Jewish Currents

March 1990 44:3 (480) p16-18
For Jewish Music Season, Feb. 10--April 30

Marc Blitzstein Portrayed

Mark the Music: The Life and Work of Marc Blitzstein, by Eric A. Gordon. St. Martin's Press, NY, 1989, 605 pages, ill., indexed, $29.95.

In reading Eric Gordon's elaborate of Marc Blitzstein, one seems to be reviewing the cultural and political history of the first half of the 20th century as well as the personal story of one of its most talented and germinal composers.

Starting out as a child prodigy pianist, Blitzstein received an academic musical education, but at the same time he showed a predilection toward the theater and popular music. In a rare fusion of the skills of the academic with the direct communication of the vernacular, he had a great impact on the musical scene and was an important influence on composers to come.

His political affinity with the left was initiated by his socialist father, but was nourished by the social unrest of the thirties and the creative ferment in the theater at that time. Along with these themes, the book interweaves his personal relationships to his family, his homosexual orientation and liaisons, his pro forma wife Eva Goldbeck and his dealings with his colleagues in theater, dance and music.

Eric Gordon has devoted tremendous research to his subject and to accompanying documentation and references. This must have been a difficult task, for despite Blitzstein's few popular successes, his career is littered with forgotten works and aborted performances. Contrary to the N.Y. Times reviewer, who thought too much space was devoted to shows he never completed or that flopped miserably," the circumstances of their demise round out the portrait of the composer with his frustrations and hopes.

Blitzstein was a brilliant student and later a critic, lecturer and essayist who left a legacy of his views on contemporary music, theater and esthetics:

"A cultural epoch is made up not only of the perfect work of geniuses, but also of the combined efforts of lesser talents, a whole geological formation of them. With them wiped out, the genius exists without subsoil, becomes isolated, ingrown, 'eccentric'" (p. xv).

In a program note for a concert in Cleveland in 1948, he wrote:

"My field is musico-dramatic, musico-lyrical and just plain music. If I find myself tending in composition largely toward writing music for voices, for the theater, for films, for radio and television, it is because I am a product of my time -- and my time is one of urgency and direct communication in the arts.... Subject-matter, as such, can never make or break a work of art. Its lasting qualities depend on the artist's personality, on the equation of content-and-form, and on a lot of intangibles. I am content to have my work undergo the test of repeated hearings, of Time and Tarnish" (p. v).

He spoke at a lecture at Brandeis in the early sixties:

"In the days of the thirties [my thinking] was strict, even sectarian. It is now now rather looser, more flexible and broader.... I believed then, as I do now, in the right of all men to have no need to ask favors in order to exist with dignity. I felt then, as I do now, that the questions who we are, how are we to live and by what, and by what values, are the most serious and basic questions there are. And that these questions cannot even be met unless such horrors as the making use of one man by another, one race by another, one class by another, one nation by another, are disposed of....

"...About my music technically: I am not an inventor or an experimenter. I say this flatly. I don't seem to insist on finding new ways to say things. I suppose I want to find an exact way to say the things I wish to communicate, and I am still benighted to think of music as communication" (p.502).

Blitzstein's life story is reported in great detail from infancy in a Russianized secular Jewish middle class family, his studies at the Curtis School of Music and the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, where he lived, with Alexander Silovi [sic: Siloti] in piano in New York, and in composition in Paris with Nadia Boulanger and Arnold Schoenberg in Berlin. He sought relief from his antipathy toward the 12 tone system of Schoenberg by attending the political cabarets where the advocates of popular culture like Bertolt Brecht, Kurt Weill and Hanns Eisler held sway. These latter had a profound effect upon Blitzstein; it germinated and came to fruition in his later works in the U.S.A.

During the 1930s, Blitzstein lived a marginal existence, dependent upon lecturing, composing for the dance, theater and documentary films. He began to participate in leftwing groups, the Composers Collective, the Downtown Music School, the American Music League, writing for various journals and supporting their causes. But the centerpiece of the book describes the writing of the music and text for The Cradle Will Rock in six weeks and the drama of its production on stage (and in the audience!) despite the obstacles thrown in its path by reactionaries in the government and unions, ironically against the pro-union play.

With the advent of World War II, the composer participated in many home-front activities until his enlistment in 1942, when he was sent to England, where he worked on short films, songs, etc. From 1943 to 1945 he composed a large-scale Airborne Symphony, performed after the war under the baton of Leonard Bernstein to wild acclaim by the audience.

The post-war period was devoted to composing incidental music to theater works, ballet and the opera Regina, based on the Lillian Hellman play, The Little Foxes. All this was accomplished in the midst of the Cold War while Blitzstein consistently fought the assaults on progressives. Early in the fifties, a production was mounted of The Threepenny Opera, the Kurt Weill work in Marc Blitzstein's translation. This was one of the longest-playing successes, which established the move toward the Off-Broadway theater. In contrast, Marc's opera Reuben Reuben, was a dismal failure; it closed in Boston and New York's opening was cancelled.

The unrelenting House Committee on Un-American Activities summoned Blitzstein to its session in New York on May 8, 1958. There he read a statement admitting his membership in the Communist Party from 1938 to 1949, but unapologetically stating his credo and continuing support of many progressive causes. This directness and honesty had been a consistent quality throughout his career. Later that year, after the distractions of the political hearings, preparations began for the production of [Juno, based on the Sean O'Casey play] Juno and the Paycock as a musical. It opened in Washington, played in Boston and arrived in New York on March 9, 1959 after a series of problems with the director. The work was a critical failure, but later some columnists considered it, despite its shortcomings, the season's best musical offering.

The idea for an opera about Sacco and Vanzetti came to Blitzstein on a trip to Europe in 1931. The result was a 35-minute dramatic cantata, The Condemned, dealing with a generalized abstraction of all people persecuted or executed for their beliefs. Then in 1960, with a Ford Foundation grant to write an opera for the Metropolitan Opera, he chose the subject of Sacco and Vanzetti. From this point on he was attacked by George Sokolsky in the press on the choice of subject matter and his political record. Questioned by members of the Met's board and attacked by others, he was beset in his work on the opera by self-doubt and confusion as to emphasis, by interruptions for lectures, by a conference in Israel. Back in Bennington, VT, he met Bernard Malamud and began composing two on-act operas on the latter's Idiots First and The Magic Barrel. (Leonard Lehrman subsequently completed Idiots First.) Finally, Blitzstein rented a villa in Martinique to work on these operas. But, alas, the Sacco and Vanzetti opera remains unfinished. Blitzstein was murdered by three sailors in an alley next to a bar on Jan. 22, 1964.

My casual acquaintance with Marc Blitzstein in the Composers Collective and as a staff composer in the WPA Federal Theater was enriched by Gordon's wonderful study of his life and ouevre [sic: oeuvre]. I well remember the last time I saw Blitzstein walking in front of Radio City Music Hall deeply absorbed in some inner thoughts amidst the crowd of people. When I said hello, he revealed that he was at that moment thinking about Juno.

The list of works by Marc Blitzstein at the end of the book astounded me by its length and breadth in view of his eventful and dramatic life and tragic early death. This well-written biography should appeal to musicians certainly, but also to the layman for its human story and its sweeping chronicle of turbulent times.

HERBERT HAUFRECHT, a new contributor, was a contemporary of Blitzstein's and is composer. Between 1929 and 1990, Haufrecht composed more than 90 works in many genres -- for voice, piano, woodwind, string quartets, chorus, chamber orchestra and orchestra. He has also written and compiled eight books.