Night Thread of July 5: RIP Fredric Rzewski, 1938-2021

Last week, American composer Fredric Rzewski passed away at the age of 83. He leaves behind an astounding legacy not just as a composer of some of the most difficult piano music ever written, but as a very capable performer, having released box sets playing his own piano music.

With just a cursory glance at Rzewski’s published works, you’ll notice he never shies away from overtly political statements in his music. His most famous piece is a set of 36 variations on a Chilean anthem for the popular unity government, El unido jamás será vencido. Putting it under the microscope, every variation that’s a multiple of 6 is actually a variation on the 5 that precede it. The final variation is a variation on those multiples of 6. Similar to the Goldberg variations, Rzewski repeats the original theme at the very end. Enjoy listening to the composer’s own recording here:

If you enjoy this sort of thing, be sure to check out eighth blackbird’s album of his music entitled Fred. They recorded Coming Together, his chamber piece that uses text written by an Attica prison inmate (discovered after the riots and published in a Leftist newspaper, which is how Rzewski happened upon it). You may also enjoy Les Mouton de Panurge, which builds up a long melody line one note at a time.

I am also quite fond of De Profundis, a partial setting of Oscar Wilde’s magnum opus of the same name, for pianist to play and recite simultaneously. It’s a remarkable marriage of music and text. The composer must also chant, shout, sing, and whistle from time to time. (N.B. You’ll notice texts composed in prison is a common theme with Rzewski.)

He was as intensely emotional as he was mathematically meticulous in his music, and he leaves behind a rich legacy as a composer, pianist, teacher, and crabby communist. All wonderful things, more or less.