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Remembering Frederic Rzewski


Frederic Rzewski (pronounced Zhefsky), who died on June 26th at age 83, lived a long and active musical life: “politically committed composer and pianist,” read the headline in Monday’s Times. He was born in 1938 in Westfield, Massachusetts. His musical involvement in leftist causes was less well known in America than in Europe, where he made the greater part of his career — in Italy, where he lived, and Belgium, where he was a professor at the Brussels Conservatory. His avant-garde inclinations were evident even in his Harvard undergraduate years; he graduated in 1958, and his chamber music then sounded post-Schoenberg rather than post-Webern as was the fashion. After that he collected an MFA at Princeton and went to study with Dallapiccola in Europe, where he remained, occasionally returning to his native land to teach and perform.

His teacher Walter Piston later spoke of Rzewski as a highly talented composer and a brilliant pianist, who would struggle with complex polyrhythms for hours at the piano, starting slowly and working up to faster tempos where always, at some point, it became impossible to maintain strict control, even as he timed himself carefully with a large wall clock and a sweep second-hand. Piano music dominated Rzewski’s later years, culminating in a notable recording, Rzewski Plays Rzewski: Piano Works 1975-1999, seven discs of amazing power and breadth (Nonesuch 79623-2). (As I write this, I’m listening to Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues, the fourth of his North American Ballads, with a hypnotic succession of ostinati, tonal and atonal combined, and the performance is incredible.) The folksong and jazz elements in these works are strong, as are the random clusters; they come to flower in the studied inspirations of a student of Walter Piston who became a full-time (even though academic) musician, rather than the scattered incoherent Sunday jottings of a student of Horatio Parker who became a millionaire selling insurance. Their visionary qualities are apparent in their music; one observes also that Rzewski had two Polish parents, while Chopin’s were Polish and French.

Rzewski’s most famous work is certainly The People United Will Never Be Defeated!, 36 variations for solo piano of Goldberg-like complexity and scope, lasting an hour; I already wrote about it in these pages (HERE), and many others are still writing, so I need add no more. But I will mention an item known to only a few, but that I still consider important: Rzewski’s undergraduate thesis at Harvard, on “The Reappearance of Isorhythm in Twentieth-century Music,” with examples from Berg’s Lyric Suite, Webern’s cantatas, and others. This thesis earned him a degree magna cum laude. The last time I looked at it, the pasted-in examples, cutouts from actual copies of the scores (xerox equipment only arrived three years later), were worrying loose from the page but fully legible.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert on the music of Alban Berg, Debussy, and other early 20th-century composers. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (Ph.D., 1967), he has published on many music subjects, and edited the revised fourth (1978) and fifth (1987) editions of Harmony by his teacher Walter Piston.


5 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. I agree that “The People United” is a masterpiece. I’ve been less impressed with most of anything else I’ve heard of Rzewski, but reasonable minds can differ on that.

    What shocks me, though, is that Mark DeVoto, who should know better, would gratuitously slur Charles Ives with the long-debunked canard about his being some sort of amateur dilettante. Those “Sunday jottings” (more accurately, every weeknight, most of every weekend, and every vacation, basically the same as Mahler) were keenly thought out and meticulously integrated into structures large and small.

    I’m reminded of the (evidently well-rehearsed) colloquy between Derek Bok (then Harvard President) and Jeremy Knowles (late dean of Harvard College), in which Knowles said “the purpose of a Harvard education is to enable you to detect when someone is speaking rubbish.” To which Bok replied, “I thought the purpose of a Harvard education was to enable you to speak rubbish without being detected.”

    Comment by Vance Koven — June 30, 2021 at 11:30 am

  2. I don’t understand what seems a non-sequitur: Rzewski had two Polish parents, while Chopin’s were Polish and French.

    Comment by martin cohn — July 2, 2021 at 7:51 pm

  3. I appreciate Mark DeVoto’s homage to Rzewski, and I particularly appreciate Vance Koven’s reminder about the uses of a Harvard education.

    Comment by Jerry — July 3, 2021 at 8:27 am

  4. De Voto’s homage to Rzewski is sullied by his unwarranted and wrong-headed comments about Ives. He is entitled to his opinions, as are we all, but to pose them as serious critical judgements in the guise of an invidious comparison to Rzewski adds nothing to the praise which is rightfully offered. On the contrary, it casts a suspicious light on the aesthetic values of the author, and diminishes his credibility. Rzewski himself would likely cringe at the elitism and closed-mindedness of such a statement; Ives (and his admirers) were and are used to such lazy judgements and are happy to move on. But Rzewski deserves better.

    Comment by Larry Wallach — July 4, 2021 at 12:11 am

  5. Wow, he can’t even write the words: Charles Ives. How bout we redline all the incessant and irrelevant ivy league processing instead, hmm? You don’t even mention Coming Together.

    Comment by Mark — July 12, 2021 at 5:13 am

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