2015 Commencement Address: Russell Sherman

Pianist and NEC Distinguished Artist-in-Residence Russell Sherman speaks to the graduating Class of 2015.

At New England Conservatory's 144th Commencement ceremony on May 17, 2015, NEC piano chair Bruce Brubaker introduced speaker Russell Sherman with these remarks:

For Russell Sherman, the piano is an instrument of wonder. Through this device, through this big black box, we hear him, we hear Russell Sherman sing, or declaim, cry or exalt—telling us a wordless story of love, or pain, or of joy.

Russell Sherman's passion for baseball marks him as an American—fifth game of the 1956 World Series, please discuss! And then among Americans, Russell Sherman is the first, to record all of Beethoven's piano sonatas and piano concertos. Mr. Sherman plays with the Chicago Symphony or the New York Philharmonic. He plays music by Franz Liszt, and Schubert, Chopin, and Haydn—and also by Schoenberg, and Ralph Shapey, and Gunther Schuller. At the end of the manuscript of Shapey's Sonata Profundo, first played by Mr. Sherman, there's an evocative inscription: "Go, Buddy, Go, in a Voice of Thunder!"

Near the end of the 19th century, the great musician Ferruccio Busoni taught at NEC, a few years later he played the piano on this [Jordan Hall] stage. At times, I have felt the spirit of Busoni might be hovering over Russell. I recall an extraordinary occasion when Liszt's Funerailles was played by Mr. Sherman. In the central section, with left-hand octaves, he produced a tremendous soul-chilling roar from the bass register of the piano. And in that moment, I understood what Busoni wrote, about the pedal of the piano. He said: "An inimitable device, a photograph of the sky, a ray of moonlight—the pedal." For me suddenly that night, and for the audience, Busoni—or Liszt himself—was in the room.

Though I didn't think of it then, Russell's music making rather directly connects to Busoni, via Edward Steuermann, who was Russell's teacher and who was Busoni's student. And then, for that matter, Busoni studied with Carl Reinecke, who studied with Liszt.

We're not finished though—because Liszt studied with Carl Czerny, who studied with Beethoven. And after Russell Sherman's 85th-birthday, all-Beethoven concert on this stage in March this year, America's Beethoven scholar Lewis Lockwood said: "You brought him down. Beethoven was on the stage."

Working with many outstanding students in his teaching here at NEC, since 1967, Russell Sherman is a large part of what has made the NEC piano department a world center of piano study today.

In his book of reflections Piano Pieces, published in 1996, Russell Sherman writes: "The work of art, though bound by its genetic markings and indelible fingerprints, is boundless in the infinite elaborations of its destiny …"

Over decades, Russell Sherman has put his indelible fingerprint on the musical life of Boston, the United States, the world. The destiny of that musical life has been elaborated and enriched by him. We thank him, I thank him.

The Primacy and Refinement of the Ear

A warm welcome to the families and guests of our graduating class. You may be very proud of these students (who by nature, are eternal students of music eternal) and who have demonstrated their skills and stamina by crossing the bridge which leads to the precarious yet intoxicating world of music, a world where fairy tales, precision, and refinement mingle and meet. It is a life-long quest, never ending.

When I first came to New England Conservatory, Gunther Schuller had been appointed President but a few months before. If the purpose of this address is to inspire our students, both new and graduating, then the life and career of Mr. Schuller would offer a singular example. When he first asked me to serve as chairman of the piano department in 1967, the possibility of working with highly talented students, whether directly or indirectly, became a daily challenge. To take on this responsibility in a useful and constructive way demanded a devotion to music on many different levels. If the students were to develop and flourish, then the faculty must live up to these same high standards.

We all begin from the crucible of our own personal experiences. Some of us are more fortunate than others by the simple luck of the draw. Quite miraculously I drew a very high number. For the catastrophe of World War II impelled the flight of many refugees from Europe, and one of these, by a fluke of circumstances, became my major teacher, Edward Steuermann. Because of the tragic upheaval of the war, he was forced to leave Vienna and to make a new home in New York City. A pupil of both Busoni and Schoenberg, his extraordinary pedigree and accomplishment allowed him to assemble a class of gifted students. By a curious set of circumstances, I happened to land in that class at the age of eleven, and then continued working with him for some fifteen years. This was a blessing that only the gods of random fortune could make happen. By coincidence, one of my classmates at that time was the attractive and talented Marjorie Black from Fargo, North Dakota, who later was to become Mrs. Gunther Schuller.

Then what did I learn from Mr. Steuermann that provided both a guide to the language of music making, and as well the substance of this address? Simply this: that the one indispensable to making music and the holy grail of our existence was the primacy and refinement of the ear. For it is through our ears and their channel to the heart that we can identify and evaluate the smallest, the most refined distinctions of sound—sound that is endlessly varied and colorful, and which is the very root and wine of our existence, of our addiction.

It was the philosopher Nietzsche who said that life without music is not worth living, and who also characterized the ear as the "organ of fear." For if we are condemned to hear the rumble of ghosts and devils, the tidal waves of impending death and doom, the premonitions of war and destruction, and all the bleak residue of our soiled hearts—then how is it possible to resist these overwhelming forces? Then how do we hold our ground in the face of this implacable foe, this army of black knights?

By the grace of God, we have one primal therapy to confront this primal enemy. For we can make music in order to appease our inner devils and we can make music to appease our scarred ears and egos. We make music to create a world of dreams and fantasies, to create a world of life eternal, a world without tormented souls, a world without hollow defenses providing false illusions of immortality. Instead, we deceive ourselves with the serenades of life and love, serenades made vivid and tangible by the beauty of sound—sound which echoes from the first blades of grass to the dazzling portraits of wreaths woven by masters of song and harmony. We surrender our lives to these masters so that we may indulge in their gardens of beauty.

And thus, eternal life to all who make music and to all who listen to music, becoming one loop in this perpetual wreath created by the angels of beauty and heavenly sounds. Thus, to the class coming and to the class leaving: we pray for your success, but are confident that you have been baptized by this wreath of sounds and colors which promises a life beyond ours, a world that is limitless and flawless. And to arrive at this state, I would offer the wisdom of Joseph Campbell, a professor at Sarah Lawrence College whose life work was to collect and compile the various mythologies of all civilizations, both primitive and advanced. His parting advice to his students was summed up in three words: “Follow your bliss.” Thus, do that with your lives which brings you the greatest satisfaction and fulfillment. “Follow your bliss.” This is your job and your deliverance. Nevertheless, despite this appeal to find and to celebrate your soul and its destiny, one must be constantly reminded that the highest of human qualities are charity and compassion.