This season at New England Conservatory, 30+ concerts demonstrate just how vital music is to human struggle, and what revolution in artistic expression sounds like. Programs range from roots music to Beethoven, fight songs to anti-war anthems. Join our year-long exploration of how music speaks truth to power!

Piano Revolution:
"Undone by Sound"

Great artists give free concerts at New England Conservatory—simply because they teach here.

Schoenberg Drei Klavierstuecke, Op. 11
Debussy Estampes
Scriabin Sonata No. 4 in F-sharp Major, Op. 30
Chopin 24 Preludes Op. 28

NEC’s Distinguished Artist in Residence Russell Sherman has assembled a fascinating program of piano miniatures that demonstrates the revolutionary possibilities of undoing the restraints of convention. Despite being compact, the miniature offered composers in different eras and countries an iconoclastic opportunity to escape the constraints of accepted (larger) forms, to experiment, to let structure be dictated by sound, to compress a world of feeling or color into a poetically concise package.

Chronologically, the earliest of the miniatures on this program is, of course, the Chopin Preludes, Op. 28, written in 1837-38. So familiar to listeners today, we tend to forget that such small character pieces (Preludes to what?) were quite a radical departure from the longer, multi-movement sonatas that were the norm. As commentator and pianist David Dubal has remarked, “…writing these aphoristic Preludes was revolutionary. All except two contain a single musical idea, each boiled down to its essence. Never had brevity been so brief… No matter how tiny, the Preludes loom large musically. Each one is a masterpiece of compressed emotion blended with an unequaled pianistic ingenuity and originality.”

The works on the first half of the program date from the early 1900s, all written within a few years of each other by a Viennese, a Frenchman and a Russian. Again, the miniature presents a revolutionary new path.

For Arnold Schoenberg, the Three Pieces Op. 11 (1909) were the definitive moment when he abandoned tonal harmony. The composer himself was convinced that Op. 11 was an “evolutionary” piece that represented the logical outcome of the loosening and extension of tonality that marked music of the period. Music historians, however, have emphasized the set’s radical departure from what came before. For example, Eric Salzman wrote: "For the first time, every sound, every interval, every event has a unique and independent value, free of the hierarchies of tonal discourse--and equally free of the meanings formerly invested in them. Thematic development remains, but totally abstracted from its old contexts." At the same time, the music contains a tightly compressed cauldron of emotion—one of the earliest examples of expressionism—no doubt influenced by Schoenberg’s traumatic personal life at the time (his first wife had left him for another man). Critic Charles Rosen has asserted, “it’s the most expressive music ever written.”

Debussy’s Estampes (Engravings or Prints) from 1903 are a set of three musical picture postcards in which sonority and tone color become paramount creative concerns. Each of the three whisk the listen to a special landscape—the first, Pagodes, to Indonesia and the sound of the gamelan; the second, La soirée dans Grenade, to Spain and the rhythms of the Habanera; and the third, Jardin sous la pluie, to a park in the rain with the echo of children’s songs permeating the damp atmosphere. Harmony is used for expressive and pictorial effect and this contributes to the emancipation of tonality.

Scriabin’s Sonata No. 4 (1903) only contains two movements, thematically linked, that last about eight minutes in total. The music, which was accompanied by a poem describing a passionate being (masculine) in pursuit of a gleaming star (feminine), is mystical, erotically charged, seething. Expression explosively compacted.

Read Russell Sherman's notes on the Chopin Preludes.

Date: May 10, 2014 - 8:00:PM
Price: Free
Location: NEC’s Jordan Hall

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