Frederic Rzewski is 80

Friday the 13th, 2018: Mr. Rzewski is celebrating a big birthday in London as Igor Levit plays a premiere at Wigmore Hall.

Next Thursday the Del Sol String Quartet plays Rzewski music old and new at Miller Theatre.

Two years ago Zachary Woolfe offered a valuable look at Rzewski’s politics. These days “political art” is everywhere: Rzewski’s whole life is an example of walking the walk as well as talking the talk.

One of the more important items in my CD collection is the Hat Hut recital of four North American Ballads and Squares. This used to be hard to find but is now streaming everywhere.


It’s impossible to overestimate the impact the North American Ballads had on me. For a time I was playing my own folk song arrangements in the Rzewski style (“I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” “My Darling Clementine,” and so forth). This was the music that Yves Beauvais became interested in producing for a Columbia release. I didn’t feel right about entering the larger marketplace doing Rzewski knock-offs, so I blew Yves off. Six months later I called him back and said, “There’s this new band, the Bad Plus, which I think would actually be a good signing…”

Rzewski improvises his own terrific cadenzas. Recently I heard Igor Levit play “Which Side Are You On” and improvise his own cadenza. It was an exciting circumstance quite rare from a concert pianist of Levit’s stature. (I wonder if Levit would be improvising in public without Rzewski’s encouraging cue.)

Afterwards Levit told me there were two more Ballads composed since the first four. What!? Yes, indeed. Number 5, “It Makes a Long Time Man Feel Bad,” is a long and difficult masterpiece. Like most of Rzewski’s music, the score is available for free at IMSLP. A concert recording by the composer from 2000 is available as well, although there is something recalcitrant about the file (I haven’t been able to get it to play through smoothly yet).

The tune is first presented as a blues. Offhand I’d say there is only one person that gets permission to do this kind of thing — write an ornamented bluesy tune for huge European piano variations — and their name is Frederic Rzewski.

ballad 1

ballad 2

ballad 3ballad 4

ballad 5

(full score is at IMSLP)


Thank you Mr. Frederic Rzewski for an impossibly great contribution to music and humanity overall. Happy 80th birthday!