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At-A-Glance

Listen to audio:

Length: c. 60 minutes

Orchestration: solo piano

About this Piece

As a classically trained composer and sound engineer, a composition professor, and director of the television station run by the Universidad de Chile, Sergio Ortega (1938-2003) was in an excellent place to become the musical voice of the Chilean left, which he did with inspired energy and skill. He wrote Salvador Allende‘s campaign theme song and then turned Allende’s political program into a theme album, recorded by Inti-Illimani. He wrote anthems for the Partido Radical, the Juventudes Comunistas, and the Central Única de Trabajadores, but is best-known for “¡El pueblo unido, jamás será vencido!” (The People United Will Never Be Defeated), which became the anthem of Allende’s Unidad Popular.

“One day in June, 1973, three months before the bombing by Pinochet’s military coup,” Otega wrote, “I was walking through the plaza in front of the Palace of Finance in Santiago, Chile, and saw a street singer shouting, ‘The people united will never be defeated’ – a well-known Chilean chant for social change. I couldn’t stop, and continued across the square, but his incessant chanting followed me and stuck in my mind.

“On the following Sunday, after the broadcast of the show Chile Says No to Civil War, which I directed for Channel 9, we went with a few artists to eat at my house outside Santiago. Upon arrival, I sat down at my piano and thought about the experience in the plaza and the events at large. When I reproduced the chant of the people in my head, the chant that could not be restrained, the entire melody exploded from me: I saw it complete and played it in its entirety at once. The text unfurled itself quickly and fell, like falling rocks, upon the melody… The song was performed in public two days later by the group Quilapayún in a heavily attended concert in the Alameda.”

In the aftermath of the military coup that deposed Allende, the song became a call to action for the resistance in Chile, and soon spread around the world. It has been recorded, paraphrased, and sampled in many forms and languages, by artists ranging from jazz bassist Charlie Haden to Thievery Corporation and Big Sean in the U.S. alone; still current, it was sung in Cantonese by the protesters in Hong Kong last year.

In 1975, Rzewski – who counted Ortega among his close friends – composed a stunning set of 36 variations on the song. Rzewski grouped his variations in six cycles, with each variation a stage of musical development; the six cycles reflect the meta-development of those six stages. The music ranges over lyrical reflections and thorny counterpoint, with a broad palette of extended piano techniques, including singing and whistling.

“Two songs,” Rzewski wrote, “aside from the theme itself, appear at various points: the Italian revolutionary song ‘Bandiera Rossa,’ in reference to the Italian people who in the ’70s opened their doors to so many refugees from Chilean fascism, and Hanns Eisler’s 1932 antifascist ‘Solidaritätslied,’ a reminder that parallels to present threats existed in the past and that it is important to learn from them. After the sixth cycle, the pianist is offered the option of improvising a cadenza... The extended length of the composition may be an allusion to the idea that the unification of people is a long story and that nothing worth winning is acquired without effort.”

-John Henken