With friends like these...

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The Independent Culture
"The lone Roger" they called him, without professional friends, at least among Yanks of his own generation, but musical parent to a host of devoted and distinguished pupils. Roger Sessions was born 100 years ago at the end of this year, and no doubt Radio 3 will do something about it, even though nothing by him crops up in this summer's Proms. Michael Oliver's 45-minute feature about Sessions on Saturday afternoon was called Born Difficult: not because Sessions was a problem child - although he was an academic prodigy who, oddly enough, expressed himself at a very deliberate pace - but because the Italian composer Alfredo Casella said, when Sessions consulted him about simplifying his Violin Concerto, that to change anything would be to change the music fundamentally; it was born difficult.

The Violin Concerto was a comparatively early work, completed in 1935, just before Alban Berg finished his Violin Concerto, but not performed by a major orchestra until 1959, and only recorded once, in 1966. Michael Oliver couldn't think of a single internationally known virtuoso who played it, though he rated it one of the most beautiful violin concertos of the century. Sessions's later music got more tense and contrapuntally abundant. Gunther Schuller called it the unruly product of an ecstatic, though that makes it sound wilder, less solid than it is. His most productive years were between the ages of 60 and 85. He did have some professional friends, but they were either too few or not the right ones. Serge Koussevitzky, conductor of the Boston Symphony and a great patron of new music, vetoed Sessions's work in a fit of pique lasting the rest of his life after his own nephew, who conducted another orchestra in Boston, performed The Black Maskers. Arthur Judson, manager of the New York Philharmonic as well as the Philadelphia Orchestra and head of one of the leading artists' agencies in the States, simply disliked it and overruled the conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos, himself a composer and an admirer of Sessions. Another conductor who thought highly of Sessions was Frederick Prausnitz, the dedicatee of the ninth and last symphony. He put Sessions on the level of Mahler, Varese and Carter - an interesting list. Sessions would come into his own, he said, since "composers always have" - not just naive and platitudinous, but unprovable. There can be no certainty that what is worthwhile survives, nor the converse, for who knows what lies hidden or forgotten?

When a man is 20, he should like everything new and think that it should be new in order to be good. When he is 40, he should have sifted the good from the merely fashionable. Thus the late Sir Arthur Bliss, five years Sessions's senior, delivering a lecture when he was 41. Had he been 51 at the time, he might not have been so confident. Anyway, he impressed HG Wells, who told him, when Bliss played some noisy machine music for the film Things to Come, that the machines of the future would be silent. Still, when it came to giving credit for the film on its release in 1936, Wells acknowledged Bliss as "practically one of its producers". Potentially, the set-up was innovatory, since Wells wanted the music written first and the film tailored to it. Wells had no experience of scripting films, and what he wrote had to be changed so much that the music no longer fitted. Lionel Salter, in his first job, as assistant to the conductor Muir Mathieson, supplied gong crashes to cover awkward transitions after editing. All this was confessed in The Sunday Feature, called "More Things to Come" because the presenter, Jonathan Dobson, had found four 78rpm records that had come to the Royal Academy of Music from Sir Henry Wood's collection, including Bliss's original Prologue and Epilogue not used in the film. Initially, the music - released on commercial discs - was more popular than the film, which took a long time to recoup Alexander Korda's vast outlay of $1.5 million. Bliss's post-Pomp and Circumstance irony sounds rather harmless today, though it was meant to deflate totalitarianism. Listening out of context, the public was probably oblivious.

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