I have come to be leery of political art. Often more concern goes into the politics than into the art, and even when the craftsmanship is good, I often find myself still wondering whether a well-made advertisement for a political point of view is ultimately any more valuable than a well-made advertisement for an automobile. But as I listened to Ursula Oppens play Frederic Rzewski’s latest piano solo at the Bösendorfer Festival on November 4, I quickly forgot all my qualms and became completely caught up in an extraordinary piece of music. This set of 36 variations is a huge and complex work that sprawls all over the keyboard in just about every conceivable way, accumulates remarkable energy, changes constantly, and keeps going like that for over half an hour. There are very few pianists who would dare to even attempt such a demanding work, but Oppens played it brilliantly. She seemed completely secure in all of the widely contrasting sections, and never lost the thematic thread that ties the piece together. The piece really works, and on several different levels at once.
The most obvious level is political. The work is called ‘The People United Will Never Be Defeated,’ which is simply a translation of the Spanish title of the pop-style political song which provides its theme. This catchy little minor mode tune was composed in Chile by Sergio Ortega and Quilapayun, and became a symbol of the Allende regime. It’s basically a rousing, triumphal sort of melody, but it doesn’t sound nearly as triumphal now as it must have sounded before the coup. I understand that it is well known in various South American and European countries.
But let’s move on to a more musical level. Rzewksi was not afraid to let his virtuoso piano piece sound like popular music now and then. He starts out with a fairly straightforward statement of the tune, and ends with a big pompous version of it, but in between the idiom varies drastically. Often the piece sounds a little like Beethoven. Sometimes it sounds more like Liszt, Scriabin, or Prokofiev. Once in a while it wanders into post-Webern textures and current avant-garde techniques.
Aha, you say, just another case of all the eclectic things we’ve been hearing from Peter Maxwell Davies, George Rochberg, William Bolcom, and so on. Not really. Rzewski never seems to be quoting or copying, and it is absolutely clear that he is not satirizing. Everything comes out of that little tune, and out of the composer’s own variation techniques. The stylistic connotations of various sections seem almost coincidental. He simply allows the texture to drift back and forth in musical history without showing any particular favoritism between tonal and atonal, classical and popular, romantic and pointillistic. These things just all come together quite naturally in a single unified statement. This strikes me as a remarkable achievement. I can’t think of any other work that is rooted in the whole tradition of Western music the way this piece is.
But there is also another level on which Rzewski’s Harvard-Princeton intellectual needs are satisfied. After the performance I spent some time studying the score and was impressed by the careful organization of details. The last half of a variation generally mirrors the first half in some way. Lines that occur in one hand frequently return upside down in the other hand a couple of bars later. The theme is hard to find in many variations, but I could always find at least a few notes of it if I looked long enough. The overall plan divides the 36 variations into six groups of six variations each. The last variation of each group becomes a quick recapitulation of the other five. There is also a modulation scheme which takes the d-minor theme and transposes it up a fifth with each variation, so that the piece rotates around the 12 minor keys. Of course, such things are not apparent on first hearing, and probably irrelevant as far as most listeners are concerned. Still, it seems important to recognize the integrity and thoroughness with which the piece is worked out. This may be political art, but it is certainly not talking down to the masses.
Aside from simply being a good piece, it seems to me that ‘The People United Will Never Be Defeated’ is also a landmark in Rzewski’s own development. Now 38, he has been concentrating on politically oriented pieces for at least five years, and has produced some excellent ones. Those I know, however, speak in specific avant-garde vocabularies, and their appeal is pretty much limited to those who like that kind of music. The recent work should speak to everyone.