Last Thursday, Chapin Hall hosted pianist Jeffrey Swann in an event titled “1914: The World on the Brink of Abyss.” Swann regaled the audience, numbering about 60 and ranging from children to senior citizens, with four distinct pieces composed by Leoš Janáček, Sergei Prokofiev, Charles Ives and Alexander Scriabin. The brightly lit and intimidating but as of yet unoccupied stage fuelled the audience’s anticipation for the night of musical delight to come.
Swann walked out on to the stage a couple of minutes past 8 p.m. Dressed in a dignified traditional black attire, Swann gave a bow before addressing and welcoming the crowd. Instead of immediately sitting down at the piano, he made the wise choice to describe to the audience a little bit of the historical context of his performance first, saying “the Abyss” refers to the First World War, “the most catastrophic event in European history,” in Swann’s words. “Europeans at the time, who had “no sense that this world of gentleman’s behavior would soon be uprooted,” were sure to be in for a shock when they found out that the monstrous conflict would mean a generation’s decimation.” Swann professed the idea that the art in the few years immediately before the war indicated through a broad tone of anticipation the horror of World War I. “Artists seemed to have some kind of sense that something really terrible was going to happen,” Swann said. He gave an example in painting, too, citing Edvard Munch’s iconic turn-of-the-century Scream and the “violent art” of expressionism in general. For Swann, “the four pieces all represent different ways that the composers were expressing this fear: the moment before the abyss opened up.”
Having declaimed thus, Swann promptly sat down to give a rendition of Janáček’s “In the Mist.” The piece was emotional and turbulent, undulating dramatically in sound. Swann’s next choice was Prokofiev’s “Sarcasms,” which he said expressed the young composer’s desire to shock. The piece “expresses entropy,” he said. “It leads to something very like nothing – which is very frightening, I think, very dark.” Indeed, “Sarcasms” began with great force and energy and ended with rather a dismal lack thereof. To round out his hour or so of piano music, Swann chose Scriabin’s sonata “Black Mass,” which he said expressed a “very personal brand of … ecstatic mysticism” from the devout Russian composer, as well as a piece by the American composer Ives entitled “Concord, Mass. 1840-1860.” Colin Williams ’18 was among the students in the audience. Explaining his motivation to attend as a musician himself, Williams said he “was kind of interested to see if the music was something I was familiar with” – hence his presence at the recital.
Williams’s favorite piece was the first by Janacek. “It seemed to capture the mood of what I thought of the time period extremely well,” said Williams. He especially enjoyed Swann’s eloquent commentaries before each piece. Despite its centering on the theme of the deadliest war in the history of the world, experiencing “1914: The World on the Brink of the Abyss” at the College a century later was a lovely way to spend an hour on a Thursday evening. Allowing the musical stylings of Jeffrey Swann to pour out and over oneself with the lavish soaring ceilings of Chapin Hall overhead was enough to draw anyone out of his or her daily life and into a tragic, glorious moment in musical history.