Frederic Rzewski

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Frederic Anthony Rzewski (/ˈʒɛfski/ ZHEF-skee; born April 13, 1938) is an American composer and virtuoso pianist. His major compositions, which often incorporate social and political themes, include the minimalist Coming Together and the piano variations The People United Will Never Be Defeated![1]


Rzewski was born in Westfield, Massachusetts, and 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 co-founded 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.[2]

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.[2]

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, 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 (I. Dreadful Memories; II. Which Side Are You On?; III. Down by the Riverside; IV. Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues) (1979); 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 the United States bombed Libya in April 1986.[2] Rzewski's recent compositions include Nanosonatas (2006~2010) and 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.[3]


Nicolas Slonimsky (1993) says of Rzewski 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."[4] Michael Schell has called him "the most important living composer of piano music, and surely one of the dozen or so most important living American composers."[1]

In Christgau's Record Guide: Rock Albums of the Seventies (1981), Robert Christgau reviewed Coming Together/Attica/Moutons de Panurge, an album recorded with vocals by performance artist Steve ben Israel and released in 1973 by Opus One Records. "The design of 'Coming Together' is simple, even minimal", Christgau said. "Steve ben Israel reads and rereads one of Sam Melville's letters from Attica over a jazzy, repetitious vamp. Yet the result is political art as expressive and accessible as Guernica. In ben Israel's interpretation, Melville's prison years have made him both visionary and mad, and the torment of his incarceration is rendered more vivid by the nagging intensity of the music. The [LP's] other side features a less inspiring political piece and a percussion composition, each likable but not compelling, but that's a cavil. 'Coming Together' is amazing."[5]



Played by Rzewski[edit]

  • Anthony BraxtonFor Two Pianos (Arista, 1980 [1982])
  • Capriccio Hassidico (1991)
  • Musica Elettronica VivaUnited 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 CardewWe Sing For The Future!
  • Tom JohnsonAn Hour for Piano (1985)
  • Henri Pousseur – Aquarius-Memorial
  • Henri Pousseur – La Guirlande de Pierre
  • Stockhausen – Klavierstück X (Wergo LP)
  • Rzewski Plays Rzewski: Piano Works 1975–1999 (7-CD Box Set, Nonesuch, 2002)
  • Several recital recordings in IMSLP


  • 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.


  1. ^ a b Schell, Michael (April 19, 2018). "Frederic Rzewski at 80: Directions Inevitable or Otherwise". Second Inversion. Retrieved April 19, 2018.
  2. ^ a b c "Frederic Rzewski," in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie. 20 vol. London, Macmillan Publishers Ltd., 1980.
  3. ^ "Prom 50: White, Barry, Rzewski, Feldman". BBC. Retrieved Sep 3, 2013.
  4. ^ 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.
  5. ^ Christgau, Robert (1981). "Consumer Guide '70s: R". Christgau's Record Guide: Rock Albums of the Seventies. Ticknor & Fields. ISBN 089919026X. Retrieved March 12, 2019 – via

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