Roger Sessions (1896-1985) career spanned over sixty years and, in addition to his work as a composer, he was teacher to some of America's most renowned composers including Milton Babbitt, David Del Tredici, David Diamond, Miriam Gideon, Andrew Imbrie, Frederic Rzewski, George Tsontakis, and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, among others.
Sessions did not take up the symphony for purposes of parody, nostalgia, or a mere simulation of the canonical works with which he identified. Rather, the symphonic format especially suited his penchant for extended forms in the "absolute music" tradition, the projections and differentiation of complex textures, and the broadest possible range of articulative resources.
The decade following the Second Symphony, during which Sessions consolidated his approach to twelve-tone compositional thought, culminated in the Third Symphony (1957), the String Quintet (1957-58), and the Fourth Symphony (1958). The three movements of the Fourth Symphony were originally conceived as a set of character pieces, the outer movements developing as companions to the central Elegy, which in turn was originally inspired by the death of the composer's brother, in 1948. Overall, the structural features of the symphony--its rich motivic-developmental fabric, largeness of scale, and complexity of detail--overshadow the expressive conceits of its movement titles (Burlesque, Elegy, Pastorale), despite its high expressivity and vivid surface gestures.
By comparison, the Fifth Symphony (a characteristic "late Sessions" work) is more concentrated in various respects: the pace of transformation is quicker, both in its play of motives and its progress within and between sections. A particularly broad range of associations, refinement of pacing, and skillful transformation of thematic materials contribute to the compelling coherence of the Symphony, taken in its entirety.
The period from 1963 to 1971--bordered by the opera Montezuma on one side and the completion of the monumental cantata When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd (NW 296) on the other--was especially productive for Sessions. Within that period, he composed four full-scale symphonies (beginning with the Fifth in 1964), along with the magnificent Third Piano Sonata (1964-65; 80307), a set of Six Pieces for Violoncello (1966), and the Rhapsody for Orchestra (1970).
As dense and richly detailed as it is, the Rhapsody was something of a diversion from the composition of the big works of that period; by Sessions's own description, it is a "work of essentially lyrical and quasi-improvisatory character, in which strong contrasts appear on a relatively small scale."
Roger Sessions: Symphony No. 4, Symphony No. 5, Rhapsody
Columbus Symphony Orchestra, Christian Badea