Roger Sessions’ Symphony No. 5

By Martin Brody, Professor of Music, Wellesley College

Written for the concert American Modernism Seen & Heard: The Abstract and Geometric Tradition in Music and Painting, 1930-1975 performed on Dec 20, 1992 at Carnegie Hall. 

Born (in 1896) in Brooklyn and raised in Hadley, Massachusetts, and New York, Roger Sessions became the exemplary proponent of international modernism in American music. A student of Horatio Parker at Yale and then Ernest Bloch in New York, Sessions went to Europe during the latter half of the twenties, staying long enough to encounter a number of prominent musicians and to observe the rise of fascism. Some twenty years later, as an established composer and teacher back in the States, he would see the demised of the European fascist regimes and observe “Europe come to America,” as he would describe it in an essay title of 1945. Announcing that “a great and luxuriant musical culture in America” would occur only if we “have the courage to take and absorb whatever can be genuinely nourishing from any source,” Sessions renounced xenophobia both in his going to Europe and its coming to him.

Throughout the reaming forty years of his life, and over a long and distinguished teaching career–much of it at Princeton and Berkeley–Sessions remained dedicated to the ideal of revitalized European culture on American soil. Many of his compositional colleagues, also second generation modernists who matured between the world wards, viewed the first explosion of modernism as a mandate to chart largely divergent paths–pursing the “ultra-modern,” searching for an American idiom, rooting around for a “new objectivity,” or transforming expressionism into an overtly political movement; but Sessions maintained his belief in a great, sustained, and, above all, a single Western musical culture. Not surprisingly, then, he channeled his thought into music for ensembles and genres associated with the culmination of the central canon of European music. He especially favored the le symphony, writing nine over a fifty year period.

The Fifth Symphony, written in 1964 when Sessions was 68, was the first of the four symphonies he wrote during a magnificent creative period , 1963-71, bordered on one side by the opera, Montezuma, and by the monumental Whitman cantata, When Lilacs Las in the Dooryard Bloom’d on the other. With its long lines, concentrated structure, dense counterpoint, and expressive volatility, the Fifth Symphony is a characteristic “late work” in Sessions’ oeuvre. Over the course of its three movements (played with a pause), slow passages of extraordinary timbral delicacy and inventiveness alternate with concentrated, muscular, fast music and tutti textures. An opening, oscillatory figure, first presented in bassoons an muted horns, emerges throughout the work in various guises and under various transformations. Ultimately, the opening motive is revealed as the destination as well as the source of all of the le symphony’s material –its vigorous, motoric rhythms as much as its mercurial figuration.