Frederic Rzewski was born in 1938 in Westfield (Massachusetts). He had his first piano lessons at the age of three and began composing music at a very early age. He initially studied piano with Charles Mackey in Springfield and went on to study composition with Walter Piston (orchestration) and Randall Thompson at Harvard University and with Roger Sessions and Milton Babbitt at Princeton University, where he also took courses in philosophy and Greek. A Fulbright-Scholarship enabled him to study with Luigi Dallapiccola in Florence in 1960/61. His musical collaboration with Dallapiccola marked the beginning of his career as a pianist for contemporary piano music. His friendship with Christian Wolff
and David Behrman and his acquaintance with John Cage
and David Tudor influenced his development, both as a composer and as a pianist. During the 1960s, Rzewski taught and took part in the first performances of Karlheinz Stockhausen's "Klavierstück X" (1962) and "Plus Minus" (1964). From 1977 to 2003, he was a professor for composition at the Conservatoire Royal in Liège (Belgium). He also taught at various other universities, among them Yale University, the California Institute of the Arts and the Berlin University of the Arts. Through the live electronics ensemble Musica Elettronica Viva
, founded by Rzewski together with Alvin Curran
and Richard Teitelbaum in Rome in 1966, he was introduced to politically active colleagues and jazz musicians. The music of the ensemble is distinguished by elements of improvisation and the use of electronic live instruments. The aim was to revolutionise contemporary thinking about classical composition and performance. These musical experiences with the ensemble are reflected in Rzewski's compositions of the late 1960s and the 1970s. They combine elements both from improvised and composed music. After his return to New York in the early 1970s, his politically outspoken compositions probably made it difficult for him to obtain a long-term teaching position in the US. Since 1976, he has been living mainly in Rome and Brussels. During the 1970s, he continued to experiment with forms that treat style and language as structural elements. His best-known work from the 1970s is "The People United Will Never Be Defeated!", a 50-minute-long composition featuring 36 piano variations on a song by Chilean composer Sergio Ortega.
Frederic Rzewski lived and worked in Brussels. He passed away on June 24, 2021 in his Italian home in Montiano.