Music Monday: Rzewski: The People United Will Never Be Defeated!

Researching today’s piece did not go quite as I expected. The People United Will Never Be Defeated! is a monumental cycle of variations for solo piano written by Frederic Rzewski (ZHEV-ski) in 1975 and based off of “El pueblo unido jamás será vencido” [Wikipedia, YouTube], a left-wing Chilean protest song (composed in 1973 by Sergio Ortega with words by Quilyapayún) made famous as an anthem of the resistance to the dictatorial, US-backed Pinochet regime. Given that background, I had always understood the piece as coming from a composer with open, unabashedly leftist views. Rzewski’s stance appears to be more complicated, or at least more coy. In general in the interviews I’ve read, he seems reluctant to really wade into political waters — the sense I get isn’t that he doesn’t have political beliefs, but more that he finds them tedious to talk about and not worth the bother. When asked if he was a Marxist, for example, he replied with a snort and a caustic “Harpo or Groucho or what?” [NYT].

Zingers aside, tho, it’s hard not to get the sense from looking at his list of works that he has longstanding left-wing and anti-statist views. In addition to The People United Will Never Be Defeated!, for example, he has also written pieces about the 1971 Attica prison uprisings and a version of the Antigone story that emphasizes the title character’s role as a principled resister of an unjust government. So even if he’s deliberately fuzzy about them in interviews, I suspect that there are genuine leftist views lurking there in the background. Born in 1938 in Westfield, MA, Rzewski was not wanting for a traditional education. He attended Phillips Academy followed by Harvard and Princeton, where he studied with Roger Sessions, Milton Babbitt, and other modernist luminaries on their respective faculties. In 1960, he went to Italy to study with Luigi Dallapiccola and also to further his career as a contemporary pianist (he’s been playing since he was five years old, and has worked to a place of ferocious, if controversial ability (he sometimes improvises cadenzas in the middle of Beethoven piano sonatas, which some people are . . . less than excited about.).). While there, he was one of the co-founders of Musica Elettronica Viva, one of the first groups to experiment with live improvisation using electronic instruments, a group that is still active today, some fifty years later.

Even tho he moved back to the United States in 1971, he wouldn’t stay for long: In 1977 he took a position at the Conservatoire Royal de Musique in Belgium, which is still his home base, tho since he has family in both countries, he travels across the Atlantic not infrequently. In addition to his compositional activities, he is still an active pianist, and he played the solo part in the 2013 première of his piano concerto at the BBC Proms.

When it comes to picking recordings for these posts, I usually don’t have much choice. Most of the pieces I’ve written about in this series have only been recorded once, and for the ones that do have multiple recordings, one of them is usually far and away better to my ear. That isn’t the case today. I’m still quite fond of the recording I grew up with, but that has the unfortunate downside of having the least helpful track breaks possible. Namely, there aren’t any. The piece is structured as a theme followed by 36 variations, followed by an optional improvised cadenza, followed by the theme again, where the 36 variations are broken down into six groups of six; in addition to a tidy bit of numerology (and a tip of the hat to the 36 bars of the original theme), there’s a metaphor for the human hand (or, in the context of protest movements, perhaps a fist): Each six breaks down into a set of five, to represent the fingers on a hand, with the sixth representing the collective whole, symbolizing that united, collective action can achieve more than the sum of what we each can achieve individually. (The title of the work, after all, is The People United Will Never Be Defeated!, not The People Working Individually Can Achieve Things Just Fine, Collective Action Is Unnecessary!.) This structure is reflected on the larger scale, too, with the sixth set of six variations serving as a summary/capstone to the previous five (and the sixth variation in the sixth set serving to summarize the cycle as a whole).

So while the van Raat recording I linked above is great on a musical level, if you’re listening for the first time and want to keep track of where in the structure you are (which, obviously, isn’t necessarily necessary for enjoying the piece), it’s probably not the most helpful. At the other extreme is Ole Kiilerich’s take, which splits out each variation into its own separate track. Between them is Kai Schumacher’s version, which helpfully groups the variations by metaphorical hand. All of these are excellent recordings, and they all present strikingly different takes on this work, which is unsurprising given Rzewski’s interest in improvisation and interpretive freedom. For now, I’d say just listen to the one you think has the most useful track divisions, tho if you have the time for it, I do recommend checking out the various cadenzas just to see how different the approaches are (van Raat’s starts at about 53'05'').

Keeping in mind the length of the thing, I’m not sure it makes sense to scrutinize every variation in exacting detail, but some general remarks are definitely possible. The variations start simple, with unadorned octave displacements and other easy to follow techniques. But even within the first hand, we start to get variations where the theme is clouded and cut short by abrupt, even violent chords. By the second hand, the theme has all but dissolved into a sea of abstract sound, transformed into a sepulchral ringing of gloomy bells or a frozen expanse of eerie whistles. Some composers would make this a relentless, linear progression, the theme becoming more distorted and harder to hear with each passing variation, but that’s not Rzewski’s take. Just as easily as he obscures the Chilean melody with roiling waves of sound or slamming piano lids, he snaps back to it, presenting it as a languid jazz ballad or picking it out with sharp accents from a furious volley of arpeggios. If these variations are a journey, they are a twisting one, a journey with the form of memory, skipping and jumping from time to time and mood to mood, not always in any drily logical order. (And, indeed, like memory, things are not always easily compartmentalized: In addition to “El pueblo unido”, there are snatches of the Brecht/Eisler “Solidaritätslied” and the traditional Italian socialist song “Bandiera Rossa” [both YouTube] woven effortlessly into the tapestry.)

I was in high school when I first heard this piece. I was less disenchanted with capitalism then, but more naïve about the reach of contemporary concert music in political life, and I imagined this piece helping foment populist movements both in this country and abroad. I don’t feel that way about it now, but I’m also less convinced than ever that that was even its intent. For all that there are triumphal moments in the piece, and sweeping statements of expansive possibility, the whole remains clouded over with gloom. It’s a dark piece — not a cynical one, quite, but one that is well aware of the bitterness of certain histories. The people united have been defeated, at least temporarily, and even when popular uprisings against oppressive regimes have succeeded, the states that followed have not always been bastions of liberty and respect for human rights. Less than a public testament to the inevitability of leftist success, this piece now seems more like a private wrestling with the uneasy history of such movements around the globe, the allure of their promise and the hope for their attainment pitted against regrets about their failures and doubts about their very possibility. The belief that a better world is possible remains an unshaken bedrock foundation, but there is no certainty as to how to attain it, nor as to its inevitability. What does it mean to live in a world where “the people united will never be defeated!” remains an aspiration and not a description? Rzewski offers few answers, but makes the question inescapable.