Frederic Rzewski's The People United Will Never be Defeated is one of those pieces that seems to have popped or plopped out whole and near perfect. While now I find it just a bit longwinded, it still works in its proportions and rigorous variation structure.
The work is a set of 36 variations based on the Chilean song "¡El pueblo unido jamás será vencido!" by Sergio Ortega and Quilapayún. The variations are relatively short, in six groups of six, with each more elaborate than the previous. The variation structure is as tight as a drum and the only weak spots are where this process breaks down. This occurs in the silly minimalist variation that goes on way, and I mean way, too long, and the placement of a cadenza after the thirty-sixth variation and just before the reprise, which subverts the entire enterprise if actually taken by the performer. But I am sure that is what tickles Rzewski no end. My guess is that he felt almost a political necessity to 'break free' of the restraints he had set for himself, to be subversive of his own created structure.
The work unites various sound worlds effortlessly, including the tonal and atonal; the virtuosic and the experimental; and it thrives on its wide emotional spectrum. It also presents an unbridled and un-apologetic romanticism, an aspect which I find attractive and refreshing.
The piece retains a simple but deep nostalgic charm. This assumes, of course, that one can put the underlying political stance at a distance. This I do with Wagner (a composer whom Rzewski studied no less) whose music I love but whose politics, as expressed in his writings, I detest. Here the case is just a bit different as I detest much of Rzewski's other music, like Attica, Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues, or De Profundis, not because these works aren't musically of interest, but because with them Rzewski shows that he is the Leni Reifenstahl of the contemporary music world.
This is agitprop that is vulgar, simplistic, and finally, pornographic in its political expression. Composers enter this world of the musical-political at their peril, as music works in aesthetic terrain with ease- it is its natural home- and the political realm much less so.