Symphony No.1 (1927)

By Peter Laki

Written for the concert Inventing America

Among connoisseurs of twentieth-century American music, the name Roger Sessions inevitably calls forth the adjective “difficult,” an epithet the composer himself acknowledged in a 1950 article in the New York Times, titled “How a ‘Difficult’ Composer Gets That Way.” It has to be left for another time to decide how difficult his later works—many of them written in the twelve-tone system—really are. In any event, the First Symphony, completed by the thirty-year-old composer in 1927 and first performed the same year by Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, makes its musical points rather clearly and unambiguously. Cast in three movements, the work has two outer movements in sonata-allegro form, flanking a lyrical slow movement that follows a ternary design. It is, quite obviously, a neo-classical scheme, and Sessions freely admitted his debt to his teacher Ernest Bloch, as well as to Igor Stravinsky. Composer Andrew Imbrie, who studied with Sessions, finds in the work “a diatonic jazziness, an obsessive reiteration . . . of short motives, syncopated and aggressively accentuated.” Yet if these elements were “in the air” during the 1920s, Sessions spoke the lingua franca of neo-classicism with an impressive “sweep” all his own, and a sure command of form and orchestration. A particularly memorable moment—and an interesting personal touch—is the slow episode halfway through the first movement, scored for woodwinds only. Throughout this movement, winds and percussion dominate the texture; the strings only play pizzicato, with the strings plucked. The second movement, by contrast, is a lyrical song for strings (bowed of course). The division of the violas into two sections adds a further polyphonic layer to give more weight to the expression of elegiac feelings.

Sessions, who lived in Europe from 1925 to 1933, wrote his Symphony in Florence, where he stayed at the Villa I Tatti, the legendary home of the art historian Bernard Berenson. News of the death of the composer’s father came during the compositional work, and the second movement turned into a memorial tribute. The entire Symphony was eventually published with the dedication, “To my Father.” Perhaps the most personal passage in the entire Symphony is the central portion of the slow movement, where the woodwinds once again come to the fore, joined this time by a solo violin. The interlocking solo lines are accompanied by the even triplet notes of the piano. Lightness and exuberance return in the third and final movement. The playful main theme is given to the piccolo, whose bright sound remains the defining element of the music all the way to the brilliant ending.