(Re-)discovering Frederic Rzewski

Sometimes a missed opportunity becomes a new challenge on its own. With the recent and sudden death of composer and pianist Frederic Rzewski, those of us in SoCal have proximal reason to mourn, as the titan was scheduled to be part of Piano Spheres’ upcoming season, and it would have been my first chance to see this fascinating performer in action. (If you’re not on the Spheres’ mailing list, Contact me and I’ll forward you a copy of Heidi Lesemann’s lovely announcement about the composer’s passing. It doesn’t seem to be on their website.)

In lieu of the IRL and in deference to the impact Rzewski’s life has had on contemporary classical, I’ve perused the beautiful tributes and taken a deeper dive into the artist’s vocal works than ever before. While aware of his stature and reputation, his vocal music (there’s a list here) has not crossed my path often, and indeed, he is far better known for his piano and chamber works. The piece that seems to (understandably) get referenced most often is his 1975 variations on The People United Will Never Be Defeated!, which is an inventive, moving and utterly fascinating piano work based on a Chilean protest song:

As the New York Times’ obit title suggests, his entire career was unabashedly politically-driven, with numerous examples such as Which Side Are You On? powering the composer’s web presence. He spoke of this focus often, and thought about it deeply. This 2019 interview from the German-English classical magazine VAN is a favorite for delving into his overt opinions, particularly the livability of socialism, being called a Communist spy by a critic, and his dim view of conservatories and piano competitions. (Here’s the link again—nudge, nudge—it’s a good read.)

Here are a few links to other interview and tributes that worth perusing, as well:

Speaking of Music: Frederic Rzewski
(1989 interview by Charles Amirkhanian – audio stream)

Rzewski’s Epic Monologue
(A complimentary Washington Post review of a 1984 concert of Antigone Legend, performed by onetime Lister Kimball Wheeler)

Frederic Rzewski: “Life is a Riddle
(David Plylar’s fond and insightful tribute from June 28, on the In the Muse, a Library of Congress performing arts blog)

“A monster of a pianist”
(Straightforward and fairly short obit from the Dutch newspaper, Het Parool. Assuming Google Translate is reliable, it sums him up well.)


Somewhat hidden voices

What’s clear is that while Rzewski did write for voice, getting to those compositions will take some digging. But do take a look at his vocal oeuvre, if you can. It will likely be a sheet music journey rather than an easy trip through YouTube. He seems to lack a website of his own (unfortunate, but still common for artists of his generation), but sites such as Wikipedia and Composers 21’s Living Composers Project have documented that Rzewski has spent significant time in the vocal realm, and those pieces are worth tracking down. IMSLP has several bits, particularly since they joined with WIMA almost a decade ago, but recordings seem to be few and far between. Pytheas Music lists some interesting sources, LiederNet outlines his texts, and AllMusic highlights a few vocal works, including a snippet of Canadian baritone Michael Donovan’s 1991 recording of Nothing Changes. The pieces are out there: we just need to go find them. As you trod, be aware that even the usual search terms won’t yield much: a search for “vocal” is likely to include any one of several world with spoken word (including his own vocals), and the ruminative artist often resisted stock terms like “opera” to describe his theatrical works. But the bits and pieces I’ve found in the last few days have been more than intriguing, and it seems to be a pool worth dipping into.

The point

Why would such an insistent appeal to explore a pianist’s work appear on a blog aimed at the vocal world? Because this is such a good example of what we haven’t unearthed yet. These journeys are worth the effort for the discoveries they bring, as well as the unexpected bits to be learned along the way This is the dilemma that prodded us to create unSUNg in 2013, and that need for more space for contemporary and neglected vocal music is still very much in existence. But the truth is, you never know where you’ll find a rare gem that has been hidden by an otherwise-focused reputation. You don’t have to run a series to be interested in finding something new.

As artists, we cannot depend on YouTube’s algorithms or the tastes of our colleagues to choose music for us. We cannot be content with the familiar, the popular or the widely recognized. Some of the greatest art songs I have had the privilege of singing and recording have been written by composers with an instrumental-heavy reputation, and I tripped over them by accident (and tracked them down in a pre-Internet world, btw). With or without the Web, we must be forever seeking, traveling through and living with the music we can access, and requesting the music we cannot (yet). Some of those pieces will speak to us, some won’t. But the treasures are worth the effort.

Mr. Rzewski’s passing is yet another reminder that we must never discount the “other” artists we think we already know, whether that sense of otherness comes from where that musician sits in the concert hall, or from irrelevant things like background, language, color, sex and creed. If ever there was a time to explore the artists we don’t know yet, the time is now.


If anyone has Rzewski resources they’d like to share, please feel free to include them in the comments.

If there are “othered” artists in the vocal realm that you’d like to shed light on, please Contact us. We’re currently looking for additional guest bloggers for an ongoing program that will start showing up on the blog later this summer, and I would love to chat with you.

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