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 descendant of Samuel Huntington, a signatory 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. With the exception, mostly, of his incidental music to the play The Black Maskers, composed in part in Cleveland in 1923, his first major compositions came while he was traveling Europe with his first 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.
For a list of his notable students, See: List of music students by teacher: R to S#Roger Sessions. He was a friend of both Arnold Schoenberg and Thomas Mann.
In 1968 Sessions was awarded the Edward MacDowell Medal for outstanding contribution to the arts by the MacDowell Colony. 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 his Concerto for Orchestra, first performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra on October 23, 1981.
Sessions married Barbara Foster in June 1920. They divorced in September 1936. He married Sarah Elizabeth Franck in November 1936. They had two children, John Porter (1938–2014) and Elizabeth Phelps (born 1940). John Sessions became a professional cellist. Roger Sessions 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—though not consistently employing Viennese twelve-tone technique. Only the first movement and the trio of the scherzo of the Violin Sonata, for example, employ a twelve-tone row strictly, the rest employing a scalar-constructed dissonant style. Sessions's usual method was to use a row to control the full chromaticism and motivic-intervallic cohesion that already marks his music from before 1953. He treats his rows with great freedom, however, typically using pairs of unordered complementary hexachords to provide “harmonic” aspects without determining note-by-note melodic succession, or conversely using the row to supply melodic thematic material while freely composing the subsidiary parts.
- 3 Chorale Preludes for Organ (1924–26)
- Symphony No. 1 (1927)
- The Black Maskers Orchestral Suite (1928)
- Piano Sonata No. 1 (1930)
- Violin Concerto (1935)
- String Quartet No. 1 (1936)
- From My Diary (Pages from a Diary) (1940)
- Duo for Violin and Piano (1942)
- 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)
- Mass, for unison chorus and organ (1956)
- 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, Cello and Orchestra (1970–1971)
- When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d (1971)
- Three Choruses on Biblical Texts (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.
- Prausnitz 2002, 70–72, 296–98/
- "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter S" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved April 20, 2011.
- Olmstead 2001.
- Andrea Olmstead (August 6, 2012). Roger Sessions: A Biography. Routledge. pp. 304–305. ISBN 978-1-135-86892-5.
- "Special Awards and Citations". The Pulitzer Prizes. Retrieved December 3, 2013.
- "Music". The Pulitzer Prizes. Retrieved December 3, 2013.
- Olmstead 2008, 218, 291.
- Morgan 1991, 294–95.
- Prausnitz 2002, 323.
- Davis 1982, 89
- Laufer 1965, 95.
- Henahan 1982.
- Anon. 1977, 49.
- Olmstead 1980, 79.
- Anon. "News Section". Tempo, new series, no. 121 (June 1977): 47–50. ISSN 0040-2982 JSTOR 944497 (subscription required)
- 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.
- Henahan, Donal. "Julliard [sic] Gives Sessions 'Montezuma'" New York Times (February 21, 1982) (accessed November 30, 2011).
- 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.
- Morgan, Robert P. Twentieth-Century Music. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1991.
- Olmstead, Andrea. "Roger Sessions's 9th Symphony". Tempo, new series, nos. 133/134 (September 1980): 79–81. ISSN 0040-2982. JSTOR 945459 (subscription required).
- 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
- Roger Sessions at the Encyclopædia Britannica
- Roger Sessions' page at Theodore Presser Company
- The Roger Sessions Society
- biographer/Andrea Olmstead contains a discography
- Andrea Olmstead papers, 1970–2013 Music Division, The New York Public Library. Olmstead's papers include correspondence with Sessions, transcripts of interviews with Sessions, and other records of Olmstead's Sessions research.
- 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