Monday, February 25, 2013

Rzewski: The People United Will Never Be Defeated!

The People United Will Never Be Defeated!
Frederic Rzewski
Ole Kiilerich, piano

The People United Will Never Be Defeated! is a massive set of piano variations based on a 1973 Chilean folk song by Sergio Ortega. Structurally, it resembles Beethoven's "Diabelli "variations, or Bach's "Goldberg" variations. Like the former, it's a virtual catalog of compositional technique. And like the latter, its 36 variations are divided into six groups of six.

The People United begins and ends with the same simple folk tune -- but this is a work that's more about the journey then the destination. After hearing it transformed by Lisztian piano flourishes, complex counterpoint, atonal reinterpretations, aleatoric passages, and extended piano techniques, the listener gains new appreciation for this tune when it returns intact in the final movement.

Frederic Rzewski is a virtuoso pianist as well as a composer. Like Bach and Beethoven, he knows -- and continues to push -- what's possible on his instrument. And that technical command gives the work a sense of coherence. Like the "Diabelli" and the "Goldberg" variations, this piece is a marathon -- although more for the performer than the listener.

The variations of The People United have a rhythm and flow to them that pulls the listener along. The each of the six sections have a feeling of arrival, although only in the final movement does one get a sense of completeness.

In the liner notes pianist Ole Kiilerich writes, "I had this odd feeling that the piece was written just for me to fulfill my conception of musical expression and I felt an urge to instantly dig deeply into this overwhelming piece of art right away..."

That compulsion works to his benefit. The performance captured in this recording is engaging and exciting. Kiilerich has indeed made this composition his own.

The People United can be listened to in installments. The six sections provide logical places to enter and exit the composition. But I recommend hearing the work the way it was intended -- from start to finish. As I mentioned earlier, "United" is all about the journey. And it's one that's well worth the time invested.


  1. While I certainly agree with the nice things you say about Rzewski's The People United, you may want to note that the material is *not* a "folk tune." It is a protest song composed in 1973 by Sergio Ortega.

    1. Thanks for pointing out the error. I should have made it clear that the original tune was a protest song (that much I did know). I wasn't aware that it was composed by Ortega or when it was written (for some reason I was under the impression it was from the 1930's). I'll make the correction.