A Tribute to Charles Hamm—Composer, Historian, Educator

[From Chapter 18 "The Second Wave and Its Impact on American Composition" pp. 555-562, reprinted from Music in the New World by Charles Hamm. Copyright © 1983 by W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.]

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Music in the New World

Roger Sessions, born in Brooklyn in 1896, emerged as the leader of the new wave of American composers who turned once more to Europe and its composers for musical guidance.

Entering Harvard University at the age of fourteen, already a proficient pianist with some youthful compositions behind him, he studied first with Edward Burlingame Hill, and with Horatio Parker at Yale—two relics of the first generation of American composers who looked to European music for their models. When he found a younger and more important teacher, it was Ernest Bloch, over from Europe for only a few years. Sessions became his student and his assistant as well, at the Cleveland Institute of Music from 1921 to 1925. Sessions was in Europe himself for the next eight years—in Paris, Berlin, and Florence—supported by a series of grants.

His first composition to attract attention was The Black Maskers, an orchestral suite originally written in 1923 as incidental music to a symbolistic play by Leonid Andreyev; the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra gave the first concert performance in 1930. It is an astonishing piece. Some sonorities suggest Stravinsky’s Petrushka and Le Sacre du printemps, and there is more than one hint of Debussy. But the piece is essentially original, uncompromising, extravagantly demanding of the orchestra, more contrapuntal than Stravinsky, intensely dissonant in spots, but still more strongly based on tonal language than was the music of Schoenberg at that time.

His Symphony in E minor followed. Written in Europe and premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1927, it was the first symphony by an American to be performed on concerts of the International Society for Contemporary Music (at the Seventh Festival in Geneva in April of 1929). Working slowly and thoughtfully, he produced pieces only every several years: Piano Sonata No. 1 appeared in 1930, premiered at the Ninth Festival of the ISCM at Oxford, England; the Violin Concerto, completed in 1935, had its first performance in Chicago in January of 1940; String Quartet No. 1 was completed in 1936. Meanwhile, Sessions had returned to America, driven home by the ascension of the Nazi movement. He embarked on what was to be a long career as a teacher of composition, first at the Malkin Conservatory in Boston, and later at Boston University, Princeton, and the University of California at Berkeley.

Subsequent works included eight more symphonies (written in 1946, 1957, 1958, 1964, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1978), a concerto for piano, another string quartet (1951), and smaller pieces for orchestra, chamber ensembles, and keyboard, with a sprinkling of vocal works, including a Mass for unison voices of 1955. Two large-scale operas occupied much of his attention at two periods of his career: The Trial of Lucullus, to a libretto by Brecht, completed in 1947; and Montezuma, with a libretto by G. A. Borgese, which he worked on from 1941 until 1963.

With Schoenberg’s arrival in America, Sessions became more fascinated with the techniques of serial composition, though he characteristically modified his own style rather than making an abrupt break with his long-established compositional procedures, adding elements without ever completely embracing the methods of twelve-tone writing. His music remained stern, uncompromising, unassailable. Prizes and awards accumulated, commissions and first performances were readily available, but none of his works entered the standard repertory or became familiar to any but devoted followers and students.

Sessions’s late career was climaxed by his setting of Walt Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom’d” an elegy for Abraham Lincoln. This work for chorus, orchestra, and three soloists (soprano, alto, and baritone) was written in 1970 as a cantata “to the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy.” Commissioned by the University of California in celebration of its centennial, it was first performed at Berkeley in 1971 and was given two subsequent performances at Harvard University, then done by both the Chicago and Boston Symphony Orchestras and the San Francisco Symphony.

Throughout his career, Sessions has had a great deal to say about the musical life of America and the role of his music in it. Recurring themes have been the dangers of musical nationalism:

I find that two tendencies above all are dangerous to the development of a healthy musical culture in the United States. The first was the type of musical nationalism which was recently so prevalent. The second, which was closely allied with it, was the erection of “accessibility” or “audience appeal” into a kind of dogma—”down with all that is (to use the terms adopted as battle cries) obscure, esoteric, difficult”—let us have only music of “social significance” for the public; the composer must write for “humanity as a whole,” not just for himself and his friends and colleagues.1

and the desirability of incorporating the musical language and aesthetics of European composers into the experience of Americans:

There are those, to be sure—and all too many of them—who believe that the presence of so many new Americans, of so great distinction, will in some way impair the integrity of our “native culture”—that some especially American quality is threatened by the influx of so-called “foreign ideas.” We are told, for instance, that a budding musical culture stands in the gravest danger from the encroachment of so-called “European tradition.” Such people, it seems to me, forget, or perhaps misunderstand, two things, First of all they misconceive the nature of tradition itself. Tradition seems, to me, to be nothing more nor less than the accumulation of many generations doing their best. Furthermore, if we examine a little of the history of music or art, we see that no great culture has ever developed on the basis of isolationism or exclusiveness. There can be only one conclusion—America’s finding itself means nothing more nor less than the discovery that mankind must be one, and that Americanism is by its very definition inclusive, all-inclusive, not in the smallest degree exclusive, and that loyalty to America means nothing less than a consistent devotion to the human principle in that inclusive sense.2

Concerning these attitudes (embraced by most of the composers with whom this chapter is concerned) it must be said that the results have been the creation of a body of music with virtually no audience.

Through the early nineteenth century, almost all classical music performed in the Western world was contemporary; the later nineteenth century was a period of rediscovery of the great music of the past and its gradual introduction into the performing repertory—but, at the same time, the audience for new works continued to be great. In the twentieth century, for the most part, music of the past dominates classical programs. This is not the place to revive the endless discussions which have sought to uncover the reasons for this repertory reversal and its impact on the performance of contemporary music. Composers have blamed performers and conductors for being unwilling to take chances with repertory; musicians and audiences have blamed composers for writing overly difficult and inaccessible music; critics have blamed everyone but themselves; historians have attempted to plumb the more profound cultural changes of the present century. The situation is not unique to music; similar problems have beset the visual arts and certain types of contemporary literature.

Statistics verify a situation already known to anyone concerned with classical music in the United States. Between 1900 and 1970, the 27 major symphony orchestras of the country played Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 a total of 538 times; the Philadelphia Orchestra alone offered its listeners 59 performances in this 70-year period.3 The Black Maskers, Roger Sessions’s “popular” composition, was played 15 times by these same orchestras between 1923 and 1970. His Symphony No. 1received exactly two performances, the premiere by the Boston Symphony in 1926 and another reading by the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1935; Symphony No. 2 was played 4 times by America’s professional orchestras before 1970; none of his other symphonies were heard more than two times.4 By contrast, Copland’s suite drawn from his ballet Appalachian Spring, written in a predominantly tonal style and drawing on American folk melodies, was given 53 performances between 1945 (the year of its premier) and 1970, and George Gershwin’s An American in Paris (1925), poised somewhere between American popular music and nineteenth-century symphonic style, was played 54 times before 1970.

The music of Roger Sessions offers the listener little to grasp at first hearing. It is abstract music, without a program. In the words of the American critic and composer Virgil Thomson, it is music about other music. In harmony, melody, and texture it is fearsomely complex. A thoughtful critic wrote of “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”:

I found the cantata, like all Sessions’ later music, difficult to embrace at first acquaintance. Only after the harmonies of a Sessions score have been heard several times, I find, do they begin to make proper sense. What sounded like ever-defeating density of texture is revealed as an energetic, lucid progress of lines, in which the movement of the various themes is clearly perceptible. Even the full-throated lyricism of the melodies is not evident from the start. It takes time to sort out background and foreground, to get one’s bearings. When that is done, the scores disclose their merits-so clearly that one is amazed they could ever have been imperfectly perceived. But perseverance is needed; and champions are needed, too, to provide the opportunity for it. Sessions’ music is not played as often as it should be; the public gets little chance of overcoming its possible first bafflement.5

When Schoenberg and his contemporaries first began writing atonal and then serial music, certain critics maintained that it was merely a matter of time before audiences found this repertory as accessible to the ear as any other music, pointing out that audiences in the past had trouble with the music of Beethoven, Wagner, Debussy, when it was first performed. But music with no clearly perceivable links to the melodic and harmonic language of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries has continued to baffle listeners; most of Schoenberg’s music is as difficult today as it was a half-century ago. Perhaps listeners would learn to respond to it with repeated hearings, but few have been willing to make the effort.

The cultural, historical, and moral issues surrounding this situation are complex, but an inescapable fact remains—certain twentieth-century European composers have produced music that twentieth-century audiences cannot or will not respond to in any positive way. Roger Sessions and his peers based their style and their aesthetics on such music. They have shared its fate.

Concerning Sessions’s second point—that Americans should be willing to assimilate European composers and their music—it cannot have escaped even the most casual reader of the present book that the most important theme developed in each of the preceding chapters has been the blending of stylistic elements of two or more sorts of music brought to the United States from elsewhere.

The first classical music brought to this country in the eighteenth century was brought into a void, into a land with no musical traditions. The situation was vastly different in the 1930s, however. There were dozens of professional orchestras, sizable audiences in a number of cities and towns, native-born performers capable of holding their own against European musicians, and a century-old tradition of the composition of classical pieces by American composers. For several decades, native composers had been moving toward a style that reflected something of America’s indigenous music, something of the character of the American people. American audiences were beginning to respond to some of this music.

European composers, fleeing the holocaust in Europe, quite naturally found such music of less interest than the music of their own culture. Stravinsky’s reaction was typical:

I fear that in some ways the American composer is more isolated today than he was in 1925. He has at present a strong tendency to say, “We’ll leave all of that avant garde stuff to Europe and develop our own musical style, an American way.” [But] compared to Webern, for example, most of our simple homespun “American style” is fatuous in expression and in technique the vilest cliché. In the phrase “American music,” “American” not only robs emphasis from “music” but it asks for lower standards.6

Surely Stravinsky was a composer of greater genius than was Roy Harris, and had a more profound grasp of the techniques, traditions, and aesthetic bases of western European classical composition. Schoenberg had a much firmer grasp of compositional devices than did George Gershwin. Bartók was vastly more skilled and imaginative than John Alden Carpenter. Younger American composers would have been foolish not to learn from these men, to take advantage of their presence in the New World, to benefit from opportunities to know their music. What happened, however, was that American composers in effect started all over again, rather than blending elements of foreign music with the emerging American musical language. In following this path, they also asked their listeners to begin again, to forget earlier attempts at an American style, to attempt to come to terms with a musical language making no reference to cultural, aesthetic, or musical elements of their own country—a musical language, furthermore, that was proving to be extraordinarily difficult for audiences even of the cultures out of which it was growing.

By this act of starting from scratch, classical music in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s took a very different path from that followed by virtually every other musical genre—popular music, jazz, church music, dance music—in which new musical currents were welcomed and absorbed, but were grafted onto what already existed.

1Roger Sessions, Roger Sessions on Music. Collected Essays, ed. by Edward T. Cone (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979) pp. 163-64.

2Sessions, pp. 321-24.

3These statistics were compiled from Kate Hevner Mueller, Twenty-Seven American Symphony Orchestras. A History and Analysis of Their Repertoires (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1973).

4For another contrast, Brahms’s Symphony No. 4 was played 388 times by these orchestras between 1931 and 1970.

5Andrew Porter, “An American Requiem,” The New Yorker, May 16, 1977, pp. 133-38.

6Igor Stravinsky and Robert Craft, Conversations with Igor Stravinsky (Garden City: Doubleday & Company, 1959) pp. 129-30.