The music of the American composer Frederic Rzewski, who died at the age of 83 from a heart attack, was based on his flair for improvisation as a pianist and on a strong political commitment from the left. Invention and commitment found expression in his best-known work, the one-hour piano variation series on The People United Will Never Be Defeated! (1976).
The song – in Spanish, El Pueblo Unido Jamás Será Vencido! – was a setting to music of a Chilean song by composer Sergio Ortega and performed by the folk group Quilapayún in June 1973, in support of the socialist government of Salvador Allende. Three months later, the forces led by General Augusto Pinochet overthrew that government and El Pueblo became an anthem of the resistance.
In Rzewski’s hands, his melody became the basis of 36 variations, reworking it brilliantly across a range of musical styles, from the idioms of 19th and early 20th century romantic piano music to jazz and even advanced serialism. There is an option to add an improvised section; when I heard the composer perform the work in London in 1982, he did so with impressive furious abandon, adding at least 15 more minutes to the performance.
By this time Rzewski had already taken his place in the line of the great composer-pianists who in the previous century had included Liszt and Alkan. The People United’s first performer, Ursula Oppens, and later Rzewski himself, Marc-André Hamelin and other virtuoso pianists recorded the work; the most recent to do so is Igor Levit (2015).
An earlier and very different outlet of Rzewski’s improvisational skills was the live electronics group Musica Elettronica Viva, which Rzewski founded with fellow Americans in Rome in 1966. His own compositions quickly replaced this approach with a brand of grainy and urgent musical minimalism. As a pianist he now performed occasionally in New York with Steve Reich and Philip Glass; From the late 1960s, Rzewski’s works developed a complementary but idiosyncratic style that often also has political implications.
The Sheep of Panurge (1968) uses an additive melodic process which ingeniously incorporates the errors of the interpreters. The title of the work derives from an episode of sheep succeeding one another from a boat to the sea in Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel: “If you get lost, stay lost”, says the score.
Come together (1971) and Attica (1972) are prompted by numerous angry repetitions by a solo speaker of texts concerning a prisoner revolt in Attica, New York, which left more than 40 dead. His most performed line-up after The People United is Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues, from his North American Piano Ballads (1979), another relentlessly driving piece with socialist overtones.
When I first met Rzewski, it was no surprise that he had a strong friendship with Cornelius Cardew, another active pianist-composer at the time whose radical politics had driven him, in the early 1970s, to abandon avant-garde music in the cause of an increasingly hard-line Marxist-Leninist point of view. In 1976, at the East End squat in London where Cardew lived, Rzewski told me a lot about his upbringing and early career, revealing that his political enthusiasm had been acquired long before Cardew’s was with his childhood piano teacher, Charles Mackey. .
In conversation Rzewski might come across as an unreconstructed Marxist, but in published interviews he often downplayed his politics. “i have never been to the communist party, “he said.” I’m a musician, I only have opinions. I basically try to write good music. But when things are going in the world, that’s where your ideas come from. .
Born in Westfield, Massachusetts, Frederic was the son of Emma (née Buynicki) and Anthony Rzewski, both pharmacists of Polish origin. After earning a music degree (1958) from Harvard University, he earned a master’s degree from Princeton (1960). Teachers at the former included Walter Piston, and at the latter Roger Sessions.
Attracted by the European avant-garde, Rzewski went to Florence to study with the composer Luigi Dallapiccola; he later gave the first performances of the very demanding Klavierstück X by Karlheinz Stockhausen and made a first recording of this work. Returning to the United States, he maintained a close association with Christian Wolff, another left-sympathetic composer, performing in a number of his own compositions, and became a prominent member of the center’s burgeoning artistic community. – New York City.
However, from 1977 Rzewski was mainly based in Brussels, the Belgian composer Henri Pousseur having helped him secure a teaching post at the Royal Conservatory of Liège. In addition to the piano music which he continued to play and perform until his later years, his large production includes Antigone-Legend, a setting for soprano and piano from a text by Bertolt Brecht (1982); two scenic works, Les Perses (1985) and Le Triomphe de la mort (1988); and an unusually modest Piano Concerto, premiered at the 2013 BBC Proms with Rzewski himself as a soloist. The Road, an extensive cycle of piano pieces, described in the score as “64 miles” of music (1995-2003), takes over nine hours to play.
Rzewski’s attitude to property issues led him to make several of his scores available free online through the Werner Icking musical collection. The composer’s captivating book, Nonsequiturs, was published in 2007.
In 1963 Rzewski married Nicole Abbeloos and they had four children. Although they eventually separated, they did not divorce and he had two children with his next partner, Françoise Walot.