By Ralph van Raat

Usually, when thinking of contemporary classical music, one thinks of the rather abstract and cerebral music of the decade right after the Second World War. Some of this so-called serial music in my opinion is very exciting, sometimes purely beautiful, and sometimes incomprehensible. However, one cannot deny that, for the listener, there seem very few similarities or references to any other kind of music, making it hard to appreciate modern music without some thorough study.

In a revolt against the lyricism and romanticism of pre-war classical music, young composers such as Boulez and Stockhausen broke with any audible sense of pulse, harmony and melody. In their opinion, writing poetic music after the horrors of two World Wars would not be reflecting society and the state-of-affairs, and besides, a radically new language  provided composers with a tool to start with a clean slate, without references to the past. As a performer, learning such works is challenging and exciting. It requires a great deal of both physical practise and mental study to come to grips with the often complex rhythms, and to find a way of phrasing (making musical sentences of) the notes to a more or less logical musical discourse. Besides that, executing all the different and often extremely opposing dynamics per note, which usually are an exceptionally important element of the structure of especially a so-called serial (“mathematical”) composition, requires a great control of touch. The downside of playing this music is that other important playing techniques such as traditional legato-playing, where one ties the notes smoothly together, and “fingery” passagework, are less at the forefront, or not at all.

While studying at conservatory, I was very involved both in playing traditional classical repertoire and contemporary music. It was (and, to my opinion, should be) a very natural thing to apply all knowledge of music of the past – phrasing, touch, rhetoric, etcetera – to ultimately playing the “classical music” of one’s own time with the same intention of quality and dedication as earlier repertoire. However, large stylistic differences between classical and some contemporary music does require quite different learning and studying approaches from a musician’s point of view, and as a conservatory student it was hard for me to find a solid argument easily, proving to a random listener that contemporary music is as appreciable as the core classical canon.

The discovery of Frederic Rzewski’s large piano variation set The People United Will Never Be Defeated!, in the third year of my studies, had a major impact on me. Finally a synthesis had been found between classical and modern music, simplicity and complexity, making it possible for a listener to understand the music despite contemporary sounds and techniques, and making it possible for a musician to apply all the knowledge and skills of the best of both worlds. I was very happy to ultimately record this major landmark piece (both for me personally, and generally in the history of piano music) for Naxos last year, being able to share my amazement at this work with a large audience.  
Yes – Frederic Rzewski was rebelling in his work, just like the composers from right after the Second World War; he specifically rebelled in this music against fascism, and any dictatorship. And yes – Rzewski also used contemporary techniques, sometimes deliberately destroying the main melody – the famous Chilean anti-fascist song bearing the same title – or the sense of pulse. And Rzewski also uses a well-thought out, almost calculated musical structure to base his sounds on. However, these passages are complemented by others that show the craftsmanship of a nineteenth-century composer: long lyrical melodic lines, tight polyphonic structures, “fingery” passagework, and a general sense of natural flow. A clear story and meaning of the notes, despite their occasional complexity, always seems present: a wild play of glissandos, dissonant chords, and smashing dynamics right after a dark and foreboding Shostakovich-like variation is as bewildering as the gloomy appearance of military tanks at a seemingly peaceful gathering of people who are just openly expressing their collective need for freedom.

This kind of seemingly abrupt change of mood is an essential element of The People United Will Never Be Defeated!. Technically, every “mood” in this work is a variation on the Chilean theme; however, the variations essentially form different aspects of the revolution towards freedom. This is quite similar to, for example, the set-up of Olivier Messiaen’s Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus , which are twenty visions on a specific subject also; however, Rzewski has glued together all the movements to one big piece. This partly explains why I made the unconventional choice to record the work on one track: where classical composers such as Beethoven and Brahms have split up all the individual variations in their variation sets as several more or less autonomous entities, Rzewski has intentionally through-composed the work, not allowing any break for both the listener and the performer. The resulting enormous duration of one hour, plus its unstoppable continuity intentionally symbolize the scale and the course of an impacting revolution. Utilizing one full track also encourages the listener to perceive the piece as a whole instead of separate, seemingly unrelated technical variations, and to become aware of the “classical” unfolding of a drama after which the final victory comes as a great relief.

My vision of The People United as one continuous, through-composed work also had its effect on the tempo and character of the work. Instead of primarily focussing on the character of each individual variation and combining them to a mostly contrasting series, I proceeded in an opposite way: almost intentionally disregarding the literal autonomous character of ‘just’ another variation, by deducing the mood of each variation from the overall programmatic discourse of the piece. As an example, the first three variations (partly with a rather jumpy, disjointed character, starting from 1’36”) could be regarded as individual sections and inventive reworkings of the theme, already full of energy. However, I preferred to take those relatively slow, with dynamics as restrained as possible, slowly gathering tempo and volume as they proceed. In this way the variations grow organically from the main theme, stated (perhaps unconventionally) as innocently as possible at the start of the piece, as a small seed which germinates slowly, or a small individual thought of revolution which is slowly shared by more and more masses until they collectively gather energy and ultimately stand up. The first main gathering of high energy, in my opinion, does not take place until variation 4 (5’36”), where the theme is restated in a most dramatic way. Before that, any marking of forte (loud) I have interpreted as mainly a colouristic marking, with the absolute dynamic only relative to the general mood and atmosphere. As such, an attempt has also been made to make the shocking effect of the consecutive variation more effective: crystal chords, sharply breaking the silence, each time followed by seconds of just lonely resonance. In my opinion they must seem as unnaturally hushed as possible; the energy which was built up is suddenly cut, as if any attempt for revolution is artificially and wilfully stopped.

I applied this approach throughout the whole piece, as I think it gives – besides the omnipresent appearance of the main theme – a strong basis for creating unity among many consecutive passages which are so different in style. In fact, my improvised cadenza (53’06” – 59’15”) has been used as a culmination of all the energy which was built up during the previous fifty minutes. It uses both rhythms and intervals from the main theme, leading to crushing clusters and glissandos, in which any structure seems to collapse, and just the silent ticking away of time is all that is left. Through this collapse, a new “era” can be entered with a clean slate: the main theme reappears, but therefore starts in my interpretation in a quasi-tired, slow manner, quickly rising in tempo and momentum, with a final victory (and highest energy) in the last bars of the work.
The sometimes shocking effect of the differences in mood and style in Rzewski’s work, together with the minor keys of which most musical material is constituted, seem to remind us all the time that this work or this revolution is serious. Although the listener and the performer are constantly pulled back to attention, the combination of tonality and atonality after a while seem to soften the differences between styles: even the most abstract contemporary passages get a tonal feel and function to them. Personally, as a musician it was quite an experience to become aware of this. Instead of executing such complex passages objectively, they felt like natural extensions carrying the general musical intention to another level, almost by a natural flow.

As an example, variation 10 (12’18”) in my opinion is not just some bravura display of a disjunct note here, a note there, loud and smashing: I see it as growing organically from the still light but already jumping melodies of variation no. 7 (8’25”), which gradually get darker in mood through following variations (especially the suddenly introvert no. 9, 10’38”) leading to the outburst of great emotion in the tenth variation. Coming from the muffled melodies of the previous passage, I hear the jumping notes as essentially melodic; hearing and interpreting the wide intervals as continuations of previous melodies causes a thrill as the leaps seem to represent panic, or great emotion (generally, in classical vocal music, leaps have a very specific emotional representation too). A consequence of interpreting the wild passage as lyrically as possible is not playing the passage any faster than indicated, so that the listener has time to actually hear all the intervals and their individual tensions.

In Frederic Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated!, a unique symbiosis has been found between the musical past and the present. For pianists, all aspects of piano technique are required for: legato-playing, passagework, “contemporary-style” jumps and hand-crossings, but also tone color, tonal balance, touch, flow and phrasing play a major role. Some complex contemporary-style passages in this work can be approached from a very classical point of view, which I am in favour of in general, to the point that this music has the same beauty and intensity as any core classical repertoire piece. From a pianist’s point of view, it is one of the most complete works one can imagine. For a listener, it is a uniquely enjoyable, educative, and possibly even dramatic experience. It conveys the power of expression that a living composer nowadays possesses, taking the best of a plurality of styles, and assimilating it to announce his message in the most deeply personal way.

Pianist and musicologist Ralph van Raat studied the piano with Ton Hartsuiker and Willem Brons at the Conservatory of Amsterdam and Musicology at the University of Amsterdam. He concluded both studies with distinction in 2002 and 2003. As a part of the Advanced Programme of the Conservatory of Amsterdam, and with the support of a Prince Bernhard Fellowship, Van Raat also studied with Claude Helffer (Paris), Liisa Pohjola (Helsinki), Ursula Oppens at Chicago’s Northwestern University and Pierre-Laurent Aimard at the Musikhochschule in Cologne. Ralph van Raat has won a number of prizes, including the Second Prize and Donemus-Prize (for Contemporary Music) of the Princess Christina Competition (1995), the Stipend-Prize Darmstadt during the Darmstadt Internationale Ferienkurse für Neue Musik ( 1998), First Prize of the International Gaudeamus Interpreters Competition (1999), the Philip Morris Arts Award (2003), the Elisabeth Everts Prize (2004), a Borletti-Buitoni Fellowship (2005), the VSCD Classical Music Prize (2005) and the Fortis MeesPierson Award from the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam (2006). He appears as a recitalist and as a soloist with orchestras in Europe, the Middle-East, Asia and in the United States, with many of his concerts broadcast or seen on television. He has made several recordings and regularly collaborates with composers, many of whom have dedicated their piano compositions to him. Ralph van Raat has been a Steinway Artist since 2003.

10 thoughts on “Frederic Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated!: Performer’s Notes on a Masterpiece and its Interpretation”
  1. What sticks in my mind now is that I heard the thrilling Frederic Rzewski performance of this work at almost the exact same time that I heard Steve Reich and his musicians perform his Tehillim in the huge space of the National Building Museum. (I was also probably spinning my CBS LPs of Glass’s Satyagraha at the same time.)

    There was indeed something special about the Rzewski depth and perspective; for the reasons that both you and Mr Van Raat cite.

    I also heard Rzewski perform his “Antigone-Legende” at this same period. I wish that I had listened to, and studied these, works more earlier.


    [The Fall 1970 article in the MQ on the Rhetoric of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis was a big influence on me in the 1980s.]

  2. Well that performance was a big influence on me at the time. I was struggling to find a way to get out of writing very classically influenced pieces and hearing ‘Beethoven’ through the Rzewski lens was revelatory. It occurred to me that almost anything could be ‘Beethovenified’, something I’ve tried to do since then in my composing with varying success… 😉

  3. Jeff, I heard Rzewski play this piece at the Kennedy Center’s then newer Terrace Theater, as part of the long-passed American Composer Portraits series. I appreciate your comment about the performance’s ‘oddball late Beethovenisms’.

    We had Marta Istomin to thank for that series which embraced such fine and diverse American works as ‘The People United Will Never Be Defeated!’ to La Mont Young’s ‘The Second Dream of the High-Tension Line Stepdown Transformer from The Four Dreams of China’.

    Bravo Frederic Rzewski and Brava Marta Casals Istomin!

  4. Hi all, thanks for your comments! Actually, every subsequent variation in the piece has a tonal center which is a fifth (interval) apart from the previous one – it actually follows very strictly the cycle of fifths, which I think gives a very tonal feel to even the most “way-out” variation. Besides that, because even in the most atonal passages the intervals of the tunes are kept quite strictly (in which the minor third takes on a big role), a tonal, melodic and harmonic unity is conserved very well too. And last but not least, the whole build-up of the piece, its line and the discourse it seems to exhibit, supports to my opinion the tonal feel of having solid grounds under your feet most of the time!

  5. I found your comments about vaguely apparent tonalisms in the atonal sections interesting. I heard Rzewski play this piece in the East Village in 89? and he seemed to really exaggerate the pointillistic sections to the point that they seemed like oddball late Beethovenisms and not Boulezian fracturings.

    Was a great concert; Carter was in the small audience…

  6. He says in the eighth paragraph: “In fact, my improvised cadenza (53’06” – 59’15”) has been used as a culmination of all the energy which was built up during the previous fifty minutes.”

  7. This is a great discussion of an important piece in the piano literature. I have the original Oppens performance and would be very curious to see how this compares. Thanks for posting this.

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