Reviews on Rzewski’s Leftist Political Piano Variations
The People United Will Never Be Defeated
Art Faculty, Southwest University for Nationalities, Chengdu, Sichuan, China
Art Faculty, Southwest University for Nationalities, Chengdu, Sichuan, China
Liang, Deng. 2017. “Reviews on Rzewski’s Leftist Political Piano Variations: ‘The People United Will Never Be Defeated’.” Accelerando: Belgrade Journal of Music and Dance 2:5.
Acknowledgements: Professor Robert Constable for his advice and proof reading, 2015 SWUN Academic Leader Training Fund
Frederic Rzewski is an American composer who, over a substantial period of time throughout the 1970s, 80s and 90s, established himself as a leading composer and performer of virtuoso piano music. A formidable pianist himself, Rzewski studied piano from early childhood and later attended Harvard and Princeton universities as well spending three years in Rome as a pupil of Luigi Dallapiccola. Among his teachers in the USA were Walter Piston, Milton Babbitt and Roger Sessions. He was well schooled in the music and styles of all periods and all genres. The music experienced by Rzewski and often performed by him during his formative years included the latest works from the avant-garde, including Cage, Stockhausen, Boulez, Kagel and Feldman, as well as the music of the second Viennese School representatives Webern and Schoenberg. As one of the leading pianists of his generation, Rzewski was unusual in that he specialized in performances of the latest music. Because of his pianistic abilities he gave many world premiere performances of new music by the leading composers of that time.
As a young, developing composer, Rzewski produced a series of works in the 1960s and 70s in which certain ideas (some musical, some extra-musical) are developed. These include Les Moutons de Panurge (The Sheep of Panurge) (1968), Coming Together (1972), the variations No Place To Go But Around (1973), and Second Structure (1972). In particular, Rzewski developed skills in improvisation, polyphonic writing, variations techniques, jazz styles and in various popular music and folk music idioms. This wide interest in various music genres is important both to an understanding of the musical impulses that Rzewski followed and also to his political views, which impacted upon his music to a significant extent. In connection with politics Rzewski became identified with various class struggles. For example, his No Place To Go But Around was stimulated by the events depicted in a political play called The Tower Of Money, of which Rzewski said that it was “a grand theatrical presentation of the Anarchist view of society and its transformation by spontaneous and non-violent means.” (Rzewski 1976, CD jack notes).
At that time, Rzewski held the view that music should be clearly understood by people of all classes and from all of life's opportunities and that the composer/performer should reach out to communicate with the audience and have as wide an impact as possible. For this reason he expressed reservations about the so-called strictly serial approach in terms of its appeal to only a very restricted audience. “If one is seriously interested in communication, then I suppose, statistically speaking, that a rigorous, say formalistic style such as the style of serial composers and so on would be at a serious disadvantage.” (Zimmerman 1976, 306).
As a consequence of this belief, the music of The People United Will Never Be Defeated contains a wide mix of styles ranging from classical variations to polyphony, jazz styles, and popular music, including folk music. Pianist and scholar David Burge has written: “During the 1970s Rzewski, living in Rome, became more and more involved with music based on political subjects, such as the music of the Italian left” (Burge 1980, 63). Rzewski composed The People United in 1975 using as his theme a well-known Chilean song El pueblo unido jamás será vencido (The People United Will Never Be Defeated) by composer Sergio Ortega on the text written by the folk group of The New Chilean Song Movement, Quilapayún. The use of this basic material connects with Rzewski’s interest in using music to promote and reflect the plight of repressed people.
The Chilean New Song Movement
The political background can be traced back to 1970s and 1980s in Latin America. At that time, the “new song” of Latin American is deemed to have showed an important role in the progressive social change. New song origins from the Spanish words “Nueva canción”, which first appears during 1960s in Chile as “Chilean New Song”. New song inherited traditional Latin American folk music, however, and was immediately fixed with few revolutionary elements, especially for its lyrics, which shows the political views of new left and liberation theology in Chile. Based on these characteristics, new song achieved great popularity throughout Latin America in those times. In Chile, the new song movement represented the people’s longing of a glorious future, and this dream kept inspiring them to fight for progressive social transformation. It is worth to be mentioned that there is an incredible coincidence shows that in 1958, Chairman Zedong Mao in China also launched a “Chinese New Song Movement”. Mao pointed out that the future of Chinese poems is based on folk song and classic, all the creation if its formation is folk song, the contents will be realism and romanticism opposite. Through some literature surveys, the author could not find any evidences to prove that the new song movement in Chile is whether inspired by Chinese new song movement or not. However, this phenomena could be regarded as “sympathetic vibration” of the global proletariat.
Music based on political subjects: The People United Will Never Be Defeated
The People United Will Never Be Defeated is a set of variations and one of the most formidable of all twentieth-century works for the piano (see Figure 1). The tremendous musical structure, contains of the theme and thirty-six variations, then the restated theme, and its duration of approximately 60 minutes, makes it one of a few especially lengthy works for piano composed in the twentieth century. Besides its gigantic length, the music is of terrific technical difficulty, which, in itself, looks like to represent the struggle of the repressed populace of Chile under the Pinochet government. Both the insistent rhythm and the assertive melodic pattern of the popular song on which it is based seem to imply strength and confidence, for example, in the optimistic opening in which we hear the rising fourth and triadic melodic design which is a characteristic of many national songs, such as those from China and France.
This piece is made up of six groups of variations, and each group in turn including six variations. In the whole structure of the piece, variations 6, 12, 18, 24, 30 and 36 play the part as summaries of the previous group of five variations (Figure 2). Following this pattern, variations 31 to 36 play the part as a summary of all the variations from 1 to 30. The compositional process used in each of these summaries is one in which the final variation of the group (or the final six variations of the entire piece) gathers up and recalls many of the elements from previously heard material. Ralph Van Raat, in his sleeve note for the NAXOS recording, alludes to a revolutionary image of the five fingers of a fist but it is not clear if such an interpretation is authorized by the composer:
The following graphic clarifies the structure:
Rzewski had earlier experimented with a similar six-stage concept in his piece entitled Second Structure (1972). (Rzewski 1972, The whole music score) A further structural feature of The People United is that which seems to be divided neatly into three parts in a way that is reminiscent of sonata structure, with variations 1-18 being a unified whole (exposition), while variations 19-30 function as a development, including the introduction of new elements, and 31-36 act as a recapitulation. A clue to composer’s thinking about the whole structure is that at the end of variation 18, which is a typical fermata and a double bar, just as there might be at the end of the exposition in a sonata form. This is the only time that this occurs in the entire piece and when combined with the significant differences in approach in variations 19-30 it becomes clear that Rzewski is thinking in terms of developing his material in new ways in these later variations. The association with sonata structure is also alluded to by Laura Melton when she describes variations 31-36 as “recapitulative” (Melton 1998, 14).
The People United Will Never Be Defeated is a variation that also combines in various ways many different musical styles, such as jazz, pop, blues, and folk music as well as classical tonality and hard-edged atonality. By doing this, Rzewski “unites” many musical styles which could be said to represent the musical tastes of a united people. Some “external” effects are also featured including whistling, shouting and slamming the piano lid to represent a gunshot (Raat 2008, Internet access), such as variations 11 and 35.
Each variation of The People United has a different and primary technical challenge, such as catching the resonance in the pedal, playing clusters and glissandi with the palm of the hand and slamming keyboard lid, vocalization and whistle, and, as previously stated, the last variation of each group reviews all of the techniques and musical styles of the previous five variations. This amalgamation of ideas applies equally to musical matters as well as technical ones. It is also the case that usually the last variation of each group of six is the most difficult within that group. Further, variations 31 to 36, which review all of the pianistic skills translated from variations 1 to 30 are among the most technically demanding of the entire piece. In summary, the compositional procedures contained in The People United are many and varied and the sources of inspiration for Rzewski are wide-ranging in their scope and derivation.
An immediate question arises concerning how each variation can be related to the theme upon which it is based. Because of the rapid succession of different styles and tonalities it is not always immediately apparent that what we are listening to is, in fact, a variation of the original song. There is also the fact that each variation is different in length. The answer lies in part in the fact that in most of the variations there is a hint of some basic elements of the theme itself and this is usually in terms of pitch relationships. Even when the key has changed or when the tonality has become sufficiently ambiguous as to obscure any sense of key center, there is usually some clue as to its derivation, no matter how fragmentary. Rzewski draws attention to the theme by writing notes of longer duration and because of this they stand out even though there is also transposition of these pitches to various keyboard registers. Part of the answer also lies in the ‘feel’ of the music. Even when a relationship to the theme is not visually obvious, it becomes apparent when one plays the music that each variation ‘feels’ as though it is derived from the same source material. But this also raises a further question about to what extent a listener is aware of these relationships? Given the complexity and extreme length of The People United, that question is not easy to answer. It is likely, however, that the overall structural design of the work, which is organized in multiples of six variations, helps to orient the listener by giving the work a sense of unity. Repeated hearings of this music also help the listener to identify elements of the theme. The pianist David Burge has summarized The People United Will Never Be Defeated in the following words:
Questions on performance of contemporary music
Rzewski’s own DVD recording (Rzewski 2008, DVD) reveals an interesting phenomenon: when Rzewski plays Rzewski, he often does not follow his own score markings, particularly in regard to dynamics. This raises a series of questions concerning new music in general, and complex new music in particular. For example, even though it is tempting to assume that the composer would be the ultimate authority, how authoritative is the composer’s own performance, particularly in relation to detail? Should composers compose and leave the performing to professional performers who have the time and energy to devote themselves to more accurately realizing their scores? Or is it simply a fact that first performances/early performances are much harder because the material is new? Is it that new ideas and difficulties take a while to settle into the collective consciousness, and that the best performances will be given by later generations of players, after they, and others around them have had time to digest and make sense of the immense difficulties of the music and develop the new athletic skills necessary to play such music? Does the fact that Rzewski struggled with some of the details in his performances of his own music lessen the importance and quality of his achievements as a composer and a pianist?
A second line of questions is connected with the role of the audience in dealing with complex new music. Is the listener going to be aware if a performance is slightly less than accurate in regard to the fine detail of a work? Is the aural complexity of the music beyond the capability of audience to detect, or is there a level of authority in a totally accurate performance which is detectable at some level by the audience?
To answer these questions comprehensively is beyond the scope of this review. The questions are included here simply to indicate that any modern performer needs to be aware that these questions exist, and that he/she will need to take a position in relation to them. From the author’s perspective, the important thing is that the performance must have an authority, and to achieve a high level of authority, it must be accurate in all details. The decision to present this work in public must also be accompanied by a commitment to develop the necessary level of athleticism as well as control of musical and technical parameters. As with all performances, the performer must convey a sense of ownership of the music and this requires mastery of every aspect.
In The People United Will Never Be Defeated Rzewski created consciousness by questioning existing relations of power and critiquing social inequalities and expressed the dream of a better, socially just future.
As a pianist/composer Rzewski has established through his music a unique and challenging approach to the piano in the twentieth century. Through works such as The People United Will Never Be Defeated, Rzewski has offered pianists, and their audiences, the means to further develop an appreciation of the piano and piano performance. His contribution has been to expand our vision of the capacities of a venerable instrument and to infuse into our thinking the ongoing relevance of the piano.