Speak For Yourself! A Hyper-History of American Composer-Led New Music Ensembles

From its office at 1601 Steinway Hall, the Copland-Sessions Concerts of Contemporary Music led a stealth revolution in concert programming. For the first time in American history, composers would take the responsibility of getting their music out to the listening public.

Though their paths were to split in radically different directions, Aaron Copland and Roger Sessions became fast friends when they first met in 1926. As the bright young stars of American music, they had a big concern in common: the lack of American music being performed in the existing venues.

Two years later, they were ready to launch their attack with their own self-named concert series, despite the fact that Sessions was to win the Prix de Rome and relocate to Europe for the duration of the concerts. When the New York Times critic Olin Downes gave the first concert of works by Henry Cowell, Marc Blitzstein and George Antheil a review that was lukewarm at best, Sessions from his perspective on the other side of the Atlantic told them not to worry. At least Downes thought the event was serious enough to attend, he assured Copland.

Indeed, the situation got better, as the second program had a certified hit with Virgil Thomson’s “Capital, Capital”, a male vocal quartet setting of a Gertrude Stein text. By the end of the first season, eleven composers had seen their works premiered.

Future seasons saw Copand-Sessions concerts in Paris and London, making the statement that Americans had material worthy of being heard in the great music capitals of Europe. By the third season, Sessions was taking a more active role by searching for Americans living abroad and alerting his colleagues to Europeans living in the states. The 18-year-old Nino Rota, then a student at Curtis Institute of Music, was featured in 1930.

By 1931, the innovative concerts in New York drew to a close, replaced in part by the Festival of Contemporary Music at Yaddo. The Copland-Sessions swan song in New York would be memorable even today: an evening of film, with scores by Marc Blitzstein, Darius Milhaud and Colin McPhee played by members of the New York Philharmonic conducted by Hugh Ross.

Fresh from their newfound exposure, young composers gained a confidence that would lead to higher-profile programming and the creation of organizations like the American Composers Alliance and the American Music Center. The Copland-Sessions concerts lasted for only four seasons, but the reverberations are still felt in the music world today.

From Speak For Yourself! A Hyper-History of American Composer-Led New Music Ensembles
by Ken Smith
© 1999 NewMusicBox

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