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ClassicsOnline Home » RZEWSKI: The People United will never be Defeated
The People United Will Never Be Defeated! by the left-wing composer and pianist Frederic Rzewski is a landmark in American piano literature. The work comprises 36 variations on a protest song of the same name by the Chilean composer Sergio Ortega. Almost every bar is laden with pianistic virtuosity, yet the listener is carried through some very complex music in a wholly natural way. The variations themselves all symbolize the different phases and aspects of a struggle: from angry, highly-energized modernism, via melancholic references to blues, calculated dense polyphony and nostalgic folk-music to written-out free jazz passages. Rzewski’s popular Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues, written in 1979 as part of the set North American Ballads, forms a fitting counterpart.more....
By J Scott Morrison (Middlebury VT, USA)
By Mark Stryker
By David Denton
Frederic Rzewski (b.1938)
The People United Will Never Be Defeated! • Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues
If there has been a general opinion that musical modernism of the twentieth century has led a priori to inaccessibility of its compositions for a wide audience, then it is the composer and pianist Frederic Rzewski who has provided one of the strongest testimonies against this belief. A landmark in American piano literature, and perhaps one of the most important variation sets ever written, The People United Will Never Be Defeated! has a strong programmatic thread which is able to carry the listener through some very complex music in a natural way.
The communicative power of music had hardly any secrets to the composer, after he made a study of Richard Wagner’s works and their rôle for propaganda in the Second World War. Studying at Harvard and Princeton with leading modernists such as Milton Babbitt and Roger Sessions, and later with Luigi Dallapiccola in Italy, Rzewski mastered all the newest compositional techniques of his time. As a successful pianist playing works both from the classical masters, as well as giving premières of those by fellow composers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen and Christian Wolff, Rzewski had a hands-on, practical experience as a stage musician. On top of that, as a founding member of the Musica Elettronica Viva group, he combined live electronics and avant-garde improvisation in theatres.
Although the composer had written several successful works, it was not until 1975 that all these influences fused together in a work of nineteenthcentury grandeur, and twentieth-century compositional techniques. The People United Will Never Be Defeated! was written in only two months on a commission from American pianist Ursula Oppens, after Rzewski had met Chilean composer Sergio Ortega. Three months before Salvador Allende’s death, Ortega heard a street-singer shout the words El Pueblo Unido Jamás Será Vencido!, which made him immediately think of a tune to accompany these words. A day later the melody was played by the pop group Quilapayun. Ever since, the tune has become an impassioned international sounding symbol against any form of dictatorship. It was no surprise that Ortega and the politically left-wing Rzewski impressed and inspired each other greatly when they met in Italy a few years later, resulting in Rzewski’s own vision of this emblematic song.
One of the first striking elements of the variation work is its length; performing the composition seems to be a marathon both for the listener and for the performer. The extensive duration of its 36 variations is a way of symbolizing the human struggle for change. Any struggle always seems long; many hurdles have to be surpassed in order to reach the final goal. In fact, above many variations, the composer has written telling indications such as “struggling”, “with foreboding”, “with determination”, and “like a cry”. Despite the seemingly simple and naïve character of the minor-key main theme stated at the start of the composition, it bears a melancholic grandeur when placed in the context of its deeper cultural and far-reaching symbolic meaning. Almost every bar of the composition is laden with pianistic virtuosity, reinforcing the idea of hard work foregoing any victory. Still, an aura of melancholy never seems to pull itself away from the faster notes, and passages of quietness always seem to give room for contemplation.
The variations themselves all symbolize the different phases and aspects of a struggle: this readily explains the huge array of compositional styles that Rzewski has used, from angry, highly-energized modernism, via melancholic references to blues, calculated dense polyphony and nostalgic folk-music to written-out free jazz passages. Rzewski incorporates some contemporary piano effects in some variations, which he charges with an unusual dramatic meaning. Examples are the explosive sound of a slammed piano lid in Variation 11, which reminds one of a gunshot, and a twenty-second hammering on one key in Variation 24, symbolizing an alarm bell.
After the first half of the piece, the original tune is accompanied by and fortified with elaborations on another revolutionary song, Hanns Eisler’s Solidaritätslied. Also the Italian revolutionary song Bandiera Rossa is quoted several times throughout the composition. Rzewski’s interest in improvisation is reflected just before the theme comes back towards the end of the piece, where the pianist is given the opportunity optionally to improvise and give his own comments on everything that has passed. For this recording, some other unusual sound effects have been used during the improvised cadenza, such as striking and dampening the strings with the fingers, trying to symbolize, amongst others, the ticking away of time. As a contrast with the relatively introvert opening theme of the work, the composition concludes with a vigorous restatement of its main tune, full of register displacements and tonal variations. The people have finally overcome the struggle, and seem to sing the melody of revolution all at the same time: the children in the treble, the women and men in the middle and bass registers.
Throughout all variations the intervals of Ortega’s theme are always present, whether they are used as a twelve-tone row or as a basis for a fugal passage. Starting from D minor, every subsequent variation is written in an adjacent key within the circle of fifths. From a structural point of view, the variations are captured in a strict compositional framework in which there are six groups of six variations, in which every sixth variation summarizes the first five, representing the five fingers of a fist. The six groups themselves follow a similar structure on a macroscale, so that the last group of variations summarizes the previous five, i.e. the whole piece.
The popular Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues, written in 1979 as part of the set North American Ballads, forms a fitting counterpart to The People United Will Never Be Defeated!, as it shares a similar dramatic impact while not refraining from contemporary compositional techniques such as clusters played with the whole forearm, and atonality. The basis for this work is an existing song bearing the same name, which cotton-mill workers used to sing while labouring at their hard tasks under difficult circumstances. The piano itself seems transformed into a giant sounding cotton-machine, above which the labourers try to sing their blues, but in vain. It is only after a dramatic gathering of sound and energy that finally the human voice breaks through and can be heard clearly. The end of the composition, however, seems to pose us a question, as the machines come back. Is it inhumanity or humanity which will surrender?
When working with Frederic Rzewski on the interpretation of his music, it has become even clearer that freedom of interpretation for the musician is of important concern to the composer. Many indications in the scores are trying to convey the spirit of his works, besides the actual notation of the music, which is precise but never limiting. His passion as a person corresponds with the passion in his music. It all follows logically from his strong ideologies in favour of the individual.
Frederic Rzewski has shown in both recorded works what the impact of music can be. His compositions exhibit a direct and appealing power which is able to convey, without words, the realistic image of an extramusical Gestalt: a belief in humanity surrendering every situation of suppression. The word “eclecticism” in this context forms a key word, from which it becomes clear that accessibility and modernism can easily go hand-in-hand after all.
Ralph van Raat
Timelist 8.559360 F. Rzewski: The People United Will Never Be Defeated
Ralph van Raat, piano
Improvised cadenza (53'06"-59'16")
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RZEWSKI: The People United will never be Defeated