Roger Sessions was born in New York City in 1896, of a family with old New England roots. He spent the bulk of his childhood at the family's ancestral home in Hadley, Massachusetts. Sessions showed his intellectual gifts early, and entered Harvard University at the age of 14, graduating four years later, at age 18.
During these four years Sessions wrote numerous articles for the Harvard Musical Review and became its editor. This was the start of his decades-long career as a writer on music. His articles dealt with some of the most important recent music of the time. This was followed by study with Horatio Parker at Yale (previously the teacher of Charles Ives) and with Ernst Bloch. At age 20 he began what would become a brilliant teaching career, winning his first job at Smith College. The Black Maskers, one of Sessions' most often heard works, was composed for a performance at Smith College.
In 1925 Sessions began a European sojourn of eight years. He received two Guggenheim fellowships, a Prix de Rome and in 1931 a Carnegie Corporation grant. He and his wife Barbara lived primarily in Florence and Rome; in 1931 they moved to Berlin. Sessions also traveled extensively in Europe and met some of the luminaries of the era, such as Pierre Monteux, Otto Klemperer, and Alban Berg. During this time he co-founded the legendary Copland-Sessions new music concerts.
Sessions left Europe in 1933, shortly after the Nazi takeover of Germany. Works written during this period include the first piano sonata, the first symphony and the three organ chorale preludes. A good deal of the violin concerto was also composed in Europe.
A year after his return from Europe, Sessions took up a post at Princeton University, beginning a continuous teaching career of nearly 50 years. During his years at Princeton his reputation as a composer began to develop, and there were more performances of his works. In addition to the completion of the violin concerto, his compositions from this period include the first string quartet, the piano set From my Diary, the violin-piano duo, and much of the second symphony.
In 1946 Sessions moved to the University of California at Berkeley, where he remained for eight years. This, his fiftieth year, marked the beginning of a veritable explosion of compositional creation. The bulk of Sessions's music was written between the ages of 50 and 75. The list includes, among other works, six of his nine symphonies, the string quintet, the second and third piano sonatas, and his magnum opus, the opera Montezuma. Sessions worked on the composition of this opera for 25 years.
A signal compositional event took place in 1953. Sessions's harmonic language had, since the 1935 violin concerto, become increasingly chromatic. His second piano sonata of 1946 is completely atonal. In 1953, at the start of composition of his Sonata for Violin, Sessions "realized" that he was writing twelve-tone music. For most of the next 30 years, Sessions composed in a free application of this system, of which he had once been profoundly suspicious. The hallmark of this development was its organic quality, in which Sessions evolved gradually toward the idiom, and finally adopted it seamlessly into his musical language.
In 1954 Sessions returned to Princeton University. He was by now widely esteemed as a teacher of composition who knew how to free the individuality of each student and build compositional technique, without imposing his own style. He contined to teach, travel, and compose intensively. In 1965, after his "retirement" from teaching, Sessions took up an appointment at the Juilliard School, which he maintained, on an increasingly part-time basis, until 1983, well past his 80th birthday. The first years of his appointment at Juilliard were also the period during which Sessions composed what some consider his greatest work, the cantata When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd. The words are by Whitman, one of his favorite poets, and the theme of freedom was one close to Sessions's innermost convictions. The combination called up some of the most affecting music in the 20th century literature.
During the last 12 years of his life, Sessions continued to compose, if more slowly. Some of the major works written during this period were the Five Pieces for Piano, the 9th symphony, and the valedictory Concerto for Orchestra, his last completed work. Commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the piece was composed and premiered in 1981. Shortly after the premiere, Sessions, for this piece, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.