Frederic RZEWSKI (b.1938)
The People United Will Never Be Defeated! 36 Variations on a
Chilean Folk Song El pueblo unido jamás sera vencido [59:46]
Ole Kiilerich (piano)
rec. Carl Nielsen Academy of Music, Odense, Denmark, May 2009.
BRIDGE 9392 [59:46]
The folksong on which these variations are based
was written in June 1973 by Chilean composer Sergio Ortega with words
by the Chilean folk group Quilapayún. The words in the title
became a slogan used during the campaign to elect Salvador Allende as
President of a left unity government. It was later made world famous
by another Chilean folk group Inti-Illimani. Inti-Illimani toured internationally
following the US-backed coup that supported the dictator Pinochet in
toppling Allende who was killed in the assault on the Presidential Palace.
Despite his last broadcast, during which gunfire can clearly be heard
in the background, when he declared that because of his love for Chile
he would neither be used as propaganda by the regime nor “take
the easy way out”, the regime insisted he had committed suicide.
Subsequent investigations have vigorously defended this assertion.
The song has become a kind of anthem for groups around the world conducting
their own struggles against oppressive regimes and has thus been used
in its original or adapted form by such groups in Portugal, Iran (today
as part of their Green movement), the Philippines, and many other countries.
It has also been paraphrased and even appears in a rap version as an
entry for the Ukraine in the Eurovision Song Contest in 2005.
It was in 1975 that the American composer Frederic Rzewski wrote these
36 variations and these have been recorded by Ursula Oppens who had
commissioned the work and to whom Rzewski dedicated it. Rzewski himself
also recorded it as have Stephen Drury, Marc-André Hamelin, Ralph
van Raat and now Danish pianist Ole Kiilerich. What is evident from
the start is that this is a monumental work requiring huge stamina on
the part of the pianist and an elephantine memory. In the booklet notes
Kiilerich writes that when rehearsing this work before a concert performance
there is no need to do any general practising of scales and etudes since
the piece “massages all the muscles in both hands and brain”
and I can well imagine that after hearing it. The tune itself is a simple
one and it is a measure of the composer’s ability to have fashioned
something as broad and far reaching as these 36 variations from such
relatively scant material. There is no doubt, for example that Beethoven
could have done it; nevertheless the waltz that Anton Diabelli challenged
composers to write a set of variations on was considerably more substantial
than this little folk song. The variations cover a huge amount of ground
and styles of music within its compass including jazz (variation 13),
folk (e.g. variation 29) and popular music and also include two other
references at various stages; to the Italian revolutionary songBandiera
Rossa (variation 14) and to Hans Eisler’s 1932 antifascist
Solidaritätslied (variations 26 and 30). The Italian reference
is included to highlight the fact that Italian families took in refugees
from Chilean fascism and Eisler’s song to point out that parallels
with today exist in the past and we must learn from them. Rzewski writes
in a short introduction that the “extended length of the composition
may be an allusion to the idea that the unification of the people is
a long story and that nothing worth winning is acquired without effort”.
Kiilerich writes that the work is “an ode to socialism”.
There are critics who have dismissed it as mere left-wing agitprop but
that criticism is as valid as writing off Wagner as fascist propaganda,
which others do. There are many examples in music of compositions inspired
by political events and the only valid judgement is whether or not they
are worth listening to. This work most certainly is although it is a
great deal more than that. I cannot comment on other performances since
this is my first encounter with the work but it seems to me that the
partnership of it here with Kiilerich’s interpretation is simply
superb music-making of the highest order. His own cadenza is a perfect
sum of the parts.
This is a work that demands attention. Kiilerich finishes his notes
by saying that the work reminds him of a time when “ideologies
were allowed to be spoken out loud with grand words and honest devotion,
rooted in the strong belief in a better world”. Despite his feeling
that we are locked into a time when “all we hear about is bench
marking, consumption, loans and crisis” I can see stirrings of
a new age of hope heralded by the Arab Spring, because the concept embodied
by the song is always true, The People United Will Never Be Defeated!