Articles written for Outlook by Leonard J. Lehrman

Review of Howard Pollack's Biography of Marc Blitzstein

July/August 2013

MARC BLITZSTEIN: HIS LIFE, HIS WORK, HIS WORLD. Howard Pollack. Oxford University Press, 2012, 618 pages

After tackling the life and works of two of America's best loved Jewish composers, Aaron Copland and George Gershwin, in thoroughly researched, well-written biographies, musicologist Howard Pollack set his sights on the lesser-known Marc Blitzstein (1905-1964). As in the other two books, sometimes the essential forest is not easy to see among the assembled clutter of trees, shrubs, and branches. A review in this magazine would seem to be particularly appropriate, as Blitzstein's work has of late been receiving more attention in Canada, and among Jews, than anywhere else:

* In April 2008, Pacific Opera Victoria presented the Canadian premiere of his Regina, after Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes;
* The 2012 Halifax Summer Opera Workshop (HSOW) presented the Canadian premiere of his Harpies and a recital of American arias, including several from the set of one-act operas he began, inspired by a trip to Israel: Tales of Malamud;
* At the May 2013 Opera America Conference, Theodore Presser presented attendees with a video taken from the HSOW, including an excerpt from Blitzstein's magnum opus, written in part while he was in Israel: Sacco and Vanzetti; that week, Blitzstein's music was also performed at the Peretz Centre and the Canadian Music Centre in Vancouver;
* Encores has just announced a new production at City Center of his 1936 labour opera dedicated to Brecht, The Cradle Will Rock, in July 2013.

Blitzstein is best known today for his 1950 landmark translation of the Brecht-Weill Threepenny Opera, first conducted at Brandeis by Leonard Bernstein. Some British critics found Blitzstein's rendition of Peachum too much of a "Jewish papa," but the long-running off-Broadway production inspired many of the great works of American musical theatre by Frank Loesser, Leonard Bernstein, John Kander and Fred Ebb, and many others. It also resurrected the career and fortunes of Weill, leading to the establishment of the Kurt Weill Foundation, which recently took over half the Blitzstein Estate, making Blitzstein's nephew Stephen Davis a trustee.

There were other Jewish aspects of Blitzstein's works, which Pollack examines, though not as deeply as he did in his Copland book, which had seven pages on "The Composer as Jew."

In a general sense, nearly every work of Blitzstein's can be seen as reflecting the humiliation he felt having to ask his banker grandmother for money every time he took a music lesson. She is visible in the matron in Parade, Mrs. Mister in Cradle, Madame Arbutus in I've Got the Tune, the title character in Regina, and Mr. Fishbein in Idiots First.

On p. 84, Pollack comments that the 1930 ballet Cain "rather uniquely," among Blitzstein's early compositions, has "Hebraic roots": "a certain Judaic quality subtly informs the music." The work was praised by Copland and Nadia Boulanger (who taught both of them), but rejected by several conductors. Its only performances to date have been excerpts, with piano, though the great Habima dancer/choreographer Benjamin Zemach (1901-1997) did try out parts of the ballet with his company, taking the title role himself. Thirty-two years later, Blitzstein reused and developed the music for the innocent Abel to personify the likewise innocent Itzak, the title role in Idiots First.

In 1935, Blitzstein offered to write an English translation of Kurt Weill's Biblical epic The Eternal Road, a work that still cries out for a good English text. Weill unfortunately turned him down.

The character of Maxie Kraus, a Jewish lawyer in the 1941 No for an Answer is the butt of humour as he tries to help a labour organizer, who then laughs at his being under the influence of "Jewish power." More significantly, the character of Harry Druggist in Cradle is portrayed as money-worried and guilt-ridden, for not having stood up to tyranny. The best productions of the piece to date have cast him with a Jewish actor. The 1960 City Opera production failed in that regard, casting an Irishman. It is hoped that the upcoming production will not make that mistake!

In 1942-48, Blitzstein worked on an American-Soviet friendship musical, to be called Goloopchik. Killed by the Cold War, a few of the numbers have had a life of their own, especially the Song of the D.P., or "Displaced," about a returnee "repatriated to Russia" after the war. The line in the song, "Make me find the joy of work again," Pollack points out, alludes to the Nazi slogan, "Arbeit macht frei" (p. 303). Blitzstein reused this music 17 years later in a moving scene from Idiots First, during which the protagonist Mendel "becomes a big character," in Leonard Bernstein's words (p. 490). The modal harmonies that contribute to the nobility of utterance here are both Russian and Jewish.

In working on Sacco and Vanzetti, commissioned by the Ford Foundation for the Metropolitan Opera, in Rome and in Israel, Blitzstein wrote in his journal (quoted by Pollack): "Have to be Jewish to feel for Sacco-Vanzetti (or, it doesn't hurt)." Blitzstein's impressions of Israel, and the impressions of him recalled by his cousins still living in Haifa, were overwhelmingly positive. He even talked of finding a "home" there.

This in turn led to his most important Jewish work, which Ned Rorem called "his best work," the award-winning opera Idiots First, based on the eponymous story by Bernard Malamud, which combines both the Akedah of the sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis and the Christian Everyman story. It has been called the most powerful Jewish opera ever written. After I completed it, and played it for Leonard Bernstein, he called Blitzstein "the greatest master of the setting of the American language to music," and referred to me as "Marc Blitzstein's dybbuk." (The exact meaning of his use of that term has been debated, but he seems to have been inspired by his own 1974 Dybbuk Variations, written with Jerome Robbins, whose choreography of Blitzstein's The Guests was a precursor of West Side Story.)

All this is in Pollack's book, mostly in a final chapter (of 25) on "The Unfinished Operas." Pollack has built on the work of Blitzstein's first biographer, Eric Gordon (Mark the Music: The Life and Work of Marc Blitzstein, St. Martin's, NY, 1989), and my own Marc Blitzstein: A Bio-Bibliography (Praeger, Westport, CT, 2005), correcting minor errors and finding small things (like a Moscow Subway Song!) that had escaped the notice of both Gordon and myself. Pollack manages to integrate social and psychological analysis with fairly detailed musical analysis, abetted by an ability to read through scores at the piano himself. Credit him with discovering, for example, that the Scherzo "Bourgeois at Play" was derived directly from the discarded "Romantic Piece for Orchestra."

Gordon's book concentrated more on the life (especially the sex life) than the work. But he did come across as a passionate advocate for Idiots First, and is owed a tremendous debt of gratitude for inspiring the Center for Contemporary Opera to give that work its orchestral premiere in 1992. I, and others, had so hoped that Pollack's book would do the same for Sacco and Vanzetti, premiered with piano at the White Barn Theatre in Connecticut in August, 2001 and still awaiting its orchestral premiere. On page 486 Pollack does call for "more performances of the work," but the lack of a ringing endorsement has caused most reviewers to ignore it almost entirely.

Benjamin Ivry's review in The Forward praises Idiots First unreservedly, but describes Sacco as having evoked "critical ire." This refers to one writer who did not attend a performance but published a diatribe against the work's completion in the November 2001 Opera News, thereby provoking what the magazine itself called a "storm of protest"--14 letters. Unfortunately, even this outpouring of support has not led to a new production, no doubt partly because in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, no companies were interested in an opera with anarchists as heroes-or at least not until Occupy began.

In Pollack's Blitzstein book, as in his Gershwin biography, which delved into the plot minutiae of every show his subject worked on, every scrap of Blitzstein's own work is examined in detail. But the completions are given relatively short shrift. And the performances and first recordings of Blitzstein/Lehrman works that Helene Williams and I have done, like "Few Little English," "Send for the Militia," "War Song," "Lovely to Get Back to Love," and the Rupert Brooke "Song," are not mentioned. The 2005 premieres of Blitzstein's translation of the Brecht-Dessau Mother Courage and his (incomplete) La Traviata translation are discussed, but the premiere of excerpts from his translation of the Brecht-Weill Mahagonny that year is not.

Charles Osborne, currently Cantor at Temple Sinai in Toronto, is mentioned as having sung the title role in the NY premiere of Idiots First. Present at the premiere of Sacco, he called it "a masterpiece." Brenda Lewis, the first Birdie in Regina who later went on to triumph in the title role as well, told me: "Everything Marc wrote was only preparation for Sacco and Vanzetti." The full measure of this great American's legacy will not be known at least until that work is given the orchestral premiere it deserves--perhaps in Canada?

LEONARD LEHRMAN, formerly Assistant Conductor of the Metropolitan Opera and founder of the Juedischer Musiktheaterverein Berlin and the Metropolitan Philharmonic Chorus, is the composer of 212 works to date, including 10 operas and 6 musicals. A contributor to Jewish Currents since 1981, he lives and teaches in Valley Stream, NY. In 2014 he will be offering the first course in Jewish Opera at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.