Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1956)

Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1956)

By Andrew Imbrie, Professor Emeritus, University of California at Berkely, and former student of Roger Sessions

Written for the concert Unjust Obscurity? (II), performed on March 10, 1995 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

The music of Roger Sessions is generally acknowledged to be of crucial historical importance: it has been given more lip-service than that of any other American composer. Critical comment has largely concerned itself with its uncompromising stance, the complexity of its language, the thickness of its texture. His aesthetic position is routinely compared with that of Copland, the populist champion of “Americanism,” in contrast to which Sessions has been perceived as elitist, cosmopolitan, and oriented toward Europe. As time passes, it is now perhaps possible to view this dichotomy in a more charitable light: both Copland and Sessions were prime movers in the coming of age of American music. Copland reinforced our sense of national artistic identity, while Sessions connected us with the rest of the world–which today is seen to include much more than Europe. And it is a measure of both composers that both have won international acclaim.

The questions of the “difficulty” of Sessions’s music still deserves critical attention. It cannot be resolved here, but perhaps a hint might be of help to the listener of good will. The sensation of complexity is often the result of an initial confusion over how to identify pattern, consistency, and clarity of discourse. The acoustic thickness and dissonance of Sessions’s harmonic language, for example, is undeniable. Yet if one begins by giving this quality the benefit of the doubt, one can then turn one’s attention to such things as phrasing, rhetoric, and goal-orientation. One soon perceives that the relations and the balance among phrases, the interplay of voices, and the overall contour (the “long line” in Sessions’s own words) are not only clear, but eloquent, poetic, and imaginative. The phrases are interrelated, and ultimately add up to a complete statement. As the listener gains confidence, the harmonies cease to cause a sense of confusion and become rich and colorful, now that they are perceived in context. This has been my own experience, and there was nothing “academic” about the thrill involved!

Sessions’s Piano Concerto was commissioned by the Juilliard School of Music for its fiftieth anniversary, and is dedicated to the memory of Artur Schnabel. It was first performed on February 10, 1956 by the Juilliard Orchestra in New York, with Beveridge Webster as pianist, and Jean Morel conducting.

The work begins quietly with an undulating piano accompaniment and an arching melody stated by the clarinet and answered by the flute. This statement-counter-statement structure is then extended and liquidated, until a rapid transition accelerates the motion to a fast, vigorous pace. Now the piano initiates a gesture in several short, emphatic phrases, which are then taken up by the orchestra. A conversation between soloist and orchestra then ensures, which culminates and resolves. A second theme is now played by the piano, lyrical in its gradually rising vocal contour, which also becomes more animated as the phrases follow one another and as the orchestra joins in. After this flurry subsides, the piano once more recalls the opening of the lyrical theme, which takes a new turn and, with gentle orchestral support, concludes the exposition.

What follows could be labeled a “development section.” It is relatively brief, and is based partly on short melodic fragments featuring repeated wide skips, and partly on types of eighth-note figuration, which are indeed derived from earlier material; but here there is no reference to “themes” overtly emphasized in the exposition. This texture breaks down as the climax of the movement approaches, in which, finally, the orchestra plays sustained chords as the piano abates its frenzy and resolves peacefully into the opening of the recapitulation. Here we return to the tempo, texture, and theme of the opening, which is now however more harmonically static–until a sudden accelerando catapults us into the allegro again, which then subsides into a condensed version of the lyrical second theme. The ensuing culmination soon subsides as well, and ends quietly on a single tone (E above middle C) which keeps changing color as various solo wind instruments overlap. This connect us directly to the second movement which follows without pause.

The entire recapitulation was about two-thirds the length of the exposition: one sense that these proportions serve to bind the first movement to the rest of the work, and prevent any perception of finality, such as will occur at the analogous point in a classic concerto, with its balanced proportion as and its formal requirements of cadenza and extended orchestra coda.

The second movement is essentially a protracted dialogue between soloist and orchestra as equal partners. The melodic material is florid, and as the movement proceeds, increasingly rhapsodic, as the tempo gradually increases. At the climax the rhetoric turns tragic and at the return of the slow tempo the sonorities become dark and opaque.

There is, accordingly, a buoyant sense of release when the last movement emerges. It is imbued with the inimitable Sessions energy, drive, and optimism. Its thematic structure is subtle, wherein motivic cross-references abound without coalescing into formal thematic restatements. One is conscious primarily of the elastic rhythmic deployment of similarly elastic motivic units, of surprises, extensions, condensations, interruptions–all controlled by an unfailing sense of overall line and proportion.