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Sessions, Roger

Sessions, Roger

Born in 1896


Inducted in 1998

Roger Sessions decided at the age of eleven that he would become a composer. He studied music at Harvard, which institution he entered at 14, and edited the Harvard Musical Review. After his graduation in 1915 he studied further with Horatio Parker at Yale, where, in addition to a second bachelor's degree, he received the Steinert Prize for his Symphonic Prelude. His first teaching position was at Smaith College, where he taught theory from 1917 to 1921. In the latter year Ernest Bloch, with whom he had studied privately since 1919, appointed him to the faculty of the newly founded Cleveland Institute of Music; Sessions remained there till Bloch stepped down as director in 1925. During his tenure in Cleveland he composed his incidental music to Leonid Andreyev's play The Black Maskers, the orchestral suite from which, introduced by Fritz Reiner and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in 1930, was to become his most frequently performed work. Sessions moved to Europe in 1926; a succession of awards, two Guggenheim Fellowships, a fellowship at the American Academy in Rome, and a Carnegie Foundation grant enabled him to live in Florence, Rome and Berlin. His First Symphony, composed in Europe, was given its premiere in Boston under Serge Koussevitzky in 1927. In Europe Sessions met Aaron Copland, with whom he created the Copland Session Concerts which presented new music in New York in the years 19281931. In later years he would continue this kind of activity as a director of the League of Composers and president of the U.S. section of the International Society for Contemporary Music; he and Copland were made cochairmen of the ISCM in 1959, and subsequently became honorary life members. In 1933 Sessions returned to the United States and to teaching: first at the Boston University School of Music, then at the New School for Social Research in New York (where his Violin Concerto had its premiere in 1935), at the Malkin Conservatory, the Dalcroze School, and New Jersey College for Women. He accepted a faculty position at Princeton University in 1935 and remained there until 1944, when he became head of the music department of the University of California at Berkeley. In the same year, Sessions began his Second Symphony, under a commission from the Ditson Fund; when Pierre Monteux conducted the premiere in San Francisco in 1947 the score carried a dedication to the memory of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had died while Sessions was working on the slow movement. After Dimitri Mitropoulos and the New York Philharmonic introduced the work to New York it brought Sessions the New York Music Critics Circle Award. He composed his Third Symphony in 1957 for the 75th anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Sessions returned to Princeton as Conant Professor of Music in 1953. In 1959 he became director of the Columbia Princeton Electronic Music Center in New York. Following his retirement from Princeton in 1965, he taught at Juilliard for 20 years, during which period he served for one year as Bloch Professor at Berkeley and held a Norton Professorship at Harvard. He was a member of the group of distinguished American composers that visited the Soviet Union under the auspices of the State Department in 1958, and some of his music was performed there. Sessions was primarily a symphonist; he left nine symphonies, written in his own polyphonic and atonal idiom. The later of his two operas, Montezuma, is his largest work, conceived in the 1930s but not brought to completion until 1962; the Deutsche Oper Berlin gave the premiere in 1964, and the Boston Opera Company gave the U.S. premiere in 1976. Among his other works are three piano sonatas, a concerto, a piece for violin, piano and for cello, two string quartets, numerous songs, and a large-scale cantata on Whitman's When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd. He published five books on music, ranging from a textbook on harmony to philosophical essays. Among Sessions's many honors were a Pulitzer Prize for his Concerto for Orchestra (written for the Boston Symphony Orchestra's centenary), a special Pulitzer citation for his lifework, the gold medal of the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and an honorary doctorate from Harvard.