Why I Haven’t Been Posting Lately —

I blame it on this guy:

Roger Sessions

Roger Sessions (1896 – 1985) was the most prolific and illustrious 20th century composer I had never heard of. That is, until I entered the continuing education seminar I’m taking now, Music for Mourning. It covers requiems of all kinds from 15th century Ockeghem to 21st century Rutter, and is a much more cheerful class than you’d think, since Mozart and Verdi, among other tunesmiths, weighed in with their glorious examples.

Sessions, despite that smile, is most frequently associated with the adjective “difficult,” and that’s no lie. In the course of a long and distinguished career, Sessions moved from modern to atonal to 12-tone, and — so far as my uneducated ear is concerned — to total unintelligibility, musically speaking. For the past several weeks, and intensively over this coming weekend, I am listening again and again to Sessions’ version of Walt Whitman’s When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d, the long (LONG LONG) poem lamenting the death of Abraham Lincoln.

Conceptually I kind of “get it,” dissonance certainly being one way to represent grief, brokenness, and mourning. But I confess, I like melody, and have a very difficult time with atonal music. My presentation is on Tuesday morning, and between now and then, I have to boil down masses of biographical and academic material into a short snappy interesting summary. Well, that’s not TOO bad. But it should be animated by a love of the music itself, and I’m having trouble whipping up even a luke-warm response.

So that’s where all my time, energy, and attention has been going, away from blogging and to difficult music and those poetic lilacs, and the deaths of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, which are the losses informing Sessions’ requiem. For anyone wanting to be in solidarity, or just plain curious, here’s the Youtube of a performance of  Sessions’ Lilacs:

You can test drive it for a couple of minutes, more if you love modern music, and then — if you’re so inclined — help me out and tell me what you love and why! Maybe then I can move beyond the facts into some real learning —-

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21 Responses to Why I Haven’t Been Posting Lately —

  1. tms says:

    Difficult. With contemporary music, I can sometimes “breathe” along … is it exciting? Is it calm? Does it do anything to your breathing rhythm? It sometimes does something to mine; listening to this kind of music I can easily drift off…
    Choosing to access this piece (or the first four minutes of it, me sitting in front of a laptop with headphones on) in a decidedly un-intellectual way, I first went for the colours of the music, i.e., the instrumentation which I much like –
    And: Why does everything calm down around the verse “In the swamp in recluded recesses”? (That kind of makes sense, does it not?)
    Just very random thoughts – but maybe there is something in there for you…
    Happy Easter!


    • Touch2Touch says:

      Thank you so much, Tobias! I’ll be struggling with this all weekend. Turns out Frank reacted pretty well to several minutes also. I’ll listen next time following your hint about “breathing” along —
      Happy Easter to you!


  2. mybrightlife says:

    i couldn’t possibly provide anything remotely useful but I am going to comment anyway because that’s what I do:)
    My eleven year old has just taken a listen and asked me, “Mom, is that suppose to be weird? It’s a bit scary sounding.”
    Personally I am not scared at all. I love big voice chorus and am always moved by operatic sound. So marry that with Witman, Lincoln, King and Kennedy all on the same page – linked to Sessions, session and it is hard to ignore. I find melodic music demanding in its ‘request’ to engage, hum along, keep up and so on. This I find less so – although it certainly has its own style of ‘demand’. To have to analyse it at an academic level – now that sounds scary! I don’t envy you but certainly admire you! Best of luck. I am sure that you will break through the sound barrier and come out the other side with something profound as you so often do…


    • Touch2Touch says:

      It’s you who’ve come with something profound!
      I’m adding your comment about the contrasting demands made by melodic music and atonal music to my brief talk on Tuesday —
      It’s an idea I never would have come up with on my own!
      I’ve been more with your daughter about the weird and the scary sounding — but I’m going to listen a little differently today, thanks to you.


  3. rebekah says:

    Atonal music was never my thing.

    How come you’re doing this?!


    • Touch2Touch says:

      Taking the course? For the Mozart Requiem, which I adore.
      Volunteering to present the R. Sessions? Because I knew absolutely nothing about him or the piece, and thought it would be a useful kind of challenge. Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time! So much for good ideas?


  4. Patti Kuche says:

    Judith, best wishes to you for your presentation – the music reminded me of Munch’s The Scream, hot, red dusty discordant devilment blowing in from the scorched plains!


    • Touch2Touch says:

      Whew! What a vivid description, Patti!
      Grief and mourning and sorrow can be described in lots of images, and assassinations (the cause of all three deaths commemorated here) certainly constitute devilment —


  5. wodezitie says:

    Again, too funny (although a bit painful, it seems). Long ago, I attended not a few contemporary music performances here in New York City and took a class also, and I like to think of appreciation of atonal music as an acquired taste. I find it refreshing for a few moments, but if I listen to this type of music for too long, I either burst out in uncontrollable, hysterical laughter or feel that I could commit suicide.


  6. 2e0mca says:

    I’m sorry to come late to the party Judith. But, why does your presentation have to be “animated by a love of the music itself” when it could equally well be driven by dislike? In the circumstances it’s probably easier for you to express why it doesn’t work for you as a piece. Did the tutor say that you had to present a positive view?

    Actually I quite like the way the singer’s voice plays off against the violins and wind instruments to create a sense of tense sadness. As a whole the work reminds me of other pieces by contemporary composers – Sir Michael Tippett’s Byzantium comes to mind (I was lucky enough to be at the European Premiere of that one). ps – I love Rutter’s work 🙂


    • Touch2Touch says:

      Your musical tastes are breathtakingly wide-ranging, Martin! I am enormously impressed —
      No, not a requirement to like a piece — I guess it was simply an unexamined assumption. And also, I would actually like to learn to appreciate contemporary music. It IS the music of our times, and I’d rather not be more of a dinosaur than necessary. But until now it’s been all uphill. Thanks to everyone’s suggestions, I quite look forward to hearing the Sessions again. One trick of this particular work is that it is necessary to have the “libretto”, that is, the poem itself, in front of you. They are seamlessly woven.
      The man who is presenting the Rutter (it will be the last work of the semester) will be (perhaps, he is English born and rather unflappable) quite excited to hear about another admirer. Now I look forward to it, knowing that you love the work. It gives a personal incentive — 🙂
      P.S. I don’t know Tippett but do know the Yeats’ poem well, is it perhaps a setting for it????


  7. 2e0mca says:

    It is indeed a setting for Yeats’ poem. I understand that Tippett initially intended the piece to be sung by Jessye Norman but she declined very close to the premiere. Faye Robinson stood in and definitely made the piece her own! I can still remember her performance at the Royal Albert Hall as one of the most outstanding classical concerts I have ever attended. Read all about the premiere in Chicago at http://www.nytimes.com/1991/04/17/arts/review-music-tippett-s-byzantium-by-solti-and-chicago.html .

    If you like something with a bit of melody, you might enjoy George Lloyd’s Piano Concerto No.4 with Kathryn Scott.


    • Touch2Touch says:

      Will get to the Tippett/NY Times review, thank you, and make a note of George Lloyd.
      Alas, however, the Rutter person has switched to someone else whose name I disremember. Will have to try Youtube!
      Martin, you are a veritable Renaissance man.


      • 2e0mca says:

        LoL – I’m a heavy rock man… But that is a stone in a pond and leads to so many other musical experiences 🙂 If you would like some expressive modern religious music then Scottish Catholic Composer James MacMillan may be worth a listen – Veni, Veni Emmanuel, written for Evelyn Glennie, is a 27 minute tour de force. You can hear the musical nails being driven into the cross – a very powerful piece!


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