Bloch. At age 20 he began a lengthy teaching career, winning his first job at Smith College. The Black Maskers, one of Sessions’ most often heard works, was composed for a performance at Smith College.
In 1925 Sessions began a European sojourn of eight years. He received two Guggenheim fellowships, a Prix de Rome and in 1931 a Carnegie Corporation grant. He and his wife Barbara lived primarily in Florence and Rome; in 1931 they moved to Berlin. Sessions also traveled extensively in Europe and met some of the luminaries of the era, such as Alban Berg. During this time he co-founded the legendary Copland-Sessions new music concerts. Sessions left Europe in 1933, shortly after the Nazi takeover of Germany. Works written during this period include the first piano sonata, the Symphony No. 1, the Three Chorale Preludes for organ, and a large part of the Concerto for Violin.
A year after his return from Europe, Sessions took up a post at Princeton University, beginning a continuous teaching career of nearly 50 years. During his years at Princeton his reputation as a composer began to develop, and there were more performances of his works. In addition to the completion of the violin concerto, his compositions from this period include the First String Quartet, the piano set From my Diary, the Duo for Violin and Piano, and much of the second symphony.
In 1946 Sessions moved to the University of California at Berkeley, where he remained for eight years. This marked the beginning of an extremely fertile period. The list of works completed over the next twenty-five years includes, among others, six of his nine symphonies, the Quintet for strings, the second and third Piano Sonatas, the Concerto for Piano, and his only opera, Montezuma.
In 1953, while starting composition of his Sonata for Violin, Sessions “realized” that he was writing twelve-tone music. For most of the next 30 years, Sessions composed in a free application of this system, of which he had once been profoundly suspicious. The hallmark of this development was its organic quality, in which Sessions evolved gradually toward the idiom, and finally adopted it seamlessly into his musical language.
In 1954 Sessions returned to Princeton University. In 1965, after his “retirement” from teaching, Sessions took up an appointment at the Juilliard School which he maintained, on an increasingly part-time basis, until 1983, well past his 80th birthday. The first years of his appointment at Juilliard were also the period during which Sessions composed what some consider his greatest work, the cantata When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d, on the poem by Walt Whitman.
Some of the major works written during the last twelve years of his life were the Five Pieces for Piano, the 9th symphony, and the valedictory Concerto for Orchestra, his last completed work. Commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the piece was composed and premiered in 1981. Shortly after the premiere, Sessions, for this piece, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.
[Portions courtesy of The Roger Sessions Society]