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Roger Sessions on Music: Collected Essays

Roger Sessions on Music: Collected Essays

Edited by Edward T. Cone
Copyright Date: 1979
Pages: 400
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  • Book Info
    Roger Sessions on Music: Collected Essays
    Book Description:

    Over the past fifty years Roger Sessions has developed, in articles, lectures, and addresses, various themes that reflect the stages of his own musical and intellectual growth. These themes form the basis of the present collection of essays. Many of the essays deal with specific problems that musicians, especially composers, have faced during the past five decades: problems related to new musical styles and techniques, to the position of composers in society, to their responsibilities as teachers, to their role during the period of the world wars, to the mutual reactions of composer and audience, and to the basic questions of musical form and expression. The collection also includes a set of critical essays on such seminal figures as Bloch, Schoenberg, and Stravinsky.

    Roger Sessions is the composer of a recently recorded cantata on Whitman's "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" as well as numerous other works. He is the author ofThe Musical Experience of Composer, Performer, and Listener(Princeton).

    Originally published in 1979.

    ThePrinceton Legacy Libraryuses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-7105-6
    Subjects: Music

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Editor’s Note
    (pp. vii-viii)
    Edward T. Cone
  4. Preface
    (pp. ix-xii)
    Roger Sessions
  5. I. The Composer’s Craft

    • The Composer and His Message [1939]
      (pp. 3-26)

      The fact that a composer, in speaking of music, speaks primarily or indeed exclusively as a practitioner, may easily seem too obvious to mention. It is a fact, however, that the critic, the historian, even the musical theorist are familiar figures on the American scene. With inevitably varying degrees of success, they fill the role of articulate mediators between the public at large and the wares offered it by a multitude of purveyors. In a very real sense, they form the conscious ideas of the public regarding music, and determine, or at least influence profoundly, the character of American musical...

    • Music in Crisis [1933]
      (pp. 27-44)

      There can no longer be any question that music, like every other manifestation of Western culture, stands under the sign of crisis. The situation has been developing for decades; nearly a century ago the most sensitive observers were already aware that some such crisis was approaching. But what has, until recently, been visible only to the most far-flung spirits has since the war become an increasingly obvious and menacing fact, with the most concrete and actual implications. The reactionary tendency observable in every country during the past two musical seasons is only the latest and one of the most superficial...

    • The New Musical Horizon [1937]
      (pp. 45-52)

      I have been asked to comment on the musical ideals of the “present generation.” What is meant by this phrase? Today above all the most obvious characteristic of the musical world is the division of its ranks—its multitude of cross currents which may be, according to one’s point of view, taken to indicate either a healthy ferment or a labyrinth of spiritual insecurity.

      From a somewhat greater distance, however, one is struck by the completeness of a transformation which the entire musical horizon has undergone in the past twenty-five years. Contrasting personalities of the two periods—Strauss, Debussy, Ravel,...

    • Song and Pattern in Music Today [1956]
      (pp. 53-70)

      In the course of many varied contacts and travels during these recent post-war years, one fact has struck me very forcibly; that is, the disappearance of sharply markedlocalitiesin our Western musical world. Everywhere one finds that musicians are discussing the same problems, and reacting to them in much the same ways. If, thirty years ago, one travelled from New York to Paris or from Paris to London or Berlin or Rome, one felt in each case that one was entering quite a different artistic climate. The differences in values, standards, and aims characteristic of the musical activities in...

    • Problems and Issues Facing the Composer Today [1960]
      (pp. 71-87)

      The premises behind such an undertaking as was attempted in last summer’s Princeton Seminar in Advanced Musical Studies were of course based on the obvious changes in orientation and outlook that are taking place—and have for many years been taking place—in the minds, attitudes, and intentions of the composers, performers, and even listeners of our day. It is hardly necessary to point out in these pages that change is inevitable at any period whatever in the development of an art. The history of the art is itself primarily an account of such changes and an attempt to fathom...

    • Style and “Styles” in Music [1961]
      (pp. 88-102)

      I am sure that I have been asked to speak to you as a practicing representative of the arts, in which role I pretend some competence, and not of either aesthetics or history, in which, in spite of occasional contacts and even dabblings, I pretend none. If I trespass on territory where I do not belong, my intentions are quite innocent, and I apologize in advance. I will try to speak strictly as a musician, and a practical one. I owe enormous debts to scholarship—especially musical scholarship, and to the experience which I have received from the visual arts,...

  6. II. The Composer and His Audience

    • Art, Freedom, and the Individual [1957]
      (pp. 105-119)

      I hope you will bear with me a little at the outset of my talk if I take a few moments to explain myself and my relation to my subject. I am, first of all, a practicing musician—a composer. While I claim considerable competence in my own field I am, becomingly I hope, quite modest in regard to any real competence in the other arts. I have some knowledge of them, it is true; I have known painters and poets and sculptors and architects and novelists. I believe the matters of which I have to speak are of as...

    • Composer and Critic [1934]
      (pp. 120-122)

      I think it a mistake to regard the critic as having any direct artistic relation to the composer. Mr. Downes will pardon me for pointing out, as he does himself, that musical criticism is essentially journalistic and hence can be of very little help to the composer in respect to his own work. If the composer wants advice in technical matters he presumably has experts at his disposal who, as players or composers, are working directly with musical material, and whose advice is therefore of the most immediate and practical kind. Of course, the composer like every one else develops...

    • America Moves to the Avant-Scene [1937]
      (pp. 123-136)

      Let me confess at the outset that, in undertaking to write a paper on this subject, I was intrigued by various ways in which the latter could be taken. I am sure that those who planned the program will forgive me if I point out certain possible implications which were clearly not in their minds. It might, for instance, imply a nationalistic affirmation of our country’s present or approaching supremacy in the various fields which constitute contemporary musical life, and to call in some sense for the quasi-historical justification of that supremacy; it might likewise seem to imply an enumeration...

    • To Revitalize Opera [1938]
      (pp. 137-145)

      It is fairly evident that, during the last three centuries at any rate, the theatre has been the channel through which the “great public” has become most immediately aware of the music of its own time. The popularity of Handel was at its height while the music of Bach was unknown and rejected by his contemporaries; and while this is the most spectacular example, others readily occur to anyone fairly well versed in musical history. In general it may be said that purely instrumental music of the highest quality, however accessible to the elite of its period, wins recognition far...

    • The Scope of Music Criticism [1947]
      (pp. 146-156)

      In preparing this paper I have been reminded of a luncheon which I attended some twenty years ago, at the Tavern Club in Boston. The guest of honor and speaker of the occasion was Mr. Ernest Newman, the well-known English music critic. His remarks were devoted to the thesis that it is more difficult to criticize a piece of music than to compose it. It was a serious discussion; and I regret to say I do not remember his arguments. But I remember very well my momentary indignation at what seemed to me a professional slight, an implied belittling of...

    • Music in a Business Economy [1948]
      (pp. 157-168)

      No fact regarding music in America is more obvious, more pertinent, or more all-embracing in its implications than the fact that music here is in all of its public aspects a business, and a big one. There is no doubt that this is an inevitable state of affairs. I do not regard it as a favorable one for art or for culture, however we may define the latter term; but it is a condition which is wholly characteristic of our society, and one which exists and flourishes as a part of that society, entirely independently of the will or the...

    • How a “Difficult” Composer Gets That Way [1950]
      (pp. 169-172)

      I have sometimes been told that my music is “difficult” for the listener. There are those who consider this as praise, those who consider it a reproach. For my part I cannot regard it as, in itself, either the one or the other. But so far as it is so, it is the way the music comes, the way it has to come.

      I once asked Alfredo Casella, who had pointed out the technical difficulties in my violin concerto, what could be done to make it easier. He answered that nothing could be done: for you see, he said, “e...

  7. III. Education and Training

    • Music and the Crisis of the Arts [1954]
      (pp. 175-186)

      When I was invited, as a representative of the creative arts, to address a symposium entitled “New Frontiers of Knowledge,” the first question which I asked myself was regarding the meaning of the word “knowledge” in connection with the arts. Clearly it was in the minds of those who invited me that I should contribute to the discussion some thoughts regarding the place of the arts in the curriculum of a great university, and hence it seemed clear to me that this word “knowledge” must be taken, in such a context, to have implications somewhat wider than those which the...

    • New Vistas in Musical Education [1934]
      (pp. 187-192)

      It is hardly necessary any longer to point out the unmistakable symptoms of unsureness which are becoming more and more characteristic of contemporary musical life. They may be seen in the already advanced confusion of critical standards: the tendency to replace standards based on a sound and self-confident musical instinct, with others culled almost at random from external sources, such as musical history, aesthetic theory, up-to-the-minute fashion, nationalistic, racial, or sociological dogma. As far as composers are concerned, even if we leave out of consideration the extremely poor quality of so much contemporary music, we may observe the feverish attempts...

    • The Composer in the University [1949]
      (pp. 193-203)

      One of the advantages—or disadvantages—of reading a paper on any subject lies in the fact that, when the paper is finally prepared, one is by no means as sure as one was when one began that one has settled the question at issue, even to one’s own private satisfaction. One learns, first of all, the extent to which conclusions that one had considered to be based on matters of fundamental principle have been conditioned by the circumstances under which one has personally lived and worked; and secondly, one is faced with the necessity of accurately formulating, then questioning,...

    • What Can Be Taught? [1967]
      (pp. 204-228)

      The question of the education—or, as I would prefer to put it, training—of the composer is, in my opinion, today much cluttered up with a quantity of extraneous matter which tends to confuse or even to obliterate the central issue. A good part of this confusion may certainly be traced back to a traditional system of teaching which had not only become frozen in its essentially cut-and-dried treatment of materials, but had also and with still graver consequences, taken its basic assumptions so much for granted that they had finally become desiccated to the point of sheer abstraction,...

  8. IV. The Limits of Theory

    • Heinrich Schenker’s Contribution [1935]
      (pp. 231-240)

      The recent death of Heinrich Schenker has brought renewed attention to the name and achievement of one of the remarkable figures of the contemporary musical world. It furnishes the occasion for a consideration of his contributions to musical theory, both in their intrinsic aspect, and their significance as symptoms of the musical temper of the present time. For although Schenker remained bitterly hostile to all that is contemporary in music, his work and his ideas nevertheless embody very clearly certain aspects of contemporary musicality which here surely find one of their most striking expressions.

      The very fact that this work...

    • Hindemith on Theory [1937]
      (pp. 241-248)

      Hindemith’sUnterweisung im Tonsatz(Vol. I)¹ embodies the results of a rich experience in teaching, in speculation, and in the ex post facto analysis of the composer’s own works. It is confessedly an attempt to accomplish for the musicians of Hindemith’s day what Fux, two hundred years ago, wished to do for his contemporaries: that is to say, to bring some order and control into the prevailing confusion of the musical language. In an exceptionally fine preface Hindemith discusses, with great sincerity and evident feeling, the problems of the present-day composer when faced by this confusion, and bears witness to...

    • Exposition by Krenek [1938]
      (pp. 249-255)

      In the world of contemporary music, the group of composers adhering to the tenets established and followed by Schoenberg and his school exert an almost unique moral and intellectual force. No other group of contemporary composers has—as a group—such lofty and unspoiled artistic ideals; no group has been so tenacious and unswerving in the pursuit of them, or has preserved such an attitude of loyalty and devotion among its members, and no group has at its disposal a more brilliant array of persuasive intellectual force. As far as creative achievement is concerned, at least two of its members...

    • Escape by Theory [1938]
      (pp. 256-262)

      Heinrich schenker’sDer freie Satz,subtitledDas erste Lehrbuch der Musik,¹ is difficult and unfortunately, in large part, repulsive and sterile reading. It is, in the first place, pathological in the most obvious sense; unfortunately its author lays great store by the general, pseudo-philosophical assumptions which form the background of his thought, and these are in the most self-revealing manner the outcome of personal frustrations and fantasies. His megalomania alienates even the patient and open-minded reader by its constant effort, a tendency all too frequent in contemporary German writing, not to convince or illuminate, but to intimidate him. Herr Schenke’s...

    • The Function of Theory [1938]
      (pp. 263-268)

      In the preceding articles of this series the writer has attempted to form a judgment of what seem to him three highly significant contributions to present day thought regarding music. Two of these were the work of eminent composers (Hindemith and Krenek); the third (by Schenker), was the product of a mind of unquestionable brilliance and insight, and profound scholarship—one of the outstanding figures in contemporary musical theory and one, in spite of exclusive preoccupation with the past, quite capable of holding its own among the various involutions and complexities of contemporary speculation. Not only did it seem to...

  9. V. Music and the World Confiict

    • Music and Nationalism [1933]
      (pp. 271-281)

      It is hardly any longer necessary to discuss the practical workings of the policy of the present German government in regard to music and musicians; the outside world has been kept closely in touch by its informants with developments in Germany, and whatever inaccuracies may have been reported involve only the details and not in any sense the essentials of those developments. The policies of the government have been proclaimed in quite unambiguous terms, as has the mélange of “ideas” which underlies them; in Berlin last spring one could often hear the opinion expressed by well-informed foreigners that a page...

    • Vienna—Vale, Ave [1938]
      (pp. 282-287)

      One evening last month I heard, for the first time in nearly ten years,Die Zauberflöte.My feelings, as I listened, were inevitably colored by the world events of the preceding week, and took on an almost intolerable poignancy from my awareness of all that these events mean, both as concrete facts and as symptoms for the present and the future of music. Not unnaturally, my first thoughts were connected with the incomparable music to which I was listening. The performance was an amateur one, for which its participants would be the last to claim more than a relative adequacy....

    • On the American Future [1940]
      (pp. 288-294)

      The piece for which you have asked this time takes me back to the letter which I addressed to you a year ago last spring, when Hitler marched into Vienna. It takes shape as a sort of companion piece, since its subject is so nearly related. Since that time the totalitarian flood has gathered momentum and is now far more widespread, more powerful, and infinitely more threatening. In spite of the wars which are being waged against Germany, Russia, and Japan, it seems likely if not certain to spread still further before it is finally crushed. For all of us,...

    • American Music and the Crisis [1941]
      (pp. 295-303)

      The request that I write “an appeal to reason” invokes in me the feeling that I should, perhaps, offer something other than has been asked for. The question of musical nationalism is of course paramount; it constantly comes forward in a time of crisis and in many forms even as applied to music. But after all is it “reason” which is fundamentally involved? Reason is impossible without premises, and in most of the discussions which take place today it is our premises that are insufficiently considered. I am perhaps being very blunt, or very arrogant, in calling for an appeal...

    • No More Business-as-Usual [1942]
      (pp. 304-312)

      By the time that these lines are written, most of us will have become fully aware of the fact that the United States is engaged in a desperate and prolonged struggle which involves the ultimate conditions of our existence. It is not true, certainly—or at least it is no longer true—that the American people is “complacent,” or unaware either, of the magnitude of the task ahead of the nation, or of the fundamental issues involved. Rather we are adjusting ourselves, not without many difficulties and even some inner resistance, to the necessities, psychological and otherwise, of total war....

    • Artists and This War [1942]
      (pp. 313-318)
      Roger Sessions

      Yes, it is true that I am forty-five years old, that I have two small children, and that I am, as far as we can now see, unlikely to be fighting in the front lines. It is also true that at the beginning of the last war I was a pacifist, and remained so until Mr. Wilson “talked me around.” Let me say that I have since remained firmly convinced that Mr. Wilson was right. Having decided that I really cared about the outcome of the war, and after having been rejected for all forms of service by my local...

    • Europe Come to America [1945]
      (pp. 319-326)

      When I began reflecting on the subject on which I was asked to talk this evening, it quite naturally occurred to me how vast were its implications. I might conceivably take as my point of departure the year 1492, when Columbus discovered the new world; or 1519, when Cortez scaled the sheer wall of the Mexican tableland with his horses and his cannon, and, after overthrowing the native American civilization, established in its place his most curious mixture of oppressive greed and Christian idealism. Or, I might jump forward another century to the founding of Virginia and New Amsterdam and...

  10. VI. Five Composers

    • Ernest Bloch [1927]
      (pp. 329-338)

      Among the European musicians who have made the United States their home, Ernest Bloch is a unique figure. Not only is he, aesthetic controversies aside, in dubitably of the first rank; he has gone farther than any other in a conscientious effort to identify himself with our musical life and future. His part has been a more active one than that of an independent purveyor of musical wares. As musical director of the Cleveland Institute of Music, and later of the San Francisco Conservatory, he has established himself in the country at large as an important influence in our artistic...

    • On Oedipus Rex [1928]
      (pp. 339-346)

      Ernest Ansermet remarked some years ago on the good fortune of Stravinsky in having had his works become known before they were commented on.Oedipus Rex,together with the rest of Stravinsky’s later music, has not shared this good fortune. The comparatively small number of his works, the rapid evolution of his style, and his own increasingly enhanced reputation have all contributed to a widespread curiosity in which comment has often preceded thorough acquaintance or even in some cases the actual performance of his works. It is not surprising therefore that each new work is hailed as an entirely new...

    • Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler [1934]
      (pp. 347-352)

      Hindemith’s symphony,Mathis der Maler,which Otto Klemperer introduced to the American public at the first Philharmonic concert this season, has already made history in one respect. It was performed in Berlin last season by Furtwaengler in the face of Nazi opposition, and in fact is said to have been the only work by a composer of not strictly conservative tendency to be performed at one of the more important concerts in Germany since the present government assumed full control of German musical life. The unprecedented enthusiasm with which it was greeted forced the authorities to give it and its...

    • Schoenberg in the United States [1944, revised 1972]
      (pp. 353-369)

      In any survey of Schoenberg’s work one fact must be emphasized above all: that no younger composer writes quite the same music as he would have written had Schoenberg’s music not existed. The influence of an artist is not, even during his lifetime, confined to his disciples or even to those who have felt the direct impact of his work. It is filtered through to the humblest participant, first in the work of other original artists who have absorbed and reinterpreted it for their own purposes; then through the work of hundreds of lesser individuals, who unconsciously reflect the new...

    • Some Notes on Schoenberg and the “Method of Composing with Twelve Tones” [1952]
      (pp. 370-375)

      Arnold Schoenberg sometimes said, “A Chinese philosopher speaks, of course, Chinese; the question is, what does he say?” The application of this to Schoenberg’s music is quite clear. The notoriety which has, for decades, surrounded what he persisted in calling his “method of composing with twelve tones,” has not only obscured his real significance, but, by focusing attention on themeansrather than on the music itself, has often seemed a barrier impeding a direct approach to the latter. To some extent it has even, rather curiously, distorted the view of Schoenberg’s historical achievement, of which the discovery of the...

    • Thoughts on Stravinsky [1957]
      (pp. 376-385)

      Only the blindest partisanship, it would seem, can any longer deny that Stravinsky has left a permanent and essentially indestructible mark on Western music. This is a distinction which he shares with Schoenberg and in a less obvious but nonetheless real sense also with Bartók, and as far as can be seen, with no others of his generation. No composer alive writes the same music today as he would have written had any one of these three not lived; their influence is widespread in its effect on composers of all styles and in all parts of the world where Western...

    • In Memoriam Igor Stravinsky [1971]
      (pp. 386-386)

      Stravinsky’s death came for all of us as a shock, not lessened by the fact that many of us had known, with deep concern, that for the last two years his health had been precarious. During all of our lives he had been present, and it is difficult and painful to realize that he is here no longer.

      In these last two weeks many tributes have been paid to him, and many more are surely still to come. He was the last survivor of a very great generation, which has left its indelible mark on all of the music that...

    • In Memoriam Luigi Dallapiccola [1975]
      (pp. 387-388)

      Luigi Dallapiccola was, in the only valid sense of the word, a truly great composer. For me personally he was also a very dear friend, to whom I was profoundly devoted, and whose memory I shall always cherish.

      To him we owe a succession of extraordinary works, of a style and character which is uniquely his own, and which developed steadily and resourcefully from the beginning to the end of his career. These works range in dimension from short instrumental pieces and song cycles, to large-scale choral and orchestral works such as theCanti di prigioniaand theCanti di...