Born on April 13, 1938, in Westfield, MA; married, 1960s. Education: Harvard University, B.A., 1958; Princeton University, M.F.A., 1960; studied with Luigi Dallapiccola in Florence on Fulbright scholarship, 1960-61, and with Elliot Carter in Berlin on Ford Foundation grant, 1963-65. Addresses: Office--c/o Esther Freifeld, EGF EPRC, rue de l'Aqueduc 104, Bte. 0, B - 1050 Brussels, Belgium, phone: + 322 646 3656, fax: + 322 646 3639, e-mail:

A highly respected composer and pianist, Frederic Rzewski is recognized both for his innovative works and for his strong political convictions. A founding member of the groundbreaking improvisational collective MEV, Rzewski's pieces often bridge the gap between classical music and avant-garde jazz. In The People United Will Never Be Defeated, arguably his most well-known piece, and in many other compositions, Rzewski has drawn on folk songs, narratives and politically charged texts to issue musical calls for social change. While Rzewski's unorthodox approach to performance and composition, as well as his political consciousness, was clearly influenced by the revolutionary atmosphere of the 1960s, his work remains equally relevant in the new millennium. In 2005 the Boston Globe's David Weininger called him "one of the most prominent living American composers and a prodigiously talented pianist."

Rzewski was born in Westfield, Massachusetts, on April 13, 1938. He began playing piano at the age of three and began composing soon thereafter. He took private piano studies in Springfield, Massachusetts, as a teenager and briefly considered a career as a concert pianist. Ultimately, he realized composition suited him better. "The reason why I got more and more into composition was that I'm lazy by nature and I didn't practice the piano," Rzewski told Ken Terry in a 1979 interview for Down Beat. "Composing seemed like a legitimate alternative to practicing. Even today when I have a few hours of time, and I have a choice of practicing or writing, I invariably end up writing. It's more fun."

Rzewski earned a bachelor's degree in 1958 from Harvard University. There, he studied with composers Randall Thompson and Walter Piston and befriended fellow students David Behrman and Christian Wolff, who would also make names for themselves as composer-performers. Rzewski earned a master's degree in 1960 from Princeton University, where he studied with composers Roger Sessions and Milton Babbitt.

Rzewski studied with composer Luigi Dallapiccola in Florence, Italy, on a Fulbright scholarship from 1960-61, and, using money from a Ford Foundation grant, he studied with composer Elliot Carter in Berlin from 1963-65. He met his Belgian wife, Nicole, while studying in Florence. He performed and taught throughout Europe for most of the 1960s, and took part in the first performances of groundbreaking composer-electronic musician Karlheinz Stockhausen's Klavierstück X in 1962 and Plus Minus in 1964. He taught at the Köner Kurs für Neue Musik in Cologne, Germany, during this time.

In 1966 in Rome, Rzewski co-founded the seminal ensemble Musica Elettronica Viva, or MEV, with fellow American composer-musicians Richard Teitelbaum and Alvin Curran. As its name suggests, the ensemble incorporated electronics into their work, often using rudimentary devices, but it was also dedicated to an improvisatory approach that helped revolutionize contemporary thinking about classical composition and performance. Often collaborating with avant-garde jazz musicians, including saxophonists Steve Lacy and Anthony Braxton, the group emphasized collective improvisation and audience participation, and their works often included dance and theatrical elements.

In a well-known 1968 event, MEV began a performance of its Parma Manifesto 24, a collaborative piece written for the Festivale Internazionale di Teatro Universitario in Parma, Italy, and including members of the Living Theater, among others. Fueled by the recreational drugs of the time and the anything-goes atmosphere, audience members took to the streets of Parma, prompting university officials to close the festival by shutting off the electricity before MEV's performance had concluded. The next day, in protest, students staged an occupation of university offices. Rzewski stated in a 1998 essay, "The Algebra of Everyday Life," quoted by Daniel Varela in a 2003 interview for the Perfect Sound Forever website, that the text of the composition centered on such revolutionary action. "The basic idea of the text---remember, that was 1968---was that we are living in a time of very rapid transitions in which older models guiding behavior collapsed and were in crisis. So, there's very little time to construct new ones and it's necessary to find new forms for human relationships. Improvised music was a possible music to find these new things and it's necessary to discover new forms of spontaneity and possibly save the human species from self-destruction." Rzewski appeared on MEV's 1977 release United Patchwork, and the ensemble continues to perform together intermittently.

During the 1960s Rzewski also befriended English pianist-composer Cornelius Cardew, an avowed Communist who applied his political views to his compositions. "Cardew wrote pieces that were convincing demonstrations of what could be done by using a tonal language with which large numbers of people were familiar to communicate advanced political ideas," Rzewski noted in a 1997 interview with K. Robert Schwarz of the New York Times. Influenced by Cardew and his own work with MEV, Rzewski's compositions began to increasingly reflect political concerns. He wrote two of his best-known works in the 1970s, after relocating to New York City in 1971. During that time, inmates at New York's Attica State Prison staged an uprising, demanding "the right to be treated as human beings" and taking several guards as hostages. New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller sent in the state police, and an ensuing siege resulted in 43 deaths. Rzewski's composition Coming Together hinged on the text of an earlier letter written by Sam Melville, one of the inmates who was killed. A companion composition, Attica, centered on a single phrase uttered by an inmate later released from the prison. When asked how it felt to have Attica behind him, the inmate responded, "Attica is in front of me." Rzewski's composition repeated that phrase, building it slowly and softly, one word at a time.

Perhaps Rzewski's best-known piece was the 1975 commission for pianist Ursula Oppens, The People United Will Never Be Defeated. The 45-minute composition presents 36 variations on a song written in 1969 by Chilean composer Sergio Ortega. The original song served as a revolutionary anthem for the Chilean Resistance following the overthrow of leftist leader Salvador Allende by the forces of dictator Augustus Pinochet in 1973. "I wanted to write a piece that she could play for an audience of classical-music lovers who perhaps knew nothing at all of what was happening in Latin America," Rzewski told Schwarz. "By virtue of listening to my piece for an hour, they might somehow get interested in the subject. I really was trying to reach the audience by using a language they would not find alienating." Terry called the piece a "landmark work" that "suggests everything from French impressionism and the quirky tonality of [Dmitri] Shostakovich to classy pop and [George] Crumb's intentional clumsiness. The work's theme has a distinctly 19th century ring, and echoes of great piano virtuosos like [Franz] Liszt, [Frédéric] Chopin and [Sergei Vassilievitch] Rachmaninoff can be heard in many places. Yet, perhaps due to Rzewski's satiric sense of humor and his uncanny skill in merely hinting at these diverse styles, the work is brilliantly original."

Unable to find a teaching job in the United States, perhaps due to his outspoken political views, Rzewski returned to Europe in 1976, living in Italy and traveling regularly to Liège, Belgium, for a teaching position at the Conservatoire Royal there. He continued to compose politically charged pieces, such as 1979's A Long Time Man, which presents variations on a Texas chain-gang song, the 1980s composition The Price of Oil, which drew on newspaper articles, and 1992's piano piece De Profundis, based on the writings of Oscar Wilde, which addressed such themes as imprisonment and homosexuality, and required the pianist to sing and shout.

Rzewski, who relocated to Brussels, Belgium, questioned the emphasis on his provocative themes in his interview with Schwarz. "People keep harping on this political motif, and I've never understood why they think it's so important," he said. "If it were pop music, it would be considered natural. But an American classical composer is supposed to be right-wing or an academic or just removed from reality." After years of searching for a more elaborate explanation, Rzewski has simplified his own classification of his work. "This used to torment me on airplanes," he told Weininger. "You'd meet a businessman and they'd say, 'Oh, you're a musician, what kind of music do you make?' and I always used to stammer something. But then I found a way that seems to work well. I say 'I do traditional music.' And people seem to accept that. And it's true. I'm just a traditional musician."

by Kristin Palm

Frederic Rzewski's Career

Pianist and teacher in Europe, performing work of Karlheinz Stockhausen and others, 1960s; instructor, Kölner Kurse für neue Musik in Cologne, Germany, 1963, 1964, 1970; co-founder, Musica Ellettronica Viva (MEV), 1966--; professor of composition, Conservatoire Royal in Liège, Belgium, 1977-2003.

Famous Works

Further Reading



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over 13 years ago

Hey, nice job on this bio. I am doing a paper on Rzewski and would like to ask where I can get a hold of the interview with Schwarz so I can use it for my references. Any help would be greatly appreciated, thanks.