Jewish Affairs 20:2 March/April 1990 pp. 18-20, 23
Eric A. Gordon, Mark the Music: The Life and Work of Marc Blitzstein
New York: St. Martin's Press. 1989. 605 p.
[text in brackets was omitted by the editor, J. Alfred Kutzik]
[Reviewed by] Leonard Lehrman
Marc Blitzstein (1905-1964), the American Jewish composer and (often) librettist of a dozen operas of his own, translator and adaptor of several others (most notably the Brecht-Weill Threepenny Opera), was "by training a musician and composer." A major figure in the history of American music and of the American Left, "in the field of drama and poetry," he admitted, "I am an utter tyro." So "why in the name of common sense," he asked himself rhetorically in the New York Times of Jan. 5, 1941, "didn't I secure a collaborator?" This is a question which historian Eric Gordon must have looked in the mirror and asked himself many times -- or should have -- during the ten years he devoted to writing this book.
The answer is, in Blitzstein's own words, both "simple" and "complicated" (as Brecht said of socialism!). Although Blitzstein felt committed to the progressive movement in this country, he was very much his own man. And Gordon, whose prime identification seems to be with the gay rights struggle, is likewise stubbornly independent. The book thus has no musical examples, and little psychological probing beyond the (mostly homo)sexual. But it is obviously a labor of love, and an invaluable compendium of facts and anecdotes, with a good works list and wonderful photos, though not "the definitive statement of Blitzstein's work and life" it advertises itself to be. Gordon's experience and admirable perseverance as a historical researcher are not supplemented by superior scorereading abilities or knowledge of either psychology or musicology. But he has had a lot of help (250 pages with notes from this writer, for one*); and it is a start, that should lay the groundwork for more specialized studies.
The 1937 premiere of The Cradle Will Rock, with its striking actors defying Federal Theatre censorship and refusing not to work, was a water-shed in the history of the American musical stage. And it is a knockout of a piece, wherever an underclass of people band together to take power away from those abusing it -- whether the unionists of the '30s, anti-war activists of the '60s, or Eastern Europeans right now. Briefly mentioning Leonard Bernstein's 1939 Harvard production and mine of 1969, Gordon fails to note that mine was the only one ever done with small orchestra, as per Blitz-stein's original intentions - thwarted first by the musicians' union and later by management's economic exigencies, as John Houseman admitted to me in an interview taped in 1970. Audiences reacted to the '69 production with amazement at how current the issues it had raised remained; and we were invited to give special performances at very short notice -- both at an anti-war demonstration on the Cambridge Common, and as a benefit for a Tufts University student strike.
Following that production, on the recommendation of my former teacher Elie Siegmeister, I got in touch with Blitzstein's Estate -- his sister Josephine Davis, her husband, their two sons, and their families -- and discovered a veritable gold mine of long-unperformed and in some cases unfinished works: I've Got the Tune (a parable about the need for social consciousness among composers); The Harpies (a mythological satire); Regina (based on Hellman's The Little Foxes); Juno (after O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock); the labor opera No For An Answer ; Goloopchik (an American-Soviet friendship musical, killed by the Cold War) and above all the as yet unfinished Sacco and Vanzetti and Tales of Malamud - which had previously been offered to Leonard Bernstein, William Bolcom, David Diamond (who had, I learned later, been mistakenly shown the wrong work and declared the task "impossible!"), and Elie Siegmeister (who would later write two beautiful Malamud operas of his own) for possible completion.
Meanwhile Mr. Bernstein, who had himself gotten his start in the theater by conducting the first Cradle at Harvard in 1939 (mine was Boston's second), heard about my production. And when in 1970 I produced a triple-bill of Blitzstein's I've Got the Tune and Harpies together with Bernstein's Trouble in Tahiti (which had been dedicated to Blitzstein), the maestro came to see my work, shouting "Bravo!" at the curtain calls, and embracing me with the words "God bless you!" as I told him of my intention to begin completing Blitzstein's unfinished works. (The idea was thus not suggested by Bernstein, as Gordon states on pg. 536, but rather endorsed by him.)
Jo Davis was ecstatic, and immensely supportive. But when I spoke to her and her son Christopher ("Kit") about possibly writing a biography, she was markedly less interested than in seeing her brother's works completed. She was frankly not interested in protracted psychological discussions of her brother's homosexuality** - which had been an important element in the story of how he had died (at the hands of sailors he had apparently tried to pick up in Martinique). And politically, although she made me feel very much like her own great-nephew when I told her of my Red-diaper-baby background -- my parents had both been Communists at one time, I told her, to which she replied casually "We all were" -- she didn't think it was really anybody else's business. (Gordon has documented evidence of Blitzstein's CP membership from 1938 to 1949, and -- since the book's publication -- the probability of Jo's as well. In this day and age, these facts hardly seem to be anything to be ashamed about.) So I decided not to think about doing a biography, for now, and concentrated on my own work, and on analyzing and completing Blitzstein's -- which seemed in so many ways to be close to my own in style.
In December, 1973 I completed Idiots First, the first of a set of one-act operas in Blitzstein's projected Tales of Malamud, and discovered, from Cecil Adkins' list of planned doctoral dissertations in musicology, that a certain Jeffrey Lawrence at N.Y.U. had reserved for himself "The Works of Marc Blitzstein." Eager to meet him, I discovered that he knew quite a bit less about the subject than I. He spent a day going through my files; and I introduced him to Bernard Malamud and his wife, playing the new opera through for all three of them on Jeffrey Lawrence's piano. And then he (Jeffrey Lawrence) seemed to disappear entirely. Friends informed me that he had returned to his father's oil business in Oklahoma, and I never heard from him again.
Having completed my Masters thesis at Cornell, the essay portion of which was an analysis of the Blitzstein opera I had completed and produced, together with a companion piece I had written for it, Karla - based on another Malamud story (both operas are published by Theodore Presser) -- I decided in 1975 that a rewarding area of study might be the Russian and Jewish influences on Blitzstein, in which I could test and probably demonstrate my hypothesis that Idiots First was indeed what the composer Ned Rorem said it was: "Marc's best work," the culmination of a lifetime of searching for meaning and stylistic integration. After a great deal of research, however, I abandoned the project because I realized that no such study could be complete without reference to Blitzstein's FBI files, and Jo Davis did not seem at all eager to have them opened.
Three years later, having worked (briefly) with Richard Maltby and Geraldine Fitzgerald on a revival of Juno, staged a few scenes from Regina and No For An Answer, earned my doctorate in music at Cornell and conducted Tales of Malamud in its N.Y. premiere (with two pianos and percussion) while simultaneously holding down a position as Assistant Conductor at the Met, I received a call from a Dr. Eric Gordon who introduced himself as "Blitzstein's biographer." Like Jeffrey Lawrence before him, he too spent a day going through my files, and then went out to Madison, Wisconsin where the Blitzstein archives are housed. I wondered whether I would hear from him again. I did, many times.
It soon became clear, though, that Gordon's agenda was very different from mine -- or Jo's. We all shared an interest in Blitzstein's Judaic heritage, but he seemed much more interested in Marc's politics (his "Stalinism," he called it, disparagingly, although he gradually became at least a little more sympathetic to its idealistic aspects) and the homosexuality in his sex life (his "gayness," he called it, proudly) than in his music or in how it ought to be performed today. He could only read the scores one line at a time. Nevertheless, he moved along slowly but surely, interviewing hundreds of people, and spending a much longer time poring over written materials in the archives than I or anyone else ever had; and he seemed determined that he would write his book, somehow.
In 1987 Jo died (though not without first authorizing me to complete Sacco and Vanzetti as I had Idiots First ). And on August 22, 1988, the FBI released to Gordon their Blitzstein file -- "168 heavily censored pages" (Gordon, p. 558 n20), which did not appreciably change the content of the book except to show that, like so many prominent leftists, Blitzstein was harassed by the Bureau in the '50s and '60s and refused to become an informant. St. Martin's agreed to publish the book, with testimonials on the back by four prominent, provocative, gay American men. Reviewers were awed by the wealth, or sheer bulk, of information Gordon had assembled. Only the N.Y. Times seemed to take a hint from the stress on homoeroticism, and assigned a reviewer who was not a musician but an editor of gay drama, and who put Blitzstein's works down for being "already out-of-date by the time they were finished." ***
Other critics shared Gordon's views that Blitzstein's work had a way of seeming as though "his best work still lay ahead." (Gordon, p. 544) But for the most part they all joined in the orgy of mourning "his singing voice... stilled all too soon" (ibid). Recognizing perhaps that his stress on that which had been might have deleteriously overshadowed that which ought yet to be, concerning Blitzstein's works, Gordon published a letter in the N.Y. Native (Aug. 8, 1988) calling the fact that there has still not been an orchestral premiere of Tales of Malamud "a serious indictment of the world of opera.... I know that one day this will happen, but when?"
In assessing this important though flawed book about an extremely important composer, let us hope that more and more critics and performers will, as Joe Hill would say, stop mourning and organize, so that Blitzstein's musical legacy can indeed be heard by the large audience it deserves.
Mark the Music reads like a novel, in both the positive and the negative senses. It is full of suspense, but you have to wade through a great many facts and anecdotes to get from one part of the exciting (though often sad) story to the next. The style is not exactly tendentious as it is intense, but sometimes just this side of obnoxious: "The muscles of his hirsute arms reached powerfully into each digit." (Gordon's description of Blitzstein at the piano)(p. 23) ["How swell it felt now that his old friends could at last see him in uniform." (p. 267)]
Perhaps the most important of Gordon's discoveries was the film of a 1963 lecture Blitzstein gave at Brandeis. (Its quotation from Merchant of Venice inspired his book's title.) In 1982 he made an (unfortunately) incomplete audiotape copy of the soundtrack, which is now circulating among pirate tape collections, and the text of which deserves to be published in full. The tragedy is that now it never can be. For Brandeis has lost the film, and a year's search seems to indicate that it has been destroyed - further proof, as if it were needed, of Gordon's sad observation that "our society throws away its past, to our enormous impoverishment." (p. xvii) Gordon presents portions of the lecture on pp. 28 and 502-3, although with a few errors in transcription. Along with "Marc Blitzstein Discusses His Theater Compositions" on Spoken Arts Record #717, it is the best introduction to Blitzstein and his works that I know of. In one moving passage, not quoted in Mark the Music, Blitzstein is saying: "There have been many kinds of theories about the music being written today. And I would say that you may break all the rules, but the one rule worth breaking..." And here the film broke!
Gordon's analysis of Cradle is generally good, drawing on a great deal of sociological and literary research. He fails however to see, or at least to point out, Blitzstein's musical borrowings from the 1935 score of Parade, written mostly by Jerome Moross, and his lifting the belly-dance number from his own unperformed 1928 ballet Jigg-Saw to underscore the pseudo-intellectual Professor Mamie trying to dance to Mr. Mister's tune. The hit of Parade, Blitzstein's own "Send for the Militia" -- which was lost until reconstructed by me and performed in A Blitzstein Cabaret - is discussed at some length. Yet mention of its most delicious verse -- on birth control -- is omitted for some reason. (p. 104)
Regina (1949) is also covered pretty thoroughly, though sometimes a little confusingly. A list of the numbers referred to would have been a good idea, especially since most of them are not listed on the contents page of the published vocal score, and nearly all of them have alternate titles as well. [Then again if you find Regina confusing, try following the ins and outs of Blitzstein's family, as described throughout the book in great detail. If there is ever a second edition, or a paperback, it is very much hoped that a family tree chart will be provided!]
No For An Answer (1941), a far more problematic work, receives less attention. Gordon awkwardly labels the innovative number "Francie" "a fraction of a love song... one of Blitzstein's few love songs," completely ignoring the beautiful, haunting duet, "Secret Singing." It also seems to escape him that the character originally envisioned to sing the torch number, with which Carol Channing made her debut ("Fraught"), was probably a gay man!
Most unnerving is his treatment of the brilliant, autobiographical radio song play I've Got The Tune (1937). Failing to be affected by the contagious enthusiasm a live production of this work can spark, he can only describe it as "banal" (p. 156) and hide behind a smug Variety snub -- "satisfactory enough for the hysterical left audiences, who are not over critical of what is dished up to them." (p. 170) "Hey, which side are you on, Eric?" I wrote him. "There's nothing at all 'banal' about" it, "except that the militance of the words had to be toned down from that of a May Day mass song to that of a children's parade tune in order to pass the censors at CBS! Didn't you know that!? (That's why we changed some of them - to conform with Marc's original intentions.)" I was referring to the 1970 Harvard production in my adaptation, a pirate tape of which has been widely circulating anonymously among collectors.
The debacle of Reuben Reuben (1955) receives understanding, sympathetic treatment. Less so Goloopchik (1945). And the discussion of Juno (1959) has several errors: The words quoted on p. 428 are not from the song "What Is the Stars?" but from the far inferior revision, "Life On the Sea."
Gordon obviously enjoys quoting the words of the latter, with its theme of male bonding. Sensitive to the tribulation[s] of gays, he is however aware that "there were (and are) those in the musical world who felt that it was controlled by the 'Homintern,' the homosexual network." (p. 175.) But he does not connect that with the 1947 experience of Hugo Weisgall, who had offered to take over the conducting of a revival of Cradle after Bernstein did the premiere, and was given a run-around by both the conductor and the composer, from one to the other, saying later: "I didn't know if I'd been Berned or Blitzed." (cf. p. 312) Nor does Gordon mention the similar treatment, also with sexual overtones, given the present writer in 1978 by John Dexter at the Met concerning the possibility of my completing Blitzstein's Sacco and Vanzetti and/or his Mahagonny translation. [And although the book is packed with celebrity name-dropping, no mention is made of important young performers who got their start in the 1969 Cradle like Bill Grossman (my associate conductor, and now the associate conductor of Cats on Broadway), Bob Telson (who considered his Junior Mister "my singing debut!" and has gone on to fame as the composer of The Gospel at Colonnus and The Warrior Ant ), and Dickie Evans (who sang the role of the Polish immigrant Gus, transformed into the black Jimmy and later, under the stage name "Damon" Evans, was the tenor soloist in the recent London performance of Blitzstein's Airborne Symphony ).
An update is already sorely needed, as William Sharp's song recording and Maggie da Silva's No For An Answer revival (pp. 541-2) did not materialize in 1989 and seem unlikely to do so for a while, whereas A Blitzstein Cabaret has been recorded and will be out in 1990 on Premier Recordings with Helene Williams, Ron Edwards and myself performing twenty selections, sixteen of them never before commercially recorded.]
One last note on the question of the significance of Blitzstein's gayness. I am reminded of what John Fuegi said about Brecht scholarship in 1971: Martin Esslin believes Brecht was a great playwright despite his being a Communist. Ernst Schumacher believes Brecht was a great playwright because he was a Communist. Today we are beginning to realize that Brecht was a great playwright and he was a Communist. I think that's really what composers like Leonard Bernstein and Marc Blitzstein deserve too, vis-a-vis their sexuality. There have always been those like Joan Peyser who will claim that their greatness as composers was and is in spite of their acknowledged homosexuality. And now we have authors like Eric Gordon who insist that their homosexuality is part of the reason for their greatness. Eventually we shall see that they were great composers - and they were predominantly homosexual in their sex preferences.
[footnotes (not included in published text):
*My copy was inscribed by the author: "For Leonard Lehrman -
who knows Marc's music better than anyone else in the world.
Thanks for all your help. - Eric Gordon, May 1989"
**Neither was the late Virgil Thomson, whom I interviewed at length on tape in 1970, but who did assert offhandedly - after asking that the tape be turned off - "Marc? Oh, Marc was queer as a coot!"
***"'Moonlight' [Blitzstein's and his wife's code word for sexual intercourse] and Marxism" by Don Shewey, N.Y. Times , July 16, 1989]
Dr. LEONARD LEHRMAN is the composer of 6 operas, 5 musicals, and 92 other works[, which have been heard in 14 U.S. States, 9 European countries, the USSR, Israel and the United Nations]. His Tales of Malamud, the completion of work begun by Marc Blitzstein, won the first Off-Broadway Opera Award for "most important event of the season." [His Rosenberg Cantata, We Are Innocent, is available on Opus One Records, and his Requiem for Hiroshima will be premiered August 5  at The Riverside Church.] A Blitzstein Cabaret, performed by Lehrman, Helene Williams and Ron Edwards, will be released in 1990 by Premier Recordings.