Remembering Legendary Pianist Russell Sherman

With profound sadness, New England Conservatory mourns the passing of Russell Sherman, who died peacefully in his home at noon on September 30, 2023.

A legendary artist, teacher, and humanitarian, Russell Sherman leaves an irreplaceable void. The entire NEC community extends warm thoughts and condolences to Wha Kyung Byun, and to the many students whose lives and music he deepened. 

Mr. Sherman’s transcendent artistry and distinguished legacy were evoked by Bruce Brubaker in 2015, as he presented Mr. Sherman for an honorary degree from NEC:

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. And then among Americans, Russell Sherman is the first to record all of Beethoven's piano sonatas and piano concertos. 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.

A burial service will be held at noon on Thursday, October 5, at Mount Auburn Cemetery (580 Mt. Auburn St., Cambridge, MA 02138). All are welcome to attend. 

Russell Sherman


Russell Sherman, Pianist and Educator, Passes Away at 93 on September 30, 2023

Legendary artist and teacher Russell Sherman passed away at age 93 on September 30, 2023 at his home in Lexington, MA. Sherman was born on March 25, 1930 and educated in New York, beginning piano studies at age six. By eleven, Sherman was studying with Eduard Steuermann, a pupil and friend of Ferruccio Busoni and Arnold Schoenberg. Sherman graduated from Columbia University at age nineteen in 1949 with a degree in the humanities, and later studied composition with Erich Itor Kahn.

He joined the faculty of the New England Conservatory in 1967 as the Chair of the Piano Department at the invitation of then-President Gunther Schuller after teaching at Pomona College and the University of Arizona. He quickly found a musical home at NEC, educating countless pianists and musical artists. Schuller noted in a Boston Globe interview that Sherman “is the upholder of the highest standards of artistic integrity, and what it means to be and remain a true, genuine artist, despite the constant temptations of the musical marketplace. He is an eternal thinker and learner, and he is always opening his mind to new things.”

While teaching at NEC, he was a Visiting Professor at Harvard University and Juilliard, and upon his retirement, he remained a Distinguished Artist-in-Residence at New England Conservatory, where he also received an Honorary Doctor of Music degree in 2015.

An eloquent communicator both on and off the concert stage and one of Boston’s musical treasures, Russell Sherman garnered accolades from critics and audiences alike for his grace, imagination, and poetry. As the author of a highly acclaimed 1997 book Piano Pieces (a rhapsodic compilation of vignettes and personal anecdotes from Sherman’s life experiences as a pianist and teacher), Sherman has been praised as both an ingenious virtuoso and an insightful master. The New York Times praised his “incomparable technique, an enormous palette of colors and a bold imagination,” while The Boston Globe heralded his legacy by noting, “some pianists show us how to play, or, more rarely, how to listen. Russell Sherman’s recitals do more — they model a way of living in the presence of art.”

Throughout his career, Sherman performed with such major orchestras as the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic, Orchestra of St. Luke’s, Philadelphia Orchestra, and the San Francisco Symphony. In recital, Russell Sherman appeared on Carnegie Hall’s Keyboard Virtuoso Series, California’s Ambassador Foundation Series, the Distinguished Artists Series at New York’s Tisch Center for the Arts at the 92nd Street Y, and the Bank of Boston Celebrity Series, to name a few. 

Sherman, a prolific recording artist, holds the distinction of being the first American pianist to record all of Beethoven’s sonatas and concertos. His repertoire also includes complete works such as Mozart's sonatas, Bach's English Suites, Chopin's Mazurkas, and Schoenberg's piano compositions. Notably, Russell received critical acclaim for his rendition of Liszt's Transcendental Etudes.

Russell Sherman is survived by his family, wife and pianist Wha Kyung Byun, sons Edward and Mark from his earlier marriage, and the many students who carry his legacy.

The New England Conservatory will plan a celebration of life in the next year.