Introduction EditFrederic Rzewski (b. 1938) is an American composer and pianist. In the 1960's, Rzewski emerged as one of the leading figures in American avant-garde movement. Throughout his career, Rzewski took special interest in social and political issues around the world and would draw inspiration from them for his compositions. One of his most recognized piano works is entitled, "The People United Will Never Be Defeated!" (1975) which Rzewski composed as a collection of 36 variations on the Chilean song, "El pueblo unido jamas sera vencido" by Sergio Ortega.
Rzewski was a strong advocate for the Chilean people during the oppressed times of the 1960's. Rzewski wrote this piano collection as a revolutionary anthem in response to Allende coming into power in 1969. Though Rzewski was a prominent figure in the avant-garde movement, this composition allowed him to step outside of complexities of modernism and write accesible music for a specific purpose.
The overall structure of the collection is very mathematical. Since the entire thing is made up of 36 variations, each variation is 36 measures long and divided into three groups of six. Rzweski experiments with improvisation as well as 20th century extended techniques for the piano. For example, Variation 5 is marked as "Dreamlike, Frozen" instructing the performer to stop, then perform an extended technique of playing a staccato chord, then stopping the rest of the sound with the pedal. Overall, Rzewski's style is one of intensity and drive. Rzewski was quoted saying, "Musicians and artists must listen to the sound of struggle if they are to contribute anything in the way of harmony." It is evident by this quote that Rzewski desires to communicate through his music. As a composer, he does not only have the responsibility to write the mus
ic, but to send a message to his listeners.
As I was researching deeper into these 36 variations, I came across an interesting comparison. There are several sources that draw parallels from Rzewski's 36 keyboard variations to both the Beethoven Diabelli Variations and Bach's Goldberg Variations. Though each of the collections were written during different time periods, all three works share stylistic elements. For instance, all three works showcase an immense amount of virtuosity and skill. Additionally, all three variations are large scale structures, but have complex thematic material within them. All three works are extremely demanding and require a lot of stamina in order to perform all the way through.
"Frederic Rzewski: The People United Will Never Be Defeated!" Youtube video. Uploaded by opus3863ccc. Posted on Oct 8, 2011. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q_mQiL19XmI
Melton, Laura. Frederic Rzewski's The People United WIll Not Be Defeated: an Analysis and Historical Perspectice. Diss. Rice U, 1998. Ann Arbor: UMI, n.d. Print.
Murray, Edward. "Rzewski, Frederic." Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press. Web. .[http:// <http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/24218>. .]
Wason, Robert W. "Tonality and Atonality in Frederic Rzewski's Variations on 'The People United Will Never Be Defeated!'" Perspectives of New Music, Vol. 26, No. 1 (Winter, 1988) pp. 108-143. http://www.jstor.org/stable/833319