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Frederic Rzewski: “Life is a Riddle”

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We were saddened to learn of the passing of composer and pianist Frederic Rzewski on June 26, 2021. He was an extraordinary figure in the musical world, perhaps best known for his piano music—his monumental composition The People United Will Never Be Defeated is surely one of the most significant variation sets of the last half-century, and his composition of piano music in particular continued at an astonishing rate, especially in recent years. This post, however, highlights some of his chamber music that was performed at the Library of Congress.

In 2015 Rzewski was commissioned by the McKim Fund in the Library of Congress to write a new work for violin and piano, entitled Satires (this was his second Library commission, as the Koussivitzky Music Foundation had commissioned his Histories for saxophone quartet in 1993). Jennifer Koh premiered Satires in a performance in the Library’s Coolidge Auditorium on April 30, 2016, with the composer at the piano (you can listen to the performance here: Frederic Rzewski, Jennifer Koh & the Del Sol String Quartet). As it happened, Washington audiences were treated to two new violin and piano works by Rzewski that weekend; The Phillips Collection concurrently commissioned a second violin and piano work entitled Notasonata, premiered the following day. As you will find below in his notes about the piece, Satires is in five movements, the last of which is entitled “Life is a Riddle.” He doesn’t purport to have solved it, but instead revels in the notion that we are all to some degree eternally stuck in the moment before Oedipus can answer the Sphinx.

In addition to this new work, the public also had the opportunity to hear the world premiere of Rzewski’s 1955 string quartet, described by the composer as a “fossil of my youth [that] has come alive again, like some creature from Jurassic Park.” I had the unique pleasure of working with Rzewski and the Del Sol String Quartet in preparing the score and parts for the first performance of the piece on April 29, 2016, some 61 years after it had been composed. You can listen to this performance here: The Del Sol String Quartet in Concert.

In addition to these performances of Rzewski’s music in 2016, another positive outcome of the endeavor was the establishment of a connection between Rzewski and the Del Sol String Quartet. As recently as February 2021 they were still doing virtual performances together, and in fact the quartet commissioned and premiered a new string quartet from Rzewski [Words for speaking string quartet, commissioned in 2018 by the Del Sol Performing  Arts Organization, Miller Theatre at Columbia University, and the Randy Hostetler Living Room Music Fund, which has also supported new music at the Library]. Who knows if Rzewski would have become interested in writing a new string quartet had his early one not been given new life so many years later by such dedicated advocates?

Anybody who knew Frederic Rzewski knew that he needed little prodding to speak his mind. Fiercely intelligent and passionate about the things that mattered to him, he nevertheless allowed humor to assist him in a charming fashion. For this reason, I thought it best to give the composer the last word, in the form of his notes for the premiere performance of Satires. The piece and Rzewski’s thoughts about it embody the rare combination one finds in his work of profundity and a willingness not to take it all too seriously. We at the Library appreciated having the opportunity to work with Rzewski and his music, and offer his family and friends our condolences for their loss while at the same time celebrating his legacy.

~ David Plylar

Frederic Rzewski’s notes for Satires
There seems to be little, if any, agreement on what satire is. It seems best described by stating what it is not. It belongs to no particular category or style. It is neither poetry nor prose; neither art nor ordinary, vulgar speech; not serious, but not trivial either; nothing at all, really. It is a little like comedy, but is not necessarily funny. It is “realistic” in that it follows an impulsive logic like that of everyday life, in which anything can happen at any time. It is unpretentious, unlike “serious” art, but at the same time tries to be witty and entertaining. When successful, it is like a good conversation, spontaneous and unpremeditated, with no other purpose than to provide pleasure—while also trying to be useful. If you look at Horace’s Satires, you can see he is both funny and serious at the same time. Indeed, how could it be otherwise? The Rome of that time was fickle and unpredictable. He fought against Octavian. He could have been exiled to Dacia, like Ovid. Instead he, a nobody with no family connections, was smiled upon by a whimsical Fate, given a farm in the Sabine hills, where he was free to write and eat and drink with friends like Maecenas.

Our own time is in many ways similar. Is a certain political candidate funny or scary? The U.S.A. is often compared with ancient Rome. The difference, of course, is that we have no Virgil, but does anybody? Russia had its Tolstoy; but that was more than a century ago. Our time has not found its own form. It has no form. Shakespeare, Molière, and Monteverdi created a theatre in which the ancient models of tragedy and comedy were fused. To which does Don Juan belong? If you play Hamlet as a tragedy, it becomes funny. It is impossible to take Orfeo seriously, because he is himself responsible for his own undoing. Instead of facing the future, he looks back. All of these modern myths, Faust, Frankenstein, Dracula, and all the others, fail as tragic figures, simply because they insist on remaining in the past, refusing, in a ridiculous way, to get a life that is of today.

The titles of these Satires are self-explanatory, except for No. 4, “Southern Breeze,” which alludes to Abel Meeropol’s great song, made famous by Billie Holiday, “Strange Fruit.” (This has a particular significance for me, because Meeropol lived in the town where I grew up, Springfield, Massachusetts. He and his wife adopted the two sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, with whom I came into indirect contact.) No. 1, “A Serious Business,” is just what it says, announcing that we are going to hear some music that is not to be taken lightly, haha! No. 2, “One Damn Thing After Another,” is a kind of footnote to Hegel’s Philosophy of History. The title of No. 3, “Wig Bubble,” is an expression that my old friend from the Living Theatre, Steve ben Israel, used to use to describe ideas that came under the influence of hallucinogenic substances; it is probably taken from Lord Buckley, who was one of his heroes. No. 5, “Life is a Riddle,” is probably the most serious of them all. It may have some relation to Georges Perec’s novel La Vie Mode d’Emploi, which is, however, a masterpiece, while my piece is just a piddling thing. I’m not sure myself if I understand what it is or what it means, but if I did, it wouldn’t be a riddle, would it?

~ Frederic Rzewski


  1. I’m disappointed that this essay doesn’t confront Rzewski’s long history of harassment.

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