ROGRER SESSIONS - PIANO SONATA #2 - 2nd Movement

CRITIQUE

The Third Piano Sonata of Roger Sessions was composed in 1964-65. It is comprised of three movements, the third of which is marked "Lento e molto tranquillo (In memoriam: November 22, 1963)". The movement is an elegy to commemorate the day that John F. Kennedy was killed.

The movement begins in two voice texture, the right hand presenting the theme (beginning with two ascending whole steps), the left hand plays an accompaniment pattern in a cross rhythm to that which is played by the right hand. The initial melodic fragment or theme in the right hand has a certain heaviness which is emphasized by the conflicting rhythm in the accompaniment, which seems as if it could be representative of the news of President Kennedy's death. It is stated simply, almost hesitatingly, as if it were difficult to get the words (notes) out. The texture expands and we hear brief fragments in what would be the other voices (alto, tenor, bass). This multi-voiced texture could be thought of as portraying various individuals and their reactions to the news, their shock and disbelief. Or it may evoke varying reports of the events that took place in Dallas on that day, word traveling from person to person, beginning as rumor, finally being confirmed as fact. The intensity increases as the music crescendos, repeated notes high in the treble and block chords in the left hand, emphatic low notes in the bass. It is as if the people are having to accept the reality of the tragedy with the most emphatic statement of this first Temporal Unit. This First Temporal Structure closes with material similar to that with which it opened, the texture thinning out, the theme in the bass now, as if to portray the country trying to catch its breath and take stock of what has it has just learned.

Now we have a new texture, marking the beginning of Temporal Structure Two. There are repeated chords in the left hand, a nebulous dream-like harmony pervades, and the right hand presents the first three notes of the theme, transposed, played twice, but unable to continue as before. It seems as if in this dream state that we can't utter the horrible fact. What was a simple declaration of a tragic fact in the opening of the movement now takes on a dreadful, inexpressible characteristic. The dream state intensifies and grows into a nightmare as the texture becomes more agitated, the music crescendos with the right hand repeating a phrase over and over, the left hand punctuating repeated chords in the midrange with climactic chords in the bass. This motion climaxes with a "tutti" chord, the first time in the movement that all the voices are rhythmically together, repeated three times (emblematic of the three shots fired?), which begins to call us out of this dream-like state. Suddenly we must face the fact that this tragedy is not a dream or nightmare at all but a terrible reality. The repeated rising figure in the bass at this point seems to say "we must carry on". The music tries to regain its composure, it even seems that we are going to have the repeated chord again, but the third chord is different from the first two this time, pushing us and the music forward. In the midst of sustained mid-range activity, there is a lone, sharp chord in the treble like a scream or cry, and then the music quiets down and tries to move on.

The Third Temporal Structure begins much like the first but now the beginning of the theme is presented without any accompaniment, slightly faster than before and once again at a different pitch level. This terrible event has passed into history and can now be stated plainly. The music tries to continue as before but something is different. People are trying to continue with their lives, but they are changed because of what has transpired. What was shock and disbelief in the first section has turned into despair and desolation. A certain innocence and naivete was lost for America on the day Kennedy was killed, a light of hope that had pervaded the country throughout his administration (or at least that is the way history has portrayed those years, despite the massive Cold War tensions) was extinguished and it seems may be impossible to rekindle. None of the voices seem to have the strength to finish their statements. Phrases that would have climaxed emphatically in the first section end with a quick diminuendo here instead. The music ends not with a sense of resolution, but rather of dying away. The motion subsides but does not conclude, the last chord is a pause not a completion. What has happened has happened, there is no sense to be made from it. We, as a people, are hardened by it, but there is still a future for us which we must continue into, changed though we may be.

 

META-CRITIQUE

If I have approached the Hermeneutic Phenomenological method correctly, which I confess I am not 100% sure that I have, it has proved to be a fruitful means of interpreting a work (I'm not sure if this could be called analysis, or perhaps I'm just too used to traditional types of analysis to be open enough to call this analysis). Even if I haven't approached it correctly, this was a rewarding experience for me.

Sessions has, in most literature about 20th century music anyway, an "academic" image. He is perceived to be the head of the Princetonian fountain whence sprang Babbit, et al. I had always approached his music in this light; I had always assumed his music to be "academic" (cold, intellectual, all the negative connotations that accompany that term, though I am not as anathema to that description as it may seem), so I always heard it to be such. The idea to approach this piece was spurred on by the approaching 30th anniversary of the day it commemorates, it seemed ripe with cultural significance.

What a wonderful surprise to find this incredible wealth of emotion and meaning in a work I had listened to many times before, but it seems had never truly heard! In reviewing some literature regarding Sessions I found out that he was a devoted Humanist who had great faith in progressive political leaders like Kennedy and Roosevelt 1. I then turned to other works of his, the String Quartet #2 in particular, and found that his whole oeuvre had now opened up to me. This is work which is surely crafted, there is no doubt about that, but it is also deeply felt. Sessions is a composer whose work will surely repay more detailed study, his seamless transitions and mastery of "the long line" are just two notable aspects (which are glaring deficiencies in my own music). It is only by looking beyond the technical facility (which is obvious), to the deeper levels of meaning and significance, that this fine strong music can be fully appreciated and understood.

1 H. Wiley Hitchcock and Stanley Sadie, eds, The New Grove - Twentieth Century American Masters (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1988), s.v. "Roger Sessions," by John Harbison and Andrea Olmstead.

 

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