Frederic Rzewski’s ‘Struggle’ February 7, 1974

The New and Newer Music series opened its season at Alice Tully Hall on January 27 in a program which featured the premiere of Frederic Rzewski’s ‘Struggle.’ The text is taken from a letter written by Frederic Douglass in 1849, and describes the constant struggle necessary to achieve social reforms. The message is still relevant today, and Rzewski’s setting for baritone and a large ensemble certainly aims to underline this relevance, though the music itself is always the main thing.

In each of the first six parts the baritone sings a couple of sentences of the text at a rather slow pace, while the instruments provide a background of white-note music which drifts through a number of tonalities and modalities. Some sections are rhythmically oriented. Others are collages of lyrical lines. All juxtapose traditional instrumental colors in unusual ways.

In the seventh and final section the mood shifts abruptly, and the ‘Struggle’ is quite apparent. The baritone reiterates the entire text at a fast pace, while the ensemble joins in one of those vigorous, loud unison melodies such as one finds on Rzewski’s recent album on the Opus One label.

Baritone Julius Eastman projected the text superbly in a straight operatic style. The Ensemble seemed to be coping quite well with their parts, which are particularly demanding in the final section. And the piece itself has a strong impact, thanks to the final movement, which pulls everything together in a wonderful, almost ecstatic culmination. Without ever ranting and raving, the piece makes its political message quite convincing. And its pure instrumental and melodic invention are almost as remarkable as its rhythmic vitality.


So far as I know, ‘Struggle’ has never been performed again, which is unfortunate, as this premier performance rests vividly in my memory.