Sessions was born in Brooklyn, New York, to a family that could trace its roots back to the American revolution. His mother, Ruth Huntington Sessions, was a direct descendent of Samuel Huntington, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Roger studied music at Harvard University from the age of 14. There he wrote for and subsequently edited the Harvard Musical Review. Graduating at age 18, he went on to study at Yale University under Horatio Parker and Ernest Bloch before teaching at Smith College. His first major compositions came while he was traveling Europe with his wife in his mid-twenties and early thirties.
Returning to the United States in 1933, he taught first at Princeton University (from 1936), moved to the University of California, Berkeley, where he taught from 1945 to 1953, and then returned to Princeton until retiring in 1965. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1961. He was appointed Bloch Professor at Berkeley (1966–67), and gave the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard University in 1968–69. He continued to teach on a part-time basis at the Juilliard School from 1966 until 1983.
His notable students include John Adams, Milton Babbitt, Jack Behrens, Elmer Bernstein, Robert Cogan, Robert Black, Edward T. Cone, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, David Del Tredici, Ross Lee Finney, Alan Fletcher, Kenneth Frazelle, Carlton Gamer, Steven Gellman, Miriam Gideon, John Harbison, Walter Hekster, Robert Helps, Andrew Imbrie, Earl Kim, Emanuel Leplin, Fred Lerdahl, Leon Kirchner, David Lewin, William Mayer, Conlon Nancarrow, Roger Nixon, Will Ogdon, Claire Polin, Stephen Pruslin, Einojuhani Rautavaara, Frederic Rzewski, William Schimmel, Richard St. Clair, Roland Trogan, George Tsontakis, John Veale, Henry Weinberg, Peter Westergaard, Rolv Yttrehus and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich.
Sessions won a special Pulitzer Prize in 1974 citing "his life's work as a distinguished American composer." In 1982 he won the annual Pulitzer Prize for Music for Concerto for Orchestra, first performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra on October 23, 1981.
He died at the age of 88 in Princeton, New Jersey.
His works written up to 1930 or so are more or less neoclassical in style. Those written between 1930 and 1940 are more or less tonal but harmonically complex. The works from 1946 on are atonal, and beginning with the Solo Violin Sonata of 1953, serial.
- Symphony No. 1 (1927)
- The Black Maskers Orchestral Suite (1928)
- Piano Sonata No. 1 (1930)
- Violin Concerto (1935)
- String Quartet No. 1 (1936)
- Duo for Violin and Piano (1942)
- From my Diary (Pages from a Diary) (1940)
- Piano Sonata No. 2 (1946)
- Symphony No. 2 (1946)
- The Trial of Lucullus (1947), one-act opera
- String Quartet No. 2 (1951)
- Sonata for Solo Violin (1953)
- Idyll of Theocritus (1954)
- Piano Concerto (1956)
- Symphony No. 3 (1957)
- String Quintet (1957 or 1957–58)
- Symphony No. 4 (1958)
- Divertimento for Orchestra (1959)
- Montezuma (ca. 1940–1962, 1940s–1962, orchestration finished 1963, 1935–63, or 1941–64), opera in three acts (libretto by Giuseppe Antonio Borgese)
- Symphony No. 5 (1964)
- Piano Sonata No. 3 (1965)
- Symphony No. 6 (1966)
- Six Pieces for Violoncello (1966)
- Symphony No. 7 (1967)
- Symphony No. 8 (1968)
- Rhapsody for Orchestra (1970)
- Concerto for Violin, Violoncello, and Orchestra (1971)
- When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d (1971)
- Concertino for Chamber Orchestra (1972)
- Five Pieces for Piano (1975)
- Symphony No. 9 (October 1978)
- Concerto for Orchestra (1981)
- Duo for Violin and Violoncello (1981), incomplete
Some works received their first professional performance many years after completion. The Sixth Symphony (1966) was given its first complete performance on March 4, 1977 by the Juilliard Orchestra in New York City.
- Sessions, Roger. Harmonic Practice. New York: Harcourt, Brace. 1951. LCCN 51008476.
- Sessions, Roger. Reflections on the Music Life in the United States. New York: Merlin Press. 1956. LCCN 56012976.
- Sessions, Roger. The Musical Experience of Composer, Performer, Listener. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. 1950, republished 1958.
- Sessions, Roger. Questions About Music. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 1970, reprinted New York: Norton, 1971. ISBN 0-674-74350-4.
- Sessions, Roger. Roger Sessions on Music: Collected Essays, edited by Edward T. Cone. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979. ISBN 0-691-09126-9 (cloth) ISBN 0-691-10074-8 (pbk)
- Olmstead 2008, 7.
- "Book of Members, 1780-2010: Chapter S". American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved April 20, 2011.
- Olmstead 2001.
- "Special Awards and Citations". The Pulitzer Prizes. Retrieved December 3, 2013.
- "Music". The Pulitzer Prizes. Retrieved December 3, 2013.
- Prausnitz 2002, 323.
- Davis 1982, 89
- Laufer 1965, 95.
- Donal Henahan (February 21, 1982). "Julliard [sic] Gives Sessions 'Montezuma'". The New York Times. Retrieved November 30, 2011.
- "News Section". Tempo. New Ser. (121): 49. June 1977. ISSN 0040-2982. JSTOR 944497.
- Olmstead, Andrea (September 1980). "Roger Sessions's 9th Symphony". Tempo. New Ser. (133/134): 79. ISSN 0040-2982. JSTOR 945459.
- Cone, Edward, ed. Roger Sessions on Music: Collected Essays. Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, 1979. ISBN 0-691-09126-9 and ISBN 0-691-10074-8.
- Davis, Peter G. "Montezuma's Revenge". New York Magazine (March 8, 1982): 89–90.
- Imbrie, Andrew (1972). "The Symphonies of Roger Sessions". Tempo (Cambridge University Press). New Ser. (103): 24–32. ISSN 0040-2982. JSTOR 943951.
- Laufer, Edward C. "Roger Sessions: Montezuma". Perspectives of New Music 4, No. 1 (Autumn–Winter, 1965): 95–108.
- Olmstead, Andrea. Conversations with Roger Sessions. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1987. ISBN 1-55553-010-9.
- Olmstead, Andrea. The Correspondence of Roger Sessions. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1992. ISBN 1-55553-122-9.
- Olmstead, Andrea. Roger Sessions: A Biography. New York: Routledge, 2008. ISBN 978-0-415-97713-5 (hardback) ISBN 978-0-415-97714-2 (pbk.) ISBN 978-0-203-93147-9 (ebook)
- Olmstead, Andrea. "Sessions, Roger (Huntington)". The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. London: Macmillan Publishers, 2001.
- Prausnitz, Frederik. Roger Sessions: How a "Difficult" Composer Got That Way. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. ISBN 0-19-510892-2
- The Roger Sessions Society
- Art of the States: Roger Sessions
- biographer/Andrea Olmstead contains a discography
- The Seymour Shifrin Papers at Irving S. Gilmore Music Library, Yale University Shifrin's papers include two MSS by Roger Sessions
- Roger Sessions at Library of Congress Authorities, with 161 catalog records