[Marxism] Marc Blitzstein biography

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Dec 16 10:52:14 MST 2012

December 14, 2012
Rocking the Cradle


His Life, His Work, His World
By Howard Pollack
Illustrated. 618 pp. Oxford University Press. $39.95.

Although in the same league with George Gershwin and Aaron Copland, 
subjects of two earlier biographies by Howard Pollack, Marc Blitzstein 
is relatively unfamiliar for a variety of reasons, among them his 
leftist politics and his openly gay sexuality in an era when both were 
disdained. Three years after Blitzstein’s death from what was evidently 
a gay-­bashing in Martinique in 1964, Cop­land said, “It is 
disheartening to realize how little the present generation knows who he 
was or what he accomplished,” and Leonard Bernstein expressed dismay in 
1976 at “the rapidity with which his name’s been forgotten,” calling him 
“the greatest master of the setting of the American language to music.”

Since then there have been fine productions and recordings of major 
Blitzstein works like “The Cradle Will Rock,” “Airborne Symphony” and 
“Regina,” as well as some songs and instrumental works. A good biography 
by Eric Gordon, “Mark the Music,” appeared in 1989. But Blitz­stein’s 
rehabilitation is proceeding slowly. Although the three-volume “Marc 
Blitz­stein Songbook” was published more than a decade ago, most of his 
compositions languish in manuscript in libraries.

Pollack brings these works out of the archives and into the light, 
examining them far more thoroughly than ever before, and in the context 
of Blitzstein’s life and times. Reading “Marc Blitzstein: His Life, His 
Work, His World,” with the available recordings, scores and videos at 
hand, as Pollack recommends, is like auditing a graduate course in 

Born in 1905 and raised in a nonreligious Russian Jewish Marxist family 
in Philadelphia, Blitzstein was a prodigy at piano, a child with perfect 
pitch. By the age of 14 he had already formed the ambition to be a 
composer. He studied with Rosario Scalero at the Curtis Institute and 
Alexander Siloti in New York, and completed his education with Nadia 
Boulanger in Paris and Arnold Schoenberg in Berlin.

But Blitzstein’s career followed an uncertain path, as the opportunities 
for having his works performed were continually thwarted. “Svarga,” a 
ballet suite completed in 1925, has never been produced, though its 
score and scenario exist. A 1926 ballet, “Blessings of the Bath,” with 
gay overtones, suffered a similar fate, as did the follow-up ballet 
suite “Jigg-Saw.”

Some of his songs did manage to reach a public, including “The Dream Is 
Mine,” which was heard on Broadway in 1925; “Two Coon Shouts,” sung by 
Nelson Eddy in Philadelphia in 1928; and two of several songs with Walt 
Whitman texts that were performed in recitals. He gave the first 
performance of a one-movement piano sonata in 1928, but only after it 
was revived in the 1980s did it receive critical acclaim.

In 1930, Blitzstein’s one-act opera “Parabola and Circula,” his 
orchestral work “Romantic Piece,” his “String Quartet” and his ballet 
“Cain” all fizzled. His 1931 opera “The Harpies,” for which he also 
wrote the libretto, was not performed until 1953 and a piano concerto, 
also from 1931, for which he hoped to play the solo part, was not heard 
until 1986.

In 1933 Blitzstein married the writer Eva Goldbeck, and the couple 
formed a relationship of deep affection as well as dependency. They 
expected to go to England for a year, with Blitzstein taking a residency 
as a dance composer, but the company’s choreographer, Margaret Barr, was 
replaced by Kurt Jooss, a man whose work Blitzstein had excoriated in a 
review the previous fall. Instead, they went to Brussels. However, after 
attending a Communist meeting, they were arrested and deported.

With their finances shaky at best, the marriage, as well as Goldbeck’s 
health, spiraled downward, while Blitzstein’s musical efforts continued 
to meet with the same lack of attention: “The Condemned,” a choral opera 
inspired by the Sacco and Vanzetti case, was never produced, and 
“Orchestra Variations” waited until 1988 for a premiere at Carnegie 
Hall. After a battle with anorexia, Goldbeck died in 1936, only a year 
before Blitzstein’s breakout success, “The Cradle Will Rock.”

This pro-labor opera, which opened under the direction of Orson Welles, 
became a landmark of Broadway history: government security guards 
padlocked the theater; the cast, crew and audience staged a spectacular 
exodus to another theater, secured at the last minute; Blitzstein sat 
alone on the stage at a rented upright with Welles at a desk off to the 
side, setting the scenes; cast and musicians performed from the audience.

A limited run in late spring 1937, a performance for steelworkers over 
the summer and a full Mercury Theater production were all overwhelming 
successes, and Marc Blitzstein became a marquee name. After Bernstein 
led the Boston-area premiere in 1939 while still a Harvard 
undergraduate, playing Blitzstein’s score by heart, the two became 
friends for life.

“Cradle” was a defining moment, but Blitzstein was beyond definition. In 
the next few years he wrote film scores and the successful radio opera 
“I’ve Got the Tune.” He also contributed material to leftist shows, to 
nightclub revues and to several other projects, including a score for an 
anti-fascist “Julius Caesar” that was praised by Virgil Thomson and 
Elliott Carter.

Another socially conscious stage opera followed, about “the survival of 
democracy at home in the face of domestic fascism,” Pollack writes. 
Titled “No for an Answer,” it seems to anticipate recent events like the 
attack on civil liberties after 9/11 and the killing of Trayvon Martin.

Carol Channing made her New York stage debut in its 1941 production at 
what is now City Center and stopped the show with the incandescent song 
“Fraught.” But it enjoyed only a three-performance run, without 
orchestra or sets. Though it got raves, Broadway producers wouldn’t 
touch it.

When the war came, Blitzstein renounced a draft deferment to join the 
Eighth Army Air Force at 37. Despite colleagues’ fears, the move was 
beneficial for him as well as for the war effort. Enlisted as “an 
entertainment specialist with the rank of private,” Blitzstein worked on 
film projects for William Wyler like “Phyllis Was a Fortress,” composed 
the orchestral work “Freedom Morning,” coached the United States Army 
Negro Chorus for concerts at Royal Albert Hall, programmed shows for 
American broadcasts to Nazi-occupied Europe in advance of D-Day and did 
pioneering work in music anthropology in France when he collected French 
resistance songs, at times dangerously near the front.

But his major achievement of this period was “Airborne Symphony,” a 
12-­movement work about air power, for orchestra and chorus, first 
performed in 1946 by the New York City Symphony. The conductor was once 
more Leonard Bern­stein, who continued to champion the piece, recording 
it for a 1947 release, and recording it again in 1966.

In the two decades after the war came more memorable theatrical work: 
“Regina,” an opera based on Lillian Hellman’s “Little Foxes”; a 
brilliant translation and lyrical setting of the Brecht-Weill 
“Threepenny Opera,” which was a huge Off Broadway success; the stunning 
opera “Reuben Reuben”; and the musical “Juno,” with a book by Joseph 
Stein, who went on to write “Fiddler on the Roof” and other hits. 
Meanwhile, Blitzstein was called to testify before the House Committee 
on Un-American Activities, where he admitted to being a member of the 
Communist Party from 1938 to 1949, but refused to give other names.

“Marc Blitzstein” is the story of an artistic genius who refused to sell 
out, and Pollack has made a powerful case for his rediscovery. With its 
extensive and insightful descriptions of the music, this biography ought 
to win for Blitzstein the wider recognition and appreciation he so 
clearly deserves after so many years of neglect.

William S. Niederkorn, a former editor at The Times, is a playwright, 
theater composer and journalist.

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