Just 2 days ago, I learned the last of the 36 variations in Frederic Rzewski's astounding piece: The People United will Never be Defeated. I've been waiting to learn this piece since 1992 after having heard my teacher, Steve Drury play them in Jordan Hall in Boston. Now the chance has come, a few recession-induced (maybe?) holes in my schedule allowing for some intense Socialist-Musical-Realism-practicing/indoctrinating-the-neighbors-to-Marxist-ideology sessions. What a thrill! The piece is a gift to pianists. It still radiates the urgency of a historical moment nearly 30 years past and stands on its own feet as an extraordinary piece of music. I'll play the piece for the first time on March 25th at the Berlin Festival MaerzMusik. The concert will take place in the upstairs atrium of Mies van der Rohe's Neue Nationalgalerie, Potsdamer Platz Berlin. I just wrote a program text for the concert, which also features an excerpt from Alvin Curran's wonderful epic cycle Inner Cities.
The People United !
By Heather O’Donnell
Y ahora el pueblo
que se alza en la lucha
con voz de gigante
El pueblo unido jamás será vencido…
(And now the people,
who are rising in struggle
with the voice of a giant
cry out: Forward!
The people united will never be defeated…)
On September 11th 1973, the democratically-elected Marxist president of Chile, Salvador Allende, was overthrown in a military coup led by Augusto Pinochet with the backing of the CIA ushering in a 17-year long military dictatorship. The preceding June, Chilean composer Sergio Ortega had written a song for Allende’s Popular Unity government that would in the course of this tumultuous Autumn become the resistance anthem against Pinochet’s oppressive regime, and later an internationally known revolutionary hymn sung (with local alterations) throughout demonstrations in Portugal, Iran, the GDR, and the Philippines.
Frederic Rzewski, a close friend of Ortega’s, chose this anthem as the theme for his towering set of 36 Variations commissioned by the pianist Ursula Oppens for the American Bicentennial celebrations at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. in 1976, perhaps with the intention of using this self-congratulatory forum to voice an implicit criticism of American interventionist foreign policy. He states: "I wanted to write a piece that she could play for an audience of classical-music lovers who perhaps knew nothing at all of what was happening in Latin America. By virtue of listening to my piece for an hour, they might somehow get interested in the subject. I really was trying to reach the audience by using a language they would not find alienating." The daunting task of transmitting an urgent political message through a textless piano work was masterfully met in Rzewski’s Variations with a stylistically diverse though iron-clad formal coherency.
Rzewski was not unfamiliar with the attempt of conveying political or social messages through musical means. Marxist, socialist and anarchist themes were present in several of his pieces preceding The People United as well as in his writings and lectures including the so-called "Parma Manifesto" delivered in March 1968 in which he stated : "To create means to be here and now: to be responsible to reality on the high-wire of the present. To be responsible means to be able to communicate the presence of danger to others. " Finding the tools necessary for achieving an effective means of communication has become a lifelong occupation for Rzewski. His music resides effortlessly in an astounding stylistic plurality. The facility Rzewski displays with diverse musical styles undoubtedly comes from his experience as a performing musician. He is one of the few pianist-composers of the 20th/21st century, and in this regard can take his place as a modern-day Mozart, Liszt or Rachmaninoff with his phenomenal pianistic gifts and inspired improvisations. In a conversation with the composer Walter Zimmermann, Rzewski addressed the issue of ‘musical realism’ : "one condition for realism in music [is] a conscious employment of techniques which are designed to establish communication, rather than alienate an audience That does not necessarily mean that one must be confined to familiar languages. It doesn't necessarily mean an exclusion of what's called avant-guard style, by any means. " Recalling Charles Ives’s description of Emerson ("Emerson wrings the neck of any law that would become exclusive and arrogant"), stylistic homogeneity for Rzewski is not an element in music to be praised or valued, and stylistic diversity is an imperative for a composer who wants to communicate with his audience. That Rzewski can maintain this viewpoint without slipping into trite musical mimicry is an indication of his level of deep identification with a wide range of musical styles. Similar to Bertold Brecht’s Gestus technique, the transmission of an idea is enabled by readily-communicable musical gestures.
This stylistic plurality is coupled with a rock-solid and easily discernable formal organization. In the tradition of Variations like Bach’s Goldberg Variations, and Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations (which The People United was intended as a companion piece for), the theme is easily recalled, malleable and harmonically predictable. Then follows 36 Variations on the theme (a more easily subdividable number than Bach’s 30 or especially Beethoven’s 33), organized into six groups of six. Rzewski used a formal organization borrowed from his own piece for improvising musicians, Second Set. In this piece, certain musical parameters are suggested which the improvising musicians react off of in stages, for example, the first stage contains isolated timeless pitches, the second contains repetition, pulse and rhythm, and so forth. Rzewski’s employment of this improvisatory schema for his Variations is as follows:
Each set of six Variations has a unifying characteristic that groups the individual Variations into larger components. Every sixth Variation summarizes the preceding five. The sixth set of Variations are in turn summarizations of previous material in the piece; for example Variation 31 is a summary of the 1st, 7th, 13th, 19th, 25th and 31st Variations. The form is strictly adhered to, aside from a cadenza section during the 27th variation in which fantasy and freedom take precedence. The piece begins to enter a phase of compulsive reiteration and fragmentation in the 6th set, perhaps calling to mind political slogans that have lost their initial strength through popular dissemination and repetition. As the piece enters the 36th variation, only fragmentary memories of every Variation of the entire piece remain. The momentum implodes under its own weight and comes to a grinding halt. The theme returns, and the original message of the piece rises from the ashes, gaining in strength and conviction.
Alvin Curran’s piece which precedes Rzewski’s The People United is a short excerpt from his 5 hour-long epic piano cycle Inner Cities. Curran, whose texts almost match the poetic sensibilities of his music writes : "Inner Cities are where you go to get debriefed, to dance a tarantella with Gurdjieff, to see Italo Calvino greet Giodorno Bruno in Campo Dei Fiori…to be 5 years old in Central Falls, sitting next to my father in the trombone section at the Sunday afternoon Vaudeville show. " Inner Cities 11 is dedicated to his friend and co-conspirator in the acoustic/electronic improvisational collective Musica Electronica Viva, Frederic Rzewski. "Inner Cities 11 is the simplest of simplest musics…a blues with a one note melody, nothing more, nothing less. This, called the Aglio Olio Peperoncino Blues, is dedicated to my dear friend and colleague Frederic Rzewski, who in a recent email suggested that these three humble foods were all one need."