Rzewski (pronounced zheff-skee) began playing piano at age 5. He attended Phillips Academy, Harvard and Princeton, where his teachers included Randall Thompson, Roger Sessions, Walter Piston and Milton Babbitt. In 1960, he went to Italy, a trip which was formative in his future musical development. In addition to studying with Luigi Dallapiccola, he began a career as a performer of new piano music, often with an improvisatory element. A few years later he was a co-founder of Musica Elettronica Viva with Alvin Curran and Richard Teitelbaum. Musica Elettronica Viva conceived music as a collective, collaborative process, with improvisation and live electronic instruments prominently featured. In 1971 he returned to New York.
In 1977 Rzewski became Professor of Composition at the Conservatoire Royal de Musique in Liège, Belgium, then directed by Henri Pousseur. Occasionally he teaches for short periods at schools and universities throughout the U.S. and Europe, including Yale University, the University of Cincinnati, the California Institute of the Arts, the University of California, San Diego, the Royal Conservatory of The Hague and Trinity College of Music, London.
Many of Rzewski's works are inspired by secular and socio-historical themes, show a deep political conscience and feature improvisational elements. Some of his better-known works include The People United Will Never Be Defeated! (36 variations on the Sergio Ortega song El pueblo unido jamás será vencido), a set of virtuosic piano variations written as a companion piece to Beethoven's Diabelli Variations; Coming Together, which is a setting of letters from Sam Melville, an inmate at Attica State Prison, at the time of the famous riots there (1971); North American Ballads; Night Crossing with Fisherman; Fougues; Fantasia and Sonata; The Price of Oil, and Le Silence des Espaces Infinis, both of which use graphical notation; Les Moutons de Panurge; and the Antigone-Legend, which features a principled opposition to the policies of the State, and which was premiered on the night that the United States bombed Libya in April 1986. Among his most recent compositions, the most interesting are the Nanosonatas (2006~2010) and the Cadenza con o senza Beethoven (2003), written for Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto. Rzewski played the solo part in the world premiere of his piano concerto at the 2013 BBC Proms.
Nicolas Slonimsky (1993) says of him in Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians: "He is furthermore a granitically overpowering piano technician, capable of depositing huge boulders of sonoristic material across the keyboard without actually wrecking the instrument."
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- Four North American Ballads, played by Paul Jacobs (Nonesuch Records on Paul Jacobs Plays Blues, Ballads & Rags D-79006 (LP) & 79006-2 (CD re-issue ) 1980(LP) 1993 (CD)
- The People United Will Never Be Defeated!, played by Stephen Drury (New Albion NA 063) 1994
- The People United Will Never Be Defeated!, played by Marc-André Hamelin (Hyperion Records CDA67077) 1998
- De Profundis, 5 North American Ballads, played by Lisa Moore (Cantaloupe Music 21014) 2003
- Fred - Music of Frederic Rzewski played by eighth blackbird (Cedille CDR90000-084) 2005
- The People United Will Never Be Defeated!, played by Ralph van Raat (Naxos 8.559360) 2008
- The People United Will Never Be Defeated!, played by Christopher Hinterhuber (Paladino PMR0037) 2012
- Four Pieces, Hard Cuts and The Housewife's Lament played by Ralph van Raat et al. (Naxos 8.559759) 2014
- The People United Will Never Be Defeated!, played by Corey Hamm (Redshift Records TK431) 2014
- The People United Will Never Be Defeated!, played by Omri Shimron (New Focus Recordings FCR124) 2014
- The People United Will Never Be Defeated! and Four Hands played by Ursula Oppens and Jerome Lowenthal (Cedille CDR90000-158) 2015
- The People United Will Never Be Defeated!, played by Igor Levit on Igor Levit plays Bach, Beethoven, Rzewski (Sony Classical 88875060962) 2015
Played by Rzewski
- Anthony Braxton - For Two Pianos (Arista, 1980 )
- Capriccio Hassidico (1991)
- Musica Elettronica Viva – United Patchwork (1977)
- Musica Elettronica Viva – Leave The City
- Musica Elettronica Viva – Spacecraft
- Musica Elettronica Viva – Live 7" (Recorded live at Philgena Oakland CA 1994)
- Cornelius Cardew – We Sing For The Future!
- Tom Johnson – An Hour for Piano (1985)
- Henri Pousseur – Aquarius-Memorial
- Henri Pousseur – La Guirlande de Pierre
- Stockhausen – Klavierstück X (Wergo LP)
- Frederic Rzewski Nonsequiturs – Writings & Lectures on Improvisation, Composition, and Interpretation. Unlogische Folgerungen – Schriften und Vorträge zu Improvisation, Komposition und Interpretation. Edition Musiktexte, Cologne, 2007. ISBN 3-9803151-8-5.
- Петров, Владислав Олегович Фредерик Ржевски: путь обновления традиций. – Астрахань: ГАОУ АО ДПО «АИПКП», 2011. – 100 с. // Petrov, Vladislav O. Frederic Rzewski: upgrade path traditions. – Astrakhan: AIPKP, 2011. – 100 p.
- "Frederic Rzewski," in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie. 20 vol. London, Macmillan Publishers Ltd., 1980.
- "Prom 50: White, Barry, Rzewski, Feldman". BBC. Retrieved Sep 3, 2013.
- Slonimsky, Nicolas. The Concise Edition of Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, 8th ed. Revised by Nicolas Slonimsky. New York: Schirmer Books, 1993. ISBN 0-02-872416-X.
- Murray, Edward. “Rzewski, Frederic,” in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie. 20 vols. London: Macmillan Publishers Ltd., 1980. ISBN 1-56159-174-2.
- Murray, Edward. “Rzewski, Frederic.” The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. 29 vols. London: Macmillan Publishers, 2001. ISBN 1-56159-239-0.
- Frog Peak Music (a composers' collective) has scores for some Frederic Rzewski compositions.
- Frederic Rzewski page on New Albion Records.
- "biography" (in French). IRCAM.
- Free scores by Frederic Rzewski at the International Music Score Library Project
- Duffie, Bruce. “Composer/Pianist Frederic Rzewski: A Conversation with Bruce Duffie.” Interview from 19 January 1995.
- Golden, Barbara. “Conversation with Frederic Rzewski.” eContact! 12.2 – Interviews (2) (April 2010). Montréal: CEC.
- Varela, Daniel. Interview with Frederic Rzewski. Perfect Sound Forever (March 2003).