About this Recording
8.559261 - SESSIONS: String Quintet / String Quartet No. 1 / Canons (to the memory of Igor Stravinsky)
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Roger Sessions (1896-1985)
Chamber Music for Strings

 

Roger Sessions's stature among modern American composers is unquestioned. His influence as a teacher compares favourably with that of Schoenberg, Hindemith, and Boulanger. The catalogue of his 42 compositions includes nine symphonies, three concertos, two operas, and works in other large formats, as well as chamber music, most of which is represented on this recording. (The remaining work is a Second Quartet.) This is the first recording released of Sessions's Quintet. Sessions won every major award, including a Pulitzer Prize. Although he composed for three-quarters of a century, from 1910 to 1985, his most productive period came after the age of 60. Three of the works recorded here date from this late period.

His careers as a composer and a teacher were paralleled by a third career, that of a writer about music. A highly literate man, Sessions published four books and over 40 articles in his lifetime. These books include his Norton lectures at Harvard University (Questions about Music), his harmony textbook, Harmonic Practice, and his valuable The Musical Experience as Composer, Performer, Listener. His essays edited by Edward T. Cone, are published as Roger Sessions on Music: Collected Essays and his letters, edited by Andrea Olmstead, appear as The Correspondence of Roger Sessions.

The influences of Stravinsky and Bloch, and later of Dallapiccola and Schoenberg, are found in his music, but he incorporated the contribution of others to distinctly personal ends. Certain identifying features characterize Sessions's style. One is the much-discussed "long line". Sessions's long phrases arch gracefully and participate in a highly complex contrapuntal texture. Another characteristic is rhythmic flexibility achieved by frequent shifts of time signatures and the use of polyrhythms. All of these characteristics are employed in the twelve-tone String Quintet, requested by the Music Department at the University of California at Berkeley. Sessions dedicated the chamber piece to the department's chairman, Albert Elkus. (When Elkus left the Berkeley department Sessions soon followed.) Sessions's love for Mozart's Quintets in G minor and C major and Schubert's Quintet in C major "tempted as a stimulus and challenge to adopt this medium for the new work". The première took place in 1958 in Berkeley by the Griller Quartet, who played only the first two movements because the composer had not finished the work in time for the concert. Through the generosity of Paul Fromm the entire Quintet was given its première on 23 November 1959, in New York at the New School, along with the New York premières of Leon Kirchner's Quartet No. 2 and Ernst Krenek's important Quartet No. 6, written in the same year as Sessions's First Quartet, 1936. The performers of the Quintet were the Lenox Quartet.

Two years later Sessions supervised an ensemble at an open-to-the-public class at the New School. The first violist in the ensemble was the 19-year-old Samuel Rhodes, who was later to perform the Quintet with the Juilliard String Quartet. Reporting of this open rehearsal, the New York Herald Tribune quoted Sessions saying to the performers, "The principal voice must predominate, as in Italian Opera". And "You must play the passage over and over again, until it melts".

Formally, the first movement resembles the first movement of the String Quintet in E minor in that it, too, is modeled on Beethoven's A minor Quartet, with three expositions. The aria-like second movement divides into an A, B (measure 180), and A (m. 240) form. The third movement is a sonata allegro. The recapitulation is not exact: Sessions said, "I recall an idea very plainly and specifically without repeating it literally. I very rarely repeat anything literally because that doesn't seem to be in the nature of this [twelve-tone] vocabulary."

A few years later Sessions completed the Six Pieces for Cello between writing his Symphony No. 6 (1966) and Symphony No. 7 (1967), both commissioned works (by the New Jersey Symphony and the University of Michigan respectively). The Six Pieces were written for and dedicated to Sessions's son John, a cellist. The work had its première at an all-Sessions concert held by the International Society for Contemporary Music in Carnegie Recital Hall (now Weill Hall) in New York on 31 March 1968.

As in Sessions's Double Concerto (1971), where two instruments converse with one another, a conversation can be imagined here too, in the contrasting and recitative-like passages given to the solo instrument. The participants in the second movement, Dialogue, Sessions and his son, neither argue nor question and answer one another; it is a friendly conversation. The fourth movement, Berceuse, had definite familial associations for Sessions as well. After his granddaughter (John's daughter, Teresa) was born he saw her lying in her crib and immediately thought of the opening four bars of the music.

Thirty years earlier, while still in his "neo-Classical" tonal stage, Sessions wrote the Quartet No. 1 in E minor. It was commissioned by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, written in 1936, and given its première by the Coolidge Quartet at Mrs Coolidge's Eighth Festival of Chamber Music, on 10 and 11 April 1937, in Washington D.C. The young Elliott Carter wrote in Modern Music of "a new and important quartet by Roger Sessions. Though no single theme is outstanding (as is often the case with Beethoven) every detail, the cadences, the way the themes are brought in, the texture, the flexibility of the bass, were such as to give constant delight, and at times to be genuinely moving. His sense of a large line gave the music a certain roominess without ever being over expansive."

The Viennese composer Ernst Krenek wrote to Sessions (7 March 1939) of the Quartet: "I like especially the originality of the harmonic features which give clear evidence of a very personal and deep expressiveness of your music. Furthermore, I was very much impressed by the long breath of some thematic developments, especially in the first movement."

In a programme note for the performance by the Gordon String Group on 26 January 1941, in Town Hall, Sessions stated that he was influenced by Beethoven's String Quartet in A minor, Op. 132, in the formal structure of the work. The first movement of the Sessions is a triple exposition, three "stanzas". Each stanza contains three themes which are varied at their return. A specific tempo grants each of the three themes part of its identity. The effect is one of a huge stretto. The tonalities of E minor, C minor and G minor are implied, but never definitely stated. The second movement begins with an Adagio and is continued by a brief scherzando interlude that leads back to the Adagio. The movement, explicitly in B minor, modulates to G sharp minor. A description of C minor for the scherzo, as well as the other movements, would be tenuous; each bar could be interpreted in a different key. One unifying feature of the movement is the initial three-note motive - D, D sharp, F - which recurs four times. Canonic devices, a dense web of motives, and a sense of controlled chromaticism within an expanded tonal framework represent an increase in technical complexity over Sessions's earlier music, the best known of which was The Black Maskers. About writing the movement Sessions said, "It seemed to me that I was writing like Alban Berg already". The third movement, a sonata-allegro form, was Sessions's strictest form to date. The introduction is followed by the first theme in the viola; the second theme appears in the cello (at measure 55). The movement begins in G major, but ends in E major. Sessions wrote the work while staying in the summer of 1936 at a ranch near Reno, Nevada, in order to establish residency to obtain a divorce from his first wife, Barbara, and to marry in November a former student, Elizabeth Franck. He told this author, "The last movement is probably the most orthodox movement I ever wrote. But it's a lot of fun. To me it brings back the smell of sagebrush and the lovely place out in the country where I lived in Nevada. I rode horseback!"

35 years later the editors of the Boosey & Hawkes periodical Tempo asked distinguished composers to contribute canons for a 1972 issue dedicated to the memory of Igor Stravinsky, who died on 6 April 1971. Stravinsky had written of Sessions in 1963, "Roger Sessions is one of the people I most admire and respect: as composer, scholar, teacher, intellect. But last and most, he is a dear friend". Sessions wrote this one-minute muted string quartet on 8 August 1971, aboard a ship bound for Oslo. The inscription at the end of the manuscript reads "On the high seas".

Roger Sessions is remembered in three areas: his teaching, his writing, and of course, his music. With this release of the majority of his string chamber music we gain a better understanding of why this music has long been so highly prized among composers and performers.

Andrea Olmstead


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