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Pianist and Composer Frederic Rzewski has Died, Aged 83

He was known for his cross-genre compositions based on anti-establishment social and political themes

American pianist and composer Frederic Rzewski passed away in Montiano, Italy. His cause of death was cardiac arrest from an apparent heart attack, his publicist Josephine Hemsing confirmed in an email.

Over the course of his 60-year career, he became known for both his stylistic flair and politically motivated works. 

“People keep harping on this political motif, and I’ve never understood why they think it’s so important,” Rzewski told the New York Times in 1997. “If it were pop music, it would be considered natural. But an American classical composer is supposed to be right-wing or an academic or just removed from reality.”

Notably, he composed a set of 36 piano variations on the Chilean protest song “The People United Will Never Be Defeated!” The piece, which is an hour long and has been compared to Beethoven’s “Diabelli Variations,” is a symbol of resistance following the 1973 Chilean coup d’etat — when General Augusto Pinochet overthrew the socialist president Salvador Allende.

Although he returned to Europe in the late 1970s, Rzewski was born in Westfield, Massachusetts. He attended Harvard and Princeton, where he studied with Randall Thompson, Walter Piston, and Milton Babbitt. He was also the recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship, under which he studied in Florence with Luigi Dallapiccola. 

Throughout his life, he constantly experimented with genre and technique — with a special affinity for spontaneity. He was a member of the collective “Musica Elettronica Viva,” which improvised using homemade electronics and performed in factories and prisons, combining music, community, and politics.

Rzewski is survived by his six children and five grandchildren. 



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