The Problem with Sessions

The last few days I’ve been analyzing the slow movement of Roger Sessions’s Third Symphony to present it in class. (Yes, it’s true – I may denigrate 12-tone music as a critic, but as a historian and theorist I scrupulously study and teach it, and in fact compared works by Sessions, Copland (Inscape), Wallingford Riegger (Third Symphony) and Dallapiccola (Piccola Musica Notturna) to show different ways in which second-generation 12-tone composers slowed down the rotation of the twelve pitches to give the style more harmonic contrast. As a critic I would never undertake a sustained criticism of a style I hadn’t fully understood.) Anyway, I was reminded of a 19-year-old story that I’ve never had opportunity to make public, because the person it concerned didn’t want it printed. But now that the late, great Ralph Shapey is dead, I feel free to release it.

I interviewed Shapey in the summer of 1985. Ralph, a first-class ranter, embarked on a tirade against conductors who wouldn’t program American music. “Like Roger Sessions,” he bellowed. “They never play his symphonies, never. Oh, I know what Roger Sessions’s problem is, everyone knows the problem with Roger Sessions, but that still doesn’t mean they shouldn’t play his music!”

“Wait a minute, wait a minute,” I interrupted. “What’s the problem with Roger Sessions?”

“Well,” Shapey hesitated, glancing around his apartment in search of the right word, “he’s… he’s… he’s DULL! But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t play his music!” And then, realizing I was sitting there with a tape recorder and notepad, he panicked and pleaded, “Please don’t print that! Please don’t print that I said that!”

So I never did – during his lifetime. Shapey would use the f-word in all kinds of contexts and tell me to “write that in,” but he was scared to death of the music world learning that he considered Sessions’s music dull.

And the slow movement of the Sessions Third is indeed gorgeous, beautifully written, impeccably crafted – and dull.