Rzewski on Improvising in Beethoven

This time of year is SO busy that I often forgo the Sunday New York Times, since there’s not time to read it. But this week I did get it, to read the magazine article on young gay married couples in Massachusetts in the comfort of my own bed (perhaps because it would be nice to have a husband in there with me).

Had I not bought the paper, I likely would have skipped the story on pianist/composer Frederic Rzewski, and would have missed this wonderful portion of the article, which I’ll comment on in another post. First question that comes to my mind is what his reaction would be if other pianists inserted cadenzas into his music?

No question, Mr. Rzewski likes to keep listeners guessing. When he plays other people’s music, he can raise hackles by improvising cadenzas in the middle of such untouchable masterworks as Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” and “Appassionata” Sonatas.

“I do it because I think it’s authentic,” he said. “It’s what I think Beethoven would have done. A few years ago, after a concert at Bard College, a musicologist came up to me and told me very sternly that you could do that at parties but not at a concert. Usually people don’t hire you at all if they think you’re going to go in for such shenanigans.

“And maybe they’re right. My Japanese friend Yuji Takahashi, the pianist and composer, says: ‘It’s redundant. All the irrational stuff is already there, in Beethoven’s writing.’ I do whatever I think is right at the moment. One thing is for sure: You shouldn’t prepare it. Improvisations have to pop into your head then and there, or there’s no reason for them.”

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Rzewski on Improvising in Beethoven

  1. Eric

    Check out Rzewski’s North American ballads – if I’m not mistaken, full of places where the pianist is asked to improvise.

    If you find any Audio of R. doing this, can you link it?

  2. bloggersmosaic

    really kool

  3. Matt

    He’s great with people improvising on his own stuff — the piece Pocket Symphony that he wrote for us includes improvised cadenzas for each player, one to a movement. And when I did a completely written-out arrangement of his piece Coming Together, his reaction was positive in the sense that he liked that I took my own liberties with it, but negative in the sense that by writing everything out for everyone I ruined the “anarchist nature of the piece.”

  4. Eric Edberg

    Thanks for the comments and suggestions for works to check out. I like that phrase “anarchist nature of the piece.”

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