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Copland & Sessions: A Musical Friendship

by Vivian Perlis

A rare occasion for a reunion between Roger Sessions and Aaron Copland was provided in 1981 when they were invited to perform in Stravinsky's Histoire du Soldat at the Whitney Museum. Three major American composers in their eighties were featured: Copland, Sessions, and Virgil Thomson. As they sat backstage between rehearsal and the concert, they reminisced about the years when modern music was an exciting new movement, and they spoke of Nadia Boulanger, for it was through her they first met in Paris: Copland and Thomson in 1921; Copland and Sessions not until 1926 at one of Boulanger's famous Wednesday afternoon gatherings.

Despite differences of opinion about Boulanger and attitudes that ran in opposite directions, the friendship between Copland and Sessions grew. In his first letter to Copland, Sessions wrote of his admiration for The Symphony for Organ and Orchestra (1924), the piece commissioned by Koussevitzky for the BSO with Boulanger as soloist. "This afternoon I heard Nadia play your Symphony, and while I am not in the habit of writing this particular kind of letter I can't refrain from giving you a piece of my mind on the subject. First of all the symphony is magnificent, and I was more impressed than I can tell you. . . ." The letter soon took a different turn. Sessions did not find Music for the Theatre (1925) worthy and lightly chastised Copland for wasting his time on "propaganda for other young Americans ."

From the very start of their friendship, the opposing lines for American music were drawn: nationalism versus internationalism; programmatic versus abstract. Copland was searching for an American sound; Sessions believed they should strive to be international figures. Copland responded to this letter by introducing Sessions to Minna Lederman, suggesting he write an article for Modern Music. According to the editor of this excellent small magazine, Minna Lederman: "I thought of that first ten years as the Copland/Sessions period. These two men dominated the thinking of a whole generation of composers, and the magazine reflected their point of view which was freely expressed; the magazine took its tone from them. . . ."

Copland and Sessions were not at all alike in background and personality. Both were born in Brooklyn, but Copland came from immigrant Jewish parents and grew up over the family store, while Sessions descended from generations of New Englanders. Copland's schooling went only so far as high school; Sessions proceeded from the Kent School to Yale and Harvard. Copland was homosexual; Sessions heterosexual. He, his first wife Barbara, and Copland enjoyed each other's company. Copland was Boulanger's favorite American student and remained a strong supporter; Sessions was in the group close to the famous French teacher for a while, but was not a Boulanger student and became disenchanted with what he considered endless sponsorship of her students. "I came to disapprove of Nadia," he said. "She had some strange ideas about the U.S. She thought it was a young, inexperienced country that did not know its way around and should have a guardian, and that France should be its guide. I soon discovered there were other countries in the world and musicians who had nothing to do with Nadia Boulanger."

Copland and Sessions began to plan a concert series to be organized and managed by the composers themselves. It seemed natural that Copland and Sessions, the leading young American talents, would be the directors.

There is no doubt that the friendship was strained by the demands. Sessions left for Europe just as the first series was started and was not available for most of the next two years. Without email, fax, or even easy telephone access, collaboration faltered. Furthermore, Sessions was not one to make quick decisions or to meet deadlines easily. He hated publicity and was not happy that his name was used and displayed as part of the series title. Copland politely called his partner, "a philosopher in music." Copland frequently found it necessary to proceed on his own. In later years, he enjoyed relating the anecdote about the woman who came backstage to tell him, " O Mr. Copland! I love your sessions." With whatever difficulties ensued and there were many, both composers had in common a loftiness of purpose and a dedication to the performance of little-known works by contemporary composers.

The Copland-Sessions Concerts was one of many responsibilities of the directors. Neither imagined that in the future, these modest events would be the topic of discussions and historical research and writings. It was part of their lives for a brief time, to be followed by other shared experiences: in the forties, the two served on the board of the League of Composers; in the fifties, Copland lectured on his colleague's music at Tanglewood, and in l955, Sessions took Copland's place at at the Music Center for the summer. In l959, they were two of four pianists requested by Stravinsky to perform in Les Noces. (Lukas Foss and Samuel Barber were the others).

Copland and Sessions did not meet often in later years, but as is the way with old friendships, theirs was a strong bond. So much so, that when Copland attended a Composers Committee retrospective for Sessions, in l983. Sessions wrote: "I can't refrain from writing to tell you how tremendously touched I was to see you last evening. . . .Believe me, that you took the trouble to come meant more to me than I can possibly say."

As Virgil Thomson said of Copland: "Aaron has given the whole of American music a model of how to behave about colleagues: don't treat them as rivals in a shell game, but as members of a Fifth Avenue merchants association. A profitable and enlightened attitude." The Copland-Sessions Concerts set that kind of pattern. The concerts represented the first time composers took the responsibility for promoting their own music and provided a model for presentation of modern music in the future. Others were stimulated to follow in their footsteps, such as Yaddo, the Group for Contemporary Music, and the Composers Committee. The Copland-Sessions Concerts gave young Americans the confidence that would lead to the founding of the American Composers Alliance and the American Music Center and to home-based publication and recording companies. The world of American music is grateful for the two young composers who had the foresight, determination, and dedication to create the Copland-Sessions Concerts--the first important presentations of music--by and for composers.

Vivian Perlis is author of two books on Aaron Copland and directs the program in Oral History of American Music at Yale University.


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