Frederic Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated

26 06 2009

Above: The composer himself plays his magnum opus.

Description (taken from the Classical Archives):

Few composers have integrated their political views with their compositional practice in as thorough a manner as Frederic Rzewski. In fact, much of his mature oeuvre is devoted to the idea of unifying political and musical language. Nowhere is this impulse more poignantly articulated than his hour-long set of piano variations from 1975, The People United Will Never Be Defeated.

The theme of the work is drawn from the popular Chilean revolutionary song El Pueblo Unido Jamás Será Vencido, which was composed by Sergio Ortega and performed by the group Quilapayun just months before the 1973 coup led by Pinochet. Rzewski works out the song’s textual message within the compositional structure of the piece, executing the musical metaphor with incredible rigor. The theme is subjected to 36 variations, which proceed in six sets of six; each set follows a similar structure of “stages,” which the composer enumerates as “simple events,” “rhythms,” “melodies,” “counterpoints,” and “harmonies.” The last variation of each set serves to combine elements from the previous five stages. The sets themselves are connected in the same way across a different axis: the first set is generally the simplest, the third the most lyrical, the fifth the most homophonic, even though within each of these sets the six stages apply on the level of the individual variations. The sixth set of variations, then, represents a busy intersection of structural trajectories, as each of its variations sums up the previous five variations at that position within each set—so, for example, the first variation in the sixth set combines elements from the first variations in all the previous sets, the third variation recalls all the other third variations, and so on. The final variation, then—the sixth of the sixth set—takes on exponential duties, as its recollections of the previous five variations, themselves recollective in nature, make up an elaborate reflection on the entire monumental work. At two points the piece is structurally disrupted but semantically enhanced as Rzewski weaves in quotations from two other tunes, the Italian revolutionary song Bandiera Rosa and Hanns Eisler’s Solidaritätslied. Despite its episodic and variational nature, the piece as a whole thus assumes a trajectory toward greater musical and semantic integration and unity, the wide diversity of sonorities and styles compositionally combining in a manner exactly analogous to the unity espoused Ortega’s revolutionary song.