Questions about Music (The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, 1968-9) by Roger Sessions



 These seven chapters on hearing, discussing, per­forming, composing (two) and evaluating music, together with an epilogue, certainly make a “fine small book”, as the blurb has it; but I think it would have been finer smaller. The lecture is a sonorous moving form in which Hindemith, Stravinsky and Sessions himself have all written memorably. But a book presents problems of elimination which demand a more concentrated solution. So it is rather daunting to read that only minor revisions have been made; the scale should have been different. Reassurance follows; “phrases and passages proper to the lecture hall but irrelevant in print” have indeed been eliminated. Fine. Then how come those 12 sloppy parentheses in the first three pages? In this connection it seems to me, for my part, in the last analysis, that this kind of thing won't, in other words, as it were, do. So to speak is surely not how to write.

   Similarly, and somewhat more seriously, there is the question of tempo. No doubt it would be too gnomic even in small book form to summarize the social history of music - thus: “First all took parts, later some took part, now most just partake”. But little more than this is said here in over 1000 words, pp.14-6. A 5% sample:


It was by no means unusual to see, in a neighbour's house, a pile or a shelfful of printed music in­cluding not only, in most cases, a fair amount of second-rate music, but also some of the less difficult classics - Bach, Händel, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Chopin.


And so on. This drone pedal (and hence the reader) gets depressed rather too often.

   But the interplay of themes makes a consistently rich and rewarding texture. To give just one ex­ample; the intuitive note of feeling-embodied-in­music, first sounded in earlier lectures (1949) and echoed here, egat pp.44-5, is at the root of the whole system of aesthetics recently argued and documented in detail by Dr Arnaud Reid (Meaning in the Arts,1969). So it seems to me that Sessions does himself less than justice in his modest verdict on his own judgments. True, his themes are neither detached nor easily detachable; they defy brief analysis. But each could be interestingly developed on the grand scale. This is because they are essentially sound, in every sense. We are given the working notes of a composer, where even the thoughts are heard in terms of sonorities and feeling-tones. “Concert performers have told me…”; “I have talked with many composers…”; “On numerous occasions when I have participated with groups of musicians ... in discussions of various sorts…”; these are constantly recurring motifs. Thus we retain the strongest and most agreeable impression of the musician in his ideal social role as artist, mentor, teacher and friend. I like these warm intelligent tones, so like the man's own music, embodying knowledge and power. But this makes me wish all the more that they had been better scored for the medium. Or for the same con­tent in a different form; reduced in length (and price), enhanced in depth (and value).


The Musical Times, Nov. 1970 (p. 1113) © the estate of eric sams