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Rzewski’s ‘Moutons’ directs players to get lost, stay lost

Frederic Rzewski's “Les Moutons de Panurge” references “Gargantua and Pantagruel” (1854 illustration by Gustave Dore pictured).Public Domain
Frederic Rzewski. Handout

This Friday, A Far Cry, the Boston-based string ensemble, presents a Jordan Hall concert including Frederic Rzewski’s “Les Moutons de Panurge.” The 1969 piece finds the Westfield-born Rzewski’s resolute experimental streak applied to a self-sabotaging minimalist process. The players (“any number of musicians playing melody instruments,” Rzewski specifies, “and any number of nonmusicians playing anything”) work their way, by additive and then subtractive means, through a fast, serrated 65-note melody; as they inevitably fall out of unison with each other, the impromptu counterpoint creates a blanket of harmony. “Les Moutons de Panurge” makes music out of those most human of elements, inaccuracy and error.


The title — “Panurge’s Sheep” — references a scene in the fourth book of François Rabelais’s epic 16th-century satire “Gargantua and Pantagruel.” On a sea voyage, Pantagruel’s companion, the clever, craven Panurge, takes revenge on the sheep-dealer Dindenault by tossing a ram overboard; the rest of the sheep (and Dindenault, vainly trying to restrain the flock) instinctively follow and are drowned. Rzewski's very modern interpretation of that image nevertheless can claim kinship with two of the more famous Baroque-era musical portraits of sheep: Giovanni Battista Martini’s gavotte “Les Moutons” (from the 12th of his “Sonate d’Intavolatura,” first published in 1742) and the chorus “All we like sheep,” from George Frederic Handel’s “Messiah.” Not only do all three share the same tonal center (F), but all make expressive shifts between major and minor. (Appropriate to its Baroque echoes, “Les Moutons de Panurge” was dedicated to Frans Brüggen, the great Dutch recorder virtuoso.)

The earlier composers may have chosen that tonality to leverage contemporary impressions of certain key characteristics — Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s 1692 manual “Règles de composition,” for instance, calls F major “furious and temperamental,” but F minor “gloomy and plaintive.” Handel’s chorus, certainly, invokes those moods, we sinners — like sheep — going astray in frenzied major, Christ’s concomitant sacrifice an abrupt curtain of minor.


Rzewski’s sheep, though, turn from minor to major, an anti-authoritarian, individualistic reversal of Handel's trajectory. (“Stay together as long as you can,” Rzewski’s score instructs, “but if you get lost, stay lost.”) The fourth book of “Gargantua and Pantagruel,” after all, is, in part, a burlesque of Homer's “Odyssey”; the overboard flock recalls Odysseus and his men escaping the blinded cyclops Polyphemus by clinging to the underside of his sheep as he sends them out to graze. Freedom, Rzewski reminds us, is a sometimes chaotic harmony between order and anarchy.

A Far Cry, with pianist Robert Levin, performs music by Rzewski, Mozart, Geminiani, and Ljova, Friday at 8 p.m. in Jordan Hall (tickets $10-$50; 617-553-4887; www.afarcry.org).

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.