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A Session with When Lilacs Last in the Courtyard Bloomed

Unlike some of his major Symphonic Works, Roger Sessions makes no attempt to disguise the
generative tone row which forms the inspiring material of his Cantata When Lilacs Last in the
Courtyard Bloomed. It is another matter to trace the process he uses to extrapolate larger musical
gestures from this material. This is of course understandable given the complex nature of the 12 ton
technique and the general attitude Of Sessions to the technique which he has likened in his extended
interview with Andrea Olmstead to a sort of jumping off point, as opposed to a concrete an stable
procedure. The curious thing about this is that the music sessions creates from his techniques (which he
also refuses to describe as 'atonal') is that it is indeed extremely listenable. The vocal lines are clear
throughout, the text of Whitman's poem is highlighted by the Orchestral accompaniment. In another
sense the text works as a guide to Sessions music, which is rich in variation but lacking in abstract
contrasts and signposts familiar to most listeners. The whole composition seems to create its own way.
Developing Its style as it carries forward. Of course it contains familiar tropes such as the song of the
hermit thrush. The bird crops up along with the first stanzas mention and again warbles through the
piece at various points where the narration returns to the swampy landscape of New England
Mourning.
It's difficult to think of Sessions' vocal setting without thinking of that of his contemporary and
sometimes champion Elliott Carter, who's song Cycle 'A Mirror on Which to Dwell' was written at
nearly the same time. Particularly here his use of 'bird song' in the third movement, 'Sandpiper'. Carter's
bird seems to have its own idea, the relationship to the vocal line of the piece is always in question. It is
of course the nature of the poem that the Soprano is giving a rather journalistic narration of the
sandpiper's activities. Kind of like one of those hinterland wildlife videos from the NFB that lasted
until oh about 10 years ago then disappeared mysteriously from the airwaves. But I digress. The
sandpiper, in Carter's hands has a complete disregard for whatever else is going on (he is after all
obsessed) in the piece. At the same time the rest of the instruments could have little less to do with it.
They all carry on alone rhythmically modulating to the end. While this may be a question of
programmatic choice, it is interesting to see the enormous difference in the in their treatment. Carter by
this time had little patience for the romantically conceived orchestra as an instrument and bowed to it
only as a tool of convenience (if ever). In his cantata Sessions seems to luxuriate in the orchestra.
Almost wandering through the sections, illuminating his vocal line with immense grace and eas. I kind
of see something akin to the technicolor animated toscanini of Fantasia here, or a composerly version

of that. I'm sure Sessions would object. To stay with the birds for a second, not only does Sessions'
thrush play an active coloristic role but it also seems to help set a large scale structure within the rather
long and wholly through composed movements.
Another fantastic effect Sessions manages is to combine a moto impetuoso with a march
funebre (alright maybe they're almost the same thing) to give incredible presence to the procession of
the funeral train across the nation in the second movement. Its sudden stop at the time of the viewing of
the coffin is a palpable moment of loss and stillness. And yet almost immediately the train motif begins
again in the background of the mourners lament.willing only to stop and linger momentarially. Our
focus then shifts to gaze solely on the mourner for a time before carrying on again with the choir. Here
its almost like an extremely long shot. Like (as a rare but inadequate parallel) the opening shot of
Touch of Evil where we are left without a clear sense of direction but are steadily in the hands of a
master.
Itd in moments like these that Sessions' notion that music must move forward takes on its true
meaning. IT must find its way through time. Never simply floating in the current and carrying along.
But calmly steadily progressing, both within itself and in the larger scope of history.