Frederic Rzewski’s work “The People United Will Never Be Defeated” is based on the Chilean protest song, “¡El pueblo unido jamás será vencido!,” written by Sergio Ortega a few months before Pinochet’s military coup in September of 1973.
Frederic Rzewski came to Europe as a young man, lived in Cologne and Rome, and created a sensation as an avant-garde pianist with his premiere of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s “Klavierstück X”. He worked with the leading composers of the time and was himself a composer. Parallel to the increasing politicization of his work, he distanced himself from the then-current stylistic dogmas on the musical level, seeking instead “a form in which all existing musical languages could be brought together.”
The most impressive result of this search is the variation cycle “The People United Will Never Be Defeated”.
For more than an hour, influences from jazz, minimal music, and folk music merge with the techniques of the avant-garde; tonality, atonality, and experimental, improvised passages are combined to form an ideological and compositional manifesto. All this entirely in the tradition of the pianist-composers of the 19th century, demanding the highest level of pianistic virtuosity. The “united” ideas of the work show themselves not only in the refined coupling of diverse musical styles, but still more impressively in the structure of the cycle: “The basic idea is to unite the people, all kinds of people, against fascism. … The variation form appeared to me the most appropriate means to make clear the idea of unification.”
“A masterpiece,” says composer Bernhard Wambach. “It is a work that would be unthinkable without Bach, but also without Stockhausen, Boulez, and Cage. Here the instrumental technique of a pianistic genius is condensed through compositional discipline into a challenge of a very special kind. Whoever wishes to interpret this work has not only to master a text of the highest pianistic difficulty, but must also 'take a position.' The pianist must embody a political perspective. Without such a 'position,' it is impossible to interpret this work of a committed socialist.” And this “position” can be experienced in Kai Schumacher’s interpretation.
“Here we encounter a young pianist who returns to interpretation the inner meaning of utopia.” (Wambach)