How I Get Down on May Day: Rzewski’s “The People United Will Never Be Defeated”

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Tomorrow is May Day folks, and for those who know me well they know that on May Day there’s one thing I always do to celebrate: I put on Frederic Rzewski’s “The People United Will Never Be Defeated” and blast it from my speakers (for you piano nerds out there I get down to Hamelin’s recording).  If you’re not familiar with the 1975 piece, it’s an epic theme and variations (36 variations in all) on the Chilean revolutionary song by Sergio Ortega.

Musicologist and composer Kyle Gann call’s Rzewski’s composition “one of the great works of the American piano literature, and probably the most popular piano work the 1970s produced . . . This is despite, if not because of, a complexly intellectual structure and a range of styles that encompasses jazz, modal quasi-improvisation, serialist fragmentation, minimalist patterns, Romantic climaxes, and Ivesian texture layering.”  Gann also notes that “like Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” and Op. 111 Sonatas, ‘The People United’ has become one of the piano works pianists venture as a way of proving their mastery in the most technically and emotionally challenging large forms.  In it, Rzewski proved that music could be complex in structure and still win over enthusiastic audiences time and again.” (Gann, American Music in the 20th Century, 236-237, 239)

Now if that description and the fact that tomorrow is May Day makes you interested in checking out the work, dig the you tube video below, which is a recording of Yuji Takahashi’s performance of the piece in 1978.  Enjoy.

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