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CLASSICAL  March 2000

CLASSICAL March 2000

Subject:

Re: Conversations with Sessions

From:

Stirling Newberry <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Wed, 8 Mar 2000 12:00:24 -0800

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TTL's post in defense of Sessions - while it is less "polished" than
the first gets far closer to the heart of musical conversation and idea.
There are specifics - moments, ideas and forms - and there is, though a bit
scattered through the post - a description of the underlying reasons for
the work's appeal to one particular listener.

Before going on to reply, which necessarily involves disagreement in
this case, it seems appropriate to point out how much more information is
contained in TTL's second post than the first.  The first could have been
about anyone, or anything.  The second can only be about Roger Sessions,
and a particular reaction to it.  And it is this individuality which is
one of the hallmarks of what separates are music in any genre from mere
entertainment.

- - -

But there is still the reply itself.  Robert Schumann wrote that the
average composer was expected to master the revealed forms, the talent
extend them, and "only to the genius to range freely." He was criticising
Lachner at the time, though he made similar remarks in other contexts.

By this standard - or any varient, what TT and SS are presenting is a case
for "Sessions the talent".  Using ideas well, coming up with an unusual
ending for a symphony, having use of intervals that pleases.  All, even
if everyone of them were granted, do not add up to an important, or even
outstanding, composer.

TTL writes that I am slamming him for being more eloquent in words than in
notes, but that *is* what being a composer is about.  A performance given
a work because it stands for the "right" version of artistic ideas that the
composer has articulated is generally a performance wasted.

But this gets away from an important artistic question - the question
of means and ends.  While atonality or 12 tone music or highly dissonant
extended tonality are not things to be for or against, deciding to use them
in a work is something a composer can be criticised for - if that decision
comes at the expense of the works intended aims.  Similarly a composer's
decision not to use these techniques can be criticised if their end can
only be achieved by their use.

It is here that Sessions desire to write dissonant and complex music often
gets in his other stated desire - to write music which fits in the concert
repertory of Beethoven and Brahms.  It is not that it can't be done - nor
that it ought not to be done, but that the way he did it fails to convince.
TT praises the ending of the 7th symphony - but what an awful lot we must
go through to get there, how many swings through the material which do not
add anything, how many occasions when all was used when a flute would have
been better.  More over it is one thing to fit on an ending which is not
expected, it is another to have logic pack a punch and create an ending
which is both unexpected, and yet totally logical.

Consider the ending of the first movement of Beethoven's 8th symphony.
Originally he writes the ending ff.  However, this would have been wrong -
because the ending must act as a long range balance to the forte opening -
and is at the end of a long coda, rather than closing a recapitulation.
The strong closure chord of a recapitulation is to restabilise the tonic
which the transition from the exposition to the development destabilised
and affirm the tonic cadence.  The end of the coda is thematically driven,
and hence requires a thematic closure.

Interesting ending ideas- whether Payne's reconstruction of Elgar or
Wagner's tacked on revisions to Flying Dutchman - are less powerful than
ideas which are implicit in the structure of the music, and which are
carefully woven into the fabric.  Consider two potent examples - the ending
of Berg's Violin Concerto, where the vocal nature of the chorale usage is
reaffirmed by having the violin join the chorous, and the opening section
of Beethoven's 9th symphony where he uses the low strings playing in the
manner of a recitative to set up the entrance of the voices.

- - -

TTL writes with disdain about being romantically enthused.  How
unfortunate, and how strange when dealing with a composer who stated
that he wrote rhapsodically, not once, but many times!

Romance is from the Romanesque - that part of Europe still warmed by
the embers of Rome even after its death.  The Romance languages are those
which possess as their basis the classical antinquity, but altered and
recast by being used in rougher ages, more in touch with the power of
nature and barbarity.  A "Romance" is a narrative.  To be enthused is
to have "the god enter" one.

What other mode for describing a symphony of the traditional type is there?
The failure here is exactly with Sessions "sense of temporality".  His
proportions are traditional, his materials end up having far too little
energy, for all their accidentals, or are simply not played out thoroughly.
Thorough going construction means not using obvious goal tones when more
interesting resolutions are available, plodding through rather standardly
proprotioned periods when the phrases still have ample room for expansion.
If SS and TT like Brahms with wrong notes, there's no arguing with taste,
but what a waste of resources - or conversely what an over use of spice
when it is not particulary required.

The sonic surface itself may well appeal to them - and it appeals to
some others as well - but it is off putting to many others.  In such
circumstances, absent some powerful underlying musical idea, it is hard
to make a case that a composer should become central to our musical life,
which is, exactly, the argument that Porter and others have made.  The
difference between having nice intervals, and creating cyclical modal
vocabularies whose tension creates the harmonic nature of the work is
the difference between a Roger Sessions violin concerto, and one by
Alban Berg...

Stirling

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