Worth a Half-Century Wait

By Barry Drogin, Spring 2002 v. 10#1, p.26

Marc Blitzstein: The Marc Blitzstein Songbook, Volumes One and Two. Leonard Lehrman, Editor. Boosey & Hawkes ISMN M-051-93344-0 and M-051-93347-1.

The twentieth century has known a pantheon of "composer's composers" worth studying on the page. In American musical theater, the scores of George Gershwin, Kurt Weill, Frank Loesser, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim are of intrinsic value. The music of Marc Blitzstein, an outspoken leftist murdered in a 1964 gay bashing, was obliterated from music and record catalogues for decades. Finally, with the publication of The Marc Blitzstein Songbook his right to join this illustrious crowd has been affirmed.

Volume One, published in 1999, is the 'essential' Blitzstein, containing his most famous and most recorded works from Cradle, Juno, and even "Emily" (the "Ballad of the Bombardier") from Airborne Symphony, as well as "The Best Thing of All" from Regina. Also represented are "Penny Candy," "Zipperfly" and "Fraught," all wonderful comic songs, as well as enticing snippets from Blitzstein's late operas Idiots First and Sacco and Vanzetti.

In Volume Two, published last year, the Blitzstein archive is opened up, and is full of songs that only a researcher would know. In this regard, this music has been blessed with an able advocate, editor Leonard Lehrman, who years ago created the homemade A Blitzstein Cabaret with soprano Helene Williams, and was entrusted with completing the two late operas. In works where Lehrman discovered alternate versions, or notes in the orchestral score that don't appear in the piano reduction, there are annotations with footnotes and commentary. In the case of Sacco and Vanzetti, which Lehrman completed in 2001, he indicates what is extant so people can judge the validity of his completion job for themselves.

Blitzstein's layouts of chords, his harmonic movement, and his trust of melody and dramatic song structure are uniquely inventive. For example, Blitzstein uses a modal C minor scale in the melody of "The Freedom of the Press," which returns in D minor at the end. Other examples of this inventiveness are the bass amp on the first page, the major/minor melodic scale shifts in the middle, the grace notes on the third page, and the enharmonic chords at the end.

Admittedly, Blitzstein's music, although brimming with the jazz rhythms of his time, is firmly planted in common or waltz time with key signatures. This writer likes the way his harmony wanders, meanders and chromatically slides like Verdi and Chopin, and, there are interesting chords aplenty. Just try to make musical sense of "Art for Art's Sake!"

Blitzstein trusts the voice, and in some pieces does not back up the vocal line in the accompaniment, so merely playing through the piano part can be misleading. The beauty of "Bird Upon the Tree," for example, comes from the perfect interplay between the vocal duet and the music box accompaniment, which belies its subversive message that a violent uprising will be needed to free the downtrodden. You may disagree with what Blitzstein is up to, but you have to admire how he does it.

Both volumes independently proceed through Blitzstein's entire career. Like Copland and Stravinsky, Blitzstein experimented with a more atonal harmonic language at the end of his life, as represented by excerpts from Idiots First. Like late Beethoven, these attempts are difficult to understand at first, but are revealing upon repeated examination and in the context of his entire output.

One could go on and on analyzing these songs, but that is what score study is all about. The wonder, for composers, performers and music lovers everywhere, is that after a drought of fifty years, these pieces are actually available to be studied and, since the original sheet music has long since disappeared, performed. To aid in performance, and to preserve subtle variations in vocal rhythm and accompaniment, Lehrman has decided to allow several pieces to flow their full multi-page length, without repeat signs or annoying page turns. I applaud this uncompromising editorial decision.

Of course, I would like to see the famous "Rain Quintet" [sic: Quartet!] from Reginaand choruses like the "Ballad of Hurryup" from Airborne Symphony, but these do not belong in a songbook, although some duets [and trios!] do sneak in. Perhaps, after the work lapses into the public domain, a complete catalog of Blitzstein's entire musical output could be scanned by a sympathetic musician and posted to the internet.

For now, this endeavor has its commercial side. Boosey & Hawkes has published a wonderfully edited and produced pair of volumes, which include interspersed production stills, album covers, production posters and sheet music covers from the Blitzstein archives. but at what a price: $50 each! IT is ironic that this pro-union marginalized writer for the masses should have his work priced in this way, but such are the facts of music publishing economics. At least, after fifty years, these works are no longer lost. If it's your birthday, have one of your wealthy friends buy these volumes for you - it will count as a partial redistribution of the wealth. Mr. Blitzstein would approve.