The composer Frederic Rzewski, who died on Saturday at 83, left behind a complicated legacy. He wrote intensely political works but didn’t identify as a political artist. In the hours after his death was announced, some musicians described him on social media as warm and encouraging, others as prickly and sometimes troubling. Yet his stature in the field is immense, with contributions to the piano repertoire like “The People United Will Never Be Defeated!” — a titanic set of variations on Sergio Ortega and Quilapayún’s Chilean resistance song “¡El pueblo unido jamás será vencido!” He also had a widespread influence on a younger generation of performers and composers. Among them is the pianist Igor Levit, who elevated “The People United” to the realm of Bach’s “Goldberg” and Beethoven’s “Diabelli” Variations on a celebrated 2015 recording. In an interview, Levit said, “I cannot overstate the importance of this man in my life,” and he shared memories as thorny as Rzewski himself. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
My first year at university, a classmate and I would go to the library and listen to recordings of all kinds. We went in alphabetical order, and at some point we reached the letter R. There was this album by Marc-André Hamelin: a Hyperion recording of him playing Rzewski. I had never heard the name before, but I listened to “The People United,” and it completely blew me away. It was like seeing “Star Wars” for the first time.
I went immediately to the librarian and asked her to buy the sheet music. Then I went to the computer room, and somehow through a website I discovered Frederic’s email address. So I simply wrote him, something like: “My name is Igor, I’m a student in my first semester, and I just listened to this piece, and I really want to learn it. Meanwhile, would you write something for me?”
A couple of days later he gave me this response: “Dear Igor, thank you for this email. I appreciate your words. Regarding your question, if you can find someone who will pay for it, I’ll do it.” So I did, and that’s how I ended up premiering the second book of his Nanosonatas. This was the first time I received sheet music where it said “For Igor Levit.”
We eventually met in Berlin. He was playing at the MaerzMusik festival, and he asked me to meet him at an Austrian restaurant. The first thing he said to me was not “Hello” but “Are you hungry?” I said no, then he said, “Well they make great knödel with goulash.” I said I wasn’t hungry, but then he called the waiter and said, “This young man wants the knödel with goulash.” So they brought a plate, and before I could touch it his fork was already in my knödel. He just wanted to have a second plate of goulash.
He wasn’t too enthusiastic about me then. The first time he heard me was different. It took me a couple of years to be able to pull off “People,” but once I did I couldn’t get enough. He came to Heidelberg, Germany, to hear me play it, and afterward he came backstage. He didn’t say congrats. The only thing he told me was: “Can you just stand up and leave in the future? All this business about ending a piece in a long silence, what B.S. The piece is not about that. You play the last octave, you close the music, you leave, life goes on.” It takes a lot of courage to do that; but I did, and the effect on the audience was so much greater. It was a total breakthrough.
This is a piece written by a man whose main source of inspiration was life itself. He was the embodiment of the Nina Simone idea that artists have to reflect their own time. And “People” has this unbelievable ability to make every listener believe it’s about him or her. I’ve never experienced a neutral reaction. You’re either for it or against it, and this is what makes great music great. It is so awake, so hopeful, so alive, so uplifting. That’s why I believe it belongs up there with “Diabelli” and the “Goldbergs.” I used Bach and Beethoven to give “The People United” the biggest possible platform. In a way, that’s why I learned the “Goldberg” Variations, to make that project possible.
He wrote “Dreams, Part II” for me, and when I played it for the first time at Wigmore Hall in London, in 2015, he came up after the concert and gave me a hug, then said, “You’re a real [expletive].”
We grew close over the years. I became more brave and outspoken, and he would always support me. He would send me a long email about this or that; last March, at the start of the pandemic, he wrote one asking who was greater, Kant or Bach? Through him I was introduced to new music: by Morton Feldman, Alvin Curran, Christian Wolff. I wasn’t even thinking about politics before, but because of his works I began to read about the Spanish Civil War, the Chilean uprising. And eventually here was a composer I could call, and he would tell me about Pinochet, and we would talk about everything, from Lehman Brothers to the refugee crisis.
He was a real pain in many ways. He didn’t want a publisher because, he said, they’re all terrorists, bloodsuckers and gangsters. He was so contrarian you would sometimes have better luck talking to a wall. Yet he was always sincere and brave. And, in the most human way, he was always contradicting himself. He lived through a time when writing for piano was reinvented. This guy premiered Stockhausen’s Klavierstück X and played Boulez’s Second Piano Sonata. But once, when we were talking about Stockhausen and Strauss, we said that Stockhausen wasn’t as well known anymore and he said, “Well, Strauss simply wrote better music.” He thought the greatest music of the 20th century was the “Four Last Songs.”
For a time he was a teacher, but he never liked it. He said he was terrible. I know. I would call him and say something, for example, “Can you help me with Variation 34?” And his response was: “No. Just don’t play it.” I was like, “Are you serious?” Once, I told him that I was thinking about learning Stockhausen’s Klavierstück VI, which he played, and he said: “No, that was 50 years ago. I can’t help you.”
But his presence, just seeing him and inhaling the music he wrote, was essential to my life. He was a mixture of Marx, Tolstoy and Obi-Wan Kenobi. He was this defiant Christian, quasi-Jew atheist — everything at the same time.
He wrote this 75-minute-long piece, “Ages,” for me, which I premiered on his 80th birthday at Wigmore Hall. It was supposed to be 40 minutes, but he didn’t care. I’ve played quite a lot of his other music, too, like the “North American Ballads.” I also want to do “The Road” at some point, but he thought that was a stupid idea; he didn’t even know if it was a good piece.
He may not have been the most social person, but the music he wrote was the people’s music. He was the people’s composer. That alone is so important. He wrote for the people out there, and because he didn’t have a publisher he was able to give everyone access to what he wrote. And you look at something like “People.” It is an absolutely universal piece at its core; it’s not abstract, and people can understand it.
Frederic was never so naïve as to believe that “People” or “Coming Together” would change the world’s political outcomes. But he must have believed in the possibility of what music can do to people. It can provide people with an idea. A piano piece can’t save the world. But we can. He will not see the beautiful revolution he was hoping for, but the revolution will come anyway. And when it’s here, his music will sound with it.