The music of the American composer Frederic Rzewski, who has died aged 83 after a heart attack, drew on his flair for improvisation as a pianist and strong leftwing political engagement. Invention and commitment found expression together in his best-known work, the hour-long set of piano variations on The People United Will Never Be Defeated! (1976).
The song – in Spanish, ¡El Pueblo Unido Jamás Será Vencido! – was a setting of a Chilean chant by the composer Sergio Ortega and taken up by the folk group Quilapayún in June 1973, in support of Salvador Allende’s socialist government. Three months later forces led by General Augusto Pinochet overthrew that government, and El Pueblo became an anthem of resistance.
In Rzewski’s hands, its tune became the basis of 36 variations, brilliantly reworking it into a whole gamut of musical styles, from the idioms of Romantic piano music of the 19th and early 20th centuries to jazz and even advanced serialism. There is an option to add an improvised section; when I heard the composer play the work in London in 1982, he did so with impressively furious abandon, adding at least a further 15 minutes to the performance.
By that time, Rzewski had already taken his place firmly in the line of great composer-pianists that in the previous century had included Liszt and Alkan. The first performer of The People United, Ursula Oppens, and later Rzewski himself, Marc-André Hamelin and other virtuoso pianists have recorded the work; the most recent to do so is Igor Levit (2015).
An earlier and very different outlet for Rzewski’s improvisational skills was the live electronics group Musica Elettronica Viva, which Rzewski started with fellow Americans in Rome in 1966. His own compositions swiftly exchanged this approach for a gritty, urgent brand of musical minimalism. As a pianist, he was by now occasionally performing in New York with Steve Reich and Philip Glass; starting in the late 1960s, Rzewski’s works developed a complementary but idiosyncratic style that often had political implications as well.
Les Moutons de Panurge (1968) uses an additive melodic process that ingeniously incorporates the performers’ mistakes. The work’s title derives from an episode of sheep following each other out of a boat into the sea in Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel: “If you get lost, stay lost”, the score instructs.
Coming Together (1971) and Attica (1972) are driven by extensive, angry repetitions by a solo speaker of texts concerning a prisoners’ revolt in Attica, New York state, that resulted in more than 40 deaths. His most frequently performed composition after The People United is Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues, from his North American Ballads for piano (1979), another relentlessly motoric piece with socialist undertones.
I basically try to write good music. But when things are happening in the world, that’s where your ideas come from.
At the time I first met Rzewski, it came as no surprise that he had a firm friendship with Cornelius Cardew, another composer-pianist active at this period whose radical politics had, by the early 70s, driven him to abandon avant-garde music in the cause of an increasingly hardcore Marxist-Leninist standpoint. In 1976, at the squat in the East End of London in which Cardew was living, Rzewski told me much about his education and early career, revealing that his political enthusiasms had, long before Cardew’s, been acquired from his childhood piano teacher, Charles Mackey.
In conversation, Rzewski could come across as an unreconstructed Marxist, but in published interviews he often played down his politics. “I have never been in the Communist party,” he said. “I am a musician, I only have opinions. I basically try to write good music. But when things are happening in the world, that’s where your ideas come from.”
Born in Westfield, Massachusetts, Frederic was the son of Emma (nee Buynicki) and Anthony Rzewski, both pharmacists of Polish descent. After gaining a music degree (1958) at Harvard University, he took a master’s at Princeton (1960). Teachers at the former included Walter Piston, and at the latter Roger Sessions.
Drawn to the European avant-garde, Rzewski went to Florence to study with the composer Luigi Dallapiccola; later, he gave the first performances of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s highly demanding Klavierstück X and made an early recording of this work. Back in the US, he continued a close association with Christian Wolff, another composer with leftwing sympathies, performing in a number of Wolff’s own compositions, and became a leading member of New York’s burgeoning downtown artistic community.
However, from 1977 Rzewski was based mainly in Brussels, the Belgian composer Henri Pousseur having assisted him in gaining a teaching position at the Royal Conservatory in Liège. In addition to the piano music that he continued to play and perform until his final years, his large output includes Antigone-Legend, a setting for soprano and piano of a text by Bertolt Brecht (1982); two stage works, The Persians (1985) and The Triumph of Death (1988); and an uncharacteristically unassuming Piano Concerto, premiered at the 2013 BBC Proms with Rzewski himself as soloist. The Road, a vast cycle of piano pieces, described in the score as “64 miles” of music (1995-2003), takes more than nine hours to perform.
Rzewski’s attitude to matters of ownership led him to make many of his scores freely available online via the Werner Icking Music Collection. The composer’s engaging book, Nonsequiturs, was published in 2007.
In 1963 Rzewski married Nicole Abbeloos, and they had four children. Though they eventually separated they did not divorce, and he had two children with his subsequent partner, Françoise Walot.
• Frederic Anthony Rzewski, composer and pianist, born 13 April 1938; died 26 June 2021
Source: Thanks msn.com