Rzewski Makes the Political Personal

02.16.18
Benjamin Beilman
The Boston Musical Intelligencer

Dog bites man is famously not news, and violinist and pianist playing Beethoven and Bartok sonatas isn't either, but a brand-new work from Frederic Rzewski, not only co-commissioned by the Celebrity Series of Boston but tuned politically to the present-that's news.

For the Celebrity Debut Series at Longy's Pickman Hall at 8pm on Wednesday March 7, violinist Benjamin Beilman will play, with pianist Orion Weiss, Beethoven's first and last Sonatas for Piano and Violin, Nos. 1 and 10, Bartók's Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 2, and Frederic Rzewski's Demons, a sonata commissioned by Music Accord, of which the Celebrity Series is a member. Beilman has been characterized in the Washington Post as "mightily impressive," and the New York Times described his playing as "muscular with a glint of violence."

But our hook is Rzewski's Demons, written for Beilman and Weiss spring-summer of 2017 and dedicated to Angela Davis. The composer, probably known best for his famous mid-1970s variation set The People United Will Never Be Defeated!, explains:

In Dostoyevsky's 1871 novel of the same name, the character Kirillov kills himself in order "to become God". Inspired by the Russian Nihilist movement of the 1860s and specifically by the charismatic figure Nechayev, Dostoyevsky's book is a study of the self-destructive forces present in the Russian society of his time. It foreshadows Lenin and the Revolution of 1917, as well as the ideas of Nietzsche and Freud, and had a deep influence on writers like Mann, whose "Doctor Faustus" is a similar study of modern Germany.

While it is futile to try to express musical ideas in words, it is possible to say that my piece is a meditation on similar trends in the world of today.

In early November 2016, I had the honor to assist at a spectacular performance of my composition "Coming Together" of 1972 at the San Francisco Conservatory, with Angela Davis as the speaking soloist, a few days before the presidential elections. There was a public discussion that followed. Davis seemed to know the results already. She said that if the Left had done its job, the present situation would not have arisen.

These and similar ideas were all going through my head as I was writing "Demons" a few months later. I am not religious, and don't know much about devils and such, but as an artist I cannot help feeling sensitive to whatever it is that awakens these ideas in humans, causing them to go crazy. I am not sure that scientists or doctors understand these things any better than writers or musicians. Perhaps, on the contrary, although we cannot explain them in rational terms, we can nevertheless throw some light on them, in our own way.

 Read the rest of the review here