About this Recording
8.559759 - RZEWSKI, F.: 4 Piano Pieces / Hard Cuts / The Housewife's Lament (van Raat, Lunapark, Marinissen)

Frederic Rzewski (b. 1938)
Four Pieces • Hard Cuts • The Housewife’s Lament


When asked how he makes his living, Frederic Rzewski prefers to refer to himself as a musician. When asked to specify further, he mentions that he is a pianist, and sometimes, when people continue to ask, he says that he is a composer, too. Being the composer of works such as the revolutionary and minimalistic ensemble work Coming Together (1971) and the piano landmark The People United Will Never Be Defeated! (1975), Rzewski has already established himself over several decades as a leading international composer of new music. Still, he prefers to call himself a musician: expressing himself and his ideas, in music, is his main concern. The need to communicate with his audiences blossoms out through a diversity of channels: the act of translating his compositional messages directly on stage through his own pianism is only one example of the composer’s all-encompassing artistry.

It is exactly this wish of Rzewski’s that has always set him apart from many of his colleagues. Although thoroughly educated in modernist techniques by his teachers Milton Babbitt and Roger Sessions at the universities of Harvard and Princeton, followed by studies with Luigi Dallapiccola in Italy, he never forgot for whom he was writing, and why. Rzewski’s works have frequently been associated with left-wing political ideas. Many of his works challenge the listener to critically rethink important themes in human society, such as dictatorship and slavery. He regularly does so by quoting existing, well-known melodies, rearranging them by both tonal and atonal means, and utilizing any musical style which seems appropriate for the situation. However, throughout his evolution as a musician, Rzewski has wished for his extra-musical messages to be interpreted increasingly as individual, critical views on life, rather than specific political associations.

The Four Pieces (1977) for piano certainly contain hints of protest. However, the composer never directly states programmatically the object of his protest. They were started as a sequel to the The People United Will Never Be Defeated!, a breathtaking virtuoso set of 36 variations on a Chilean revolutionary song. The Four Pieces also start with a catchy tune but, this time, it is an original melody and not one which is historically charged. However, despite the lack of a direct programmatic background to the melody, its Andean style hints at a protest tune of the Chilean people against undemocratic forces. As soon as the melody has been stated, the mood of the first movement changes drastically to a gloomy, but especially outrageous angry statement, with intervals of the melody literally shattered everywhere by large leaps and trembling tremolos. Influences of angry post-war modernism are never far away, but unlike some of the works of his colleagues at that time, Rzewski saw a direct communicative means by employing them in relation to a tonal context.

The second movement is distinctly lighter, with jumpy, syncopated rhythms and percussive major and minor seconds. Of crucial stylistic influence here was the saxophonist and composer Steve Lacy (1934–2004), a former student of Thelonious Monk, with whom Rzewski not only cooperated, but who was also a close friend. The optimism of the movement is probably only superficial, as there are several outbursts of dramatic lyricism in tonal settings, all reworkings or variations of elements of the principal theme of the first movement.

One of the most intensely dramatic episodes in Rzewski’s output can be found in the third movement. The presence of Andean slow dance rhythms is suggestive once again of a place which came to be associated with the people’s revolution for freedom during the latter stages of the 20th century. The bleakness of the mood can remind the listener somewhat of some of Shostakovich’s music, with which Rzewski has great affinity. The principal melody seems slowly to rise out of dirge-like silences, until it subsides once more into the dark, disintegrating into a complex shattering of simultaneous thematic motives. The silence before the final crashing chords is, literally, wordless.

The fourth movement is often played separately, but in fact, it forms a unique closure to this mono-thematic sonata. The mysterious, colourfully resonating chords in the very beginning gradually turn into some ferocious and even slightly scary hammering, until they have passed and given way to a rising return of the folk-like melody. Despite the innocence of the melody, the tune again transforms several times into almost angry hammering. The movement ends with a single hammered note sustained with the pedal, like a last shout into the world, for those who want to hear it.

Three years after composing the Four Pieces, Rzewski again returned to a preexisting tune, The Housewife’s Lament, composed by an anonymous composer around 1850. Its text was taken from the diary of a woman, bitterly describing her thankless rôle as a house worker, so typical for many women at that time (and still of many nowadays). Rzewski’s composition, bearing the same title, was originally conceived as a set of variations on this tune for harpsichord. However, he soon rewrote it to be played as a piano work. Although the work seems to start off in a complex way by stating motives of the theme in several keys at the same time during the first variations, the mood changes radically after the inclusion of a slave song, played in unaccompanied octaves. With strong influences of Beethoven, the subsequent variations are clearly tonal, lyrical, readily accessible and at times dramatic. The end of the work seems to receive a somewhat humorous, self-deprecating twist, when the tune is first jazzed up to sound like a blues (less humorous when thought of as referring to slavery), and to disintegrate ultimately into clusters to be played with a dust cloth, performing ‘energetic sweeping, rubbing, cleaning’ of the keyboard. The final bars remind the listener of the end of Beethoven’s last sonata, Opus 111: a celestial trill, with a last echo of the theme, as if questioning whether the situation will stay the same for eternity.

Rzewski’s most recent work on this disc, Hard Cuts (2011) for piano solo and ensemble is strikingly abstract when compared to the seemingly more programmatic earlier works. Its three movements, the second and third of which are connected without a break, again form a set of variations, but the theme consists of only four notes: B-A-C-H. Although there is no specific relationship to Johann Sebastian Bach—Rzewski ‘just likes’ the musical motif—the composition it forms is conceptually similar to Bach’s Art of Fugue: the instrumentation of both works is not specified, and just the melodic lines have been written down. As such, the piece can sound radically different depending on the instrumentation (in the present version, instrumentation was realized by Anthony Fiumara and Arnold Marinissen). And at exactly this point, Rzewski’s typical concern with society is symbolized once more. The bare, stripped-down score, with the lack of a pre-composed fixed instrumentation, represents the drastic budget cuts that the art world has gone through since the financial crisis which started worldwide in 2007. The title Hard Cuts can be doubly interpreted: as well as budget cuts, sharp cuts make up the form of the piece, where sections with very different tempos and characters confront each other directly without transitions.

Signature elements of Rzewski appear throughout the composition. The polytonal appearances of the theme and Andean rhythms in the first movement, the lyricism of the second movement, and the minimalistic textures of the third all make their appearances, despite frequent Anton Webern-like pointillism and Mozart-like clarity. But especially telling is the freely improvised cadenza in the third movement, where Frederic Rzewski again seems modestly to entrust once again the status of the composer to the players. Despite his unique craftsmanship and compositional artistry, he prefers to be a musician, and let others call him what they will.

Ralph van Raat

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