Questions about Music 0393005712, 9780393005714

In this fine small book noted composer Roger Sessions writes about music, lucidly and always interestingly, from the poi

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English Pages 166 [177] Year 1970

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Questions about Music
 0393005712, 9780393005714

Table of contents :
I. Hearing, Knowing, and Understanding Music
II. Talking – and Thinking – about Music
III. Performing Music
IV. Composing – I
V. Composing – II
VI. Criteria

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Questions about Music The Charles Eliot Horton Lectures,


Questions about Music Roger Sessions

Harvard University Press Cambridge, Massachusetts 1970

© Copyright 1970 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College All rights reserved Distributed in Great Britain by Oxford University Press, London Library of Congress Catalog Card Number 72-102672 SBN 674-74350-4 Printed in the United States of America

Foreword I WISH το EXPRESS M Y WARM GRATITUDE to my alma mater, Harvard University, first of all for offering me the Charles Eliot Norton professorship for 1968-1969. I have been very much aware of both the honor and the challenge involved in holding a chair that has been identified with so many illustrious names, including first of all that of the great humanist and scholar in whose memory the chair was founded. Such a challenge constitutes also a stimulus; and it has helped me to organize, to formulate, and to evaluate many of my basic ideas, conclusions, and convictions regarding music, as these have developed and crystallized during more than sixty years of intense involvement with music in all of its phases. For all this, too, and for the opportunity to give my ideas public utterance, I am deeply grateful. My thanks are also due those who attended my lectures, on several occasions braving the rain, ice, and snowdrifts of the worst winter that the Boston area is said to have endured in many years. Their attentiveness, and the warmth of their response both to the lectures themselves, and to tapes of my own music which I played for them after four of the lectures, helped to make the experience an especially pleasant one for me. This book presents the lectures substantially as they were delivered. Some minor revisions have been made, first of all in order to eliminate phrases and passages proper to the lecture hall but irrelevant in print. A few passages have been

Foreword expanded, and the substance of one passage delivered ad libitum in the lecture hall has been incorporated into the written text. The Epilogue was not a part of the lectures as delivered, but was added afterwards. Finally, I wish to thank the Harvard University Press for its much appreciated cooperation, and in particular Mrs. Nancy demente of the editorial staff, for her invaluable help in preparing the manuscript for publication. Roger Sessions October 12, 1969

Contents I. Hearing, Knowing, and Understanding Music II. Talking — and Thinking — about Music

3 27

III. Performing Music


IV. Composing — I


V. Composing — II VI. Criteria Epilogue

97 123 155

I Hearing, Knomng, and Understanding Music

examine and discuss some fundamental questions regarding music. Some of these are questions which have always been discussed, but never resolved. These I do not expect to resolve, though I would like if possible to throw some light on them or at least to make some contribution to their more precise definition. Others have to do more specifically with our own time, and regarding these I shall offer at least a definite point of view. I N THIS BOOK I PROPOSE TO

I believe, however, that I should make it clear that I write as a composer, that is, as a practicing artist, not a scholar or critic. My reasons for emphasizing this distinction are partly illustrated by an incident that occurred about fifteen years ago. Some published lectures of mine had been assailed by a young reviewer—a music historian who objected to certain views which I still hold and which will undoubtedly re-echo at times in the course of this book. The reviewer also wrote that whatever was good in my book had been expressed better by a certain lady, a philosopher, who had a short time before published what I believe was the first of a series of books on aesthetic problems. I was sufficiently interested to read her book, and was delighted to find that we did in fact have so many points of agreement. I was still more pleased, some time later, to receive a telephone call from her, in which she spoke enthusiastically of my book and expressed the wish that we might meet and talk together. In the course of the conversation that resulted, I told her about the review in question. In comment, she drew the distinction which I have just mentioned, between the way practicing artists, on the one hand, and philosophers, historians, or aestheticians, on the other, talk and write about their art, with the strong implication 3

Questions about JVLusic that the latter could often listen with profit to the former, and in fact should do so. I cannot quote her exact words, but I am, I think, interpreting them quite accurately. What I believe she meant was that to an artist, whose constant and overriding activity and concern is the practical one of shaping his materials in the service of a creative goal, his own experience is what art means to him, and it is of that experience that, directly or by inference, he is always speaking. Whatever ideas he may formulate are to an overwhelming extent the result of experience, not of speculation proceeding from any other basis. That does not mean that he is impervious to ideas from other sources. It does mean, however, that whatever significance these ideas may have for him will be the result of his having, as it were, processed them in the concrete terms of his own artistic activity. He is not, in other words, speaking out of a background of scholarly research or systematic thought, and the kind of precision that these disciplines demand. Always he is speaking essentially of what he himself has learned, through practice. To be sure, artists have their own area, in which the finest precision is the essence and the condition of their achievement. If their product is to have any value, they must work, and must think about their work, in a manner that cannot conceivably be regarded as sloppy. Many an artist, moreover—perhaps every artist—learns to form the habit of occasionally regarding his work on various levels of perspective—whether in order to judge more clearly whether he is achieving a desired effect, whether in order to assure himself of what in a given context must come next, or whether in response to the need or desire to view his work as a whole. He must sometimes, that is to say, get outside of the im4

Hearing, Knowing, and Understanding