Happy 66th Birthday, Frederic Rzewski!

April 13, 2004

(A fabulous composer with a funny-looking name.)

Frederic Rzewski, my favorite living composer and arguably the most significant composer for the piano in the last 50 years, turns 66 today.

I don’t have time for a proper paean to Mr. Rzewski in these wee morning hours, so let me just crib from the gushing review that Harold Schonberg, the famous New York Times music critic who had noticeable antipathy to most contemporary music, wrote on Dec. 15, 1978 in response to the Carnegie Hall premiere of Rzewski’s most famous work, his monumental set of piano variations “The People United Will Never Be Defeated”:

There have been complaints that there is no such thing as good contemporary piano music. And, indeed, it is hard to think of works after Prokofiev and Poulenc that have entered the repertory. Goodness knows that there is a great deal of piano music composed these days, and the post-Webern style was brought to a head by the Second Piano Sonata of Pierre Boulez. But that can scarcely be regarded as a repertory piece. Most of the material for the piano written these days is academic stuff — contemporary or conservative as the case may be.

All of which is preface to the fact that Ursula Oppens played Frederic Rzewski’s “The People United Will Never Be Defeated last night in Carnegie Recital Hall…

It is a huge piece, 50 minutes long, and it is politically motivated. Mr. Rzewski based his 36 variations on a Chilean song representative of the democratic movement in that country [i.e., the one then being crushed by Pinochet]. By extension, the work in the composer’s own words, represents “the universal aspirations of people everywhere to freedom and independence. It seems, therefore, suited for the celebration of our own ongoing revolutionary ideals in the United States.”

“The People…” is an extraordinary work. Mr. Rzewski, himself a skillful pianist and prominent figure in the international avant-garde, knows the piano literature very well indeed, and this big set of variations is a compendium of the history of Western piano music—from Bach through Beethoven of the “Diabelli” Variations, to the Brahms of the “Paganini” Variations, through even Rachmaninoff, and so to Boulez.

Through most of the work the original theme is clearly defined, though the ingenious Mr. Rzewski puts it through paces that take it far from the simple harmonies of the Chilean tune. Often the theme is completely fragmented, with elements displaced all over the keyboard. But the work is never far from home base, and just when it appears that the composer is off into a completely contemporary style of writing, he brings the theme back, more or less in its pristine form, for relief. “The People…” gives the impression of having been composed at white heat, with passion and belief. It ends up an electrifying work, one of the most significant piano pieces of the generation.

(*In case you’re wondering, the name is of Polish origin so “Rz” is pronounced “Zh” and “w” is pronounced as “v”, and thus it’s pronounced ZHEV-skee, much simpler than it looks.)

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