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HOME > Biographical > 100 New Yorkers of the 1970s > WESTSIDER ROGER SESSIONS
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Composer of the future


The story of Western music, from the baroque era to the present day, has been written largely by men whose contributions to their art were underappreciated during their own lifetimes. Serious music has a tendency to be ahead of its time, and must wait for the public taste to catch up before it can be accepted.

Such is the case with Roger Sessions. For at least 50 years he has been considered by the American academic establishment to be one of the most gifted and original composers of his generation. But his work has started to gain wide recognition with the general public only since the early 1960s. Today, at 82, he is comfortable in his role as the elder statesman of American concert music. Although relatively few of his works have been recorded — they place extraordinary demands on both performer and listener — Sessions continues to write music with practically unabated energy. His most significant official honor came in 1974, when the Pulitzer Prize Committee issued a special citation naming him "one of the most musical composers of the century."

Since his early 20s, Session has led a dual career as a composer and a teacher of music theory. A former professor at both the University of California, Berkeley, and Princeton University, he has published several books on his musical ideas, and now teaches two days a week at the Juilliard School at Lincoln Center. When I heard that his piano sonatas were going to be performed soon on West 57th Street, I called him to request an interview, and he promptly concurred. We met for lunch at La Crepe on Broadway, and over the meal Sessions revealed himself to be a man of wit, humility, and charm.

Speaking of his piano sonatas, which will be performed at Carnegie Recital Hall in February, March and April, Sessions commented in his slow, precise manner of speech that "the first one was composed in 1930, the second one was composed in '46, and the third one was composed in '65. One sonata will be performed on each program. … I have heard the young lady play one of them. She's going to come and play for me today. I'm helping her to prepare them. Because they're difficult and they take a lot of practice. Her name is Miss Rebecca la Becque. I just laid eyes on her for the first time last week."

Nearly half of his works have been composed in the last 20 years; some are quite melodic; others are so atonal and eery that to some people they suggest the rhythm of the universe itself, or music from the stars. One remarkable aspect of his compositions is that no two are even vaguely alike; another is that they come in so many different instrumental combinations. Besides his piano works, he has composed for violin, organ, cello, chorus and solo voice. In addit............
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