American composer

Radical American composer Frederic Rzewski dead at 83 – People’s World

Frederic Rzewski. Courtesy of Akamu.

Frederic Rzewski (ZHEF-skee), American composer and pianist considered one of the most important serious musical figures of our time, died of an apparent heart attack in Montiano, Italy on June 26 at the age of 83.

His main compositions often incorporated social and political themes. They include the minimalist Come together, based on Letters from Attica State Prison by Samuel Melville and the One-Hour Piano Variations The united people will never be defeated!which is recognized worldwide as a modern classic.

Probably the most remembered single work of Rzewski, The united people will never be defeated! (1975) is a set of 36 variations on the Chilean song “Jam ¡El pueblo unidoabe surea sold !by Sergio Ortega and the Chilean singing group Quilapayún.

It received its world premiere on February 7, 1976, performed by Ursula Oppens as part of the Bi-Centennial Piano Series at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Concert Hall. Rzewski dedicated the composition to Oppens, who commissioned and recorded it in 1979; the recording was named “Record of the Year” that year by World recordand received a Grammy nomination.

The song on which the variations are based is one of many that emerged from the popular unit coalition in Chile between 1969 and 1973, before the overthrow of Salvador Allende’s government. Rzewski composed the variations in September and October 1975, in tribute to the struggle of the Chilean people against the newly imposed repressive regime of Augusto Pinochet. The work contains allusions to other left-wing struggles of the same period and immediately prior to it, such as quotations from the traditional Italian socialist song “Bandiera Rossa(red flag) and Bertolt Brecht-Hanns Eisler’s “solidarity song”.

The variations are short and build up to peaks of considerable strength. The 36 variations, following the 36 bars of the melody, are in six groups of six. The pianist, in addition to needing a virtuoso technique, must whistle, slam the lid of the piano and capture the vibrations of a strong attack such as harmonics: all these techniques are “extended” in the piano writing of the Twentieth century. Much of the work uses the language of 19th century Romanticism, but blends this language with contemporary tonality, modal writing, and even serial techniques.

As in the Goldberg Variations by Johann Sebastian Bach, the final variation is a direct reaffirmation of the original theme, intended to be heard with heightened meaning after the long journey through the variations.

A performance by Stephen Drury on January 20, 2017, as part of resistance to the new Trump regime, can be seen and heard here.

Born April 13, 1938 in Westfield, Mass., Rzewski began playing the piano at age 5. His parents were of Polish descent and he was raised Catholic. He attended Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., Harvard and Princeton. Randall Thompson, Roger Sessions, Walter Piston and Milton Babbitt were among his teachers. In 1960 he traveled to Italy, a trip that would be formative in his future musical development. As well as studying with Luigi Dallapiccola in Florence on a Fulbright scholarship, he began a career performing new piano music, often with an element of improvisation, and immersed himself in the electronic music scene. .

In 1977 Rzewski became professor of composition at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Liège, Belgium, with occasional short teaching stints at several other universities in the United States and abroad.

Many of Rzewski’s other works were also inspired by social and historical themes with a deep political awareness. His North American ballads (I. dreadful memories; II. Which side are you on?; III. Along the river; IV. Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues) from 1978 to 1979 are frequently performed and recorded; Night crossing with fisherman; Fougues; The price of oil; the Antigone-Legend, which presents principled opposition to state policy, and which was created the night the United States bombed Libya in April 1986; and Mayn Yingelea set of piano variations on a famous Yiddish song about a father who hardly ever spends time with his young son because he works so late every night at the factory.

Famous musical scholar, critic and wit Nicolas Slonimsky said of him in Biographical Dictionary of Baker Musicians (1993), “He is furthermore a granitically irresistible piano technician, capable of depositing huge boulders of sonic material on the keyboard without actually destroying the instrument.”

A brief biography and a full list of the composer’s works and recordings are available here.


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