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Marc Blitzstein

Marc Blitzstein

“Marc Blitzstein,” said Orson Welles in 1984, “was almost a saint. He was so totally and serenely convinced of the Eden which was waiting for us all [on] the other side of the Revolution that there was no way of talking politics to him. He didn’t care who was in the Senate, or what Mr. Roosevelt said – [Roosevelt] was just the spokesman for the bourgeoisie! When he came into the room the lights got brighter. He was an engine, a rocket, directed in one direction which was his opera [The Cradle Will Rock] – which he almost believed had only to be performed to start the Revolution.”

Although born to privilege as the son of a prosperous Philadelphia banker, composer, lyricist, dramatist, and critic Marc Blitzstein (b. Philadelphia, PA, 2 March 1905; d. Martinique, 22 January 1964) was driven in all his artistic endeavors by deep-rooted social conscience. Yet his was a formidable theatrical and musical talent, beloved and highly admired by his associates Welles and Lillian Hellman, Lehman Engel, Aaron Copland, and Leonard Bernstein, as well as countless fans of his opera Regina and his lyrics to The Threepenny Opera.

Young Marcus Samuel Blitzstein was a prodigy at the piano; by the time he was seven he had performed a Mozart Piano Concerto. He traveled to New York to study with Alexander Siloti, who had been a pupil of Liszt and Tchaikovsky, and made his professional debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra at twenty-one. Blitzstein studied composition at the Curtis Institute of Music and took advanced instruction in Europe with Arnold Schoenberg and Nadia Boulanger.

Yet, in his late twenties and early thirties, Blitzstein felt acutely the divide between the creators of esoteric art, especially composers like Schoenberg and Stravinsky, and “the masses” who so desperately needed meaningful – that is, useful – aesthetic experience. “Music,” he wrote, “must have a social as well as artistic base; it should broaden its scope and reach not only the select few but the masses.”

So he turned to the theatre and playwriting, joining The Group Theatre (forerunner of the Actors Studio) in New York where he worked with the likes of Harold Clurman, Lee Strasberg, Elia Kazan, and Clifford Odets, producing plays that dealt with pressing social issues. Blitzstein’s first play was Condemned, in 1932, about the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti.

The seeds of Blitzstein’s convictions were, if not planted, nurtured by his relationship with critic and novelist Eva Goldbeck (born in Berlin in 1901). They had met in Europe in 1928 and traveled extensively together, and he had dedicated his Romantic Piece for Orchestra and his String Quartet (both 1930) to her. Although they were both aware that he was homosexual, they were married on his twenty-eighth birthday in Philadelphia. Close friends probably viewed the arrangement as a marriage of convenience, but there is no doubt that their relationship was emotionally significant and intellectually nourishing to them both.

Three years later, suffering from anorexia and breast cancer, Eva died suddenly. Blitzstein was devastated. To distract himself from grief and loneliness, he threw himself into the composition of an “opera” – or musical – of political protest: The Cradle Will Rock. The idea had been suggested to him by Bertolt Brecht, and the notorious circumstances of the work’s premiere made Blitzstein’s name famous across the nation.

Set in Steeltown, USA, “Cradle” is an allegory of corporate greed and corruption, with union organizer Larry Foreman pitted against wicked owner Mr. Mister. The production was originally subsidized by the Federal Theatre Project, but at the last moment armed government agents surrounded New York’s Maxine Elliott Theatre, padlocked the doors, and impounded the costumes, scenery and props – even the leading man’s toupee. The ostensible reason for the shutdown was budget cuts, but it was almost universally believed that whoever was signing the checks objected to the left-leaning slant of the material.

Without missing a beat, director Orson Welles, producer John Houseman, and Blitzstein rented a piano and the much larger Venice Theatre. Cast and audience marched through the streets from one theatre to the other, gathering more audience members (for free) along the way. Blitzstein narrated the entire piece from the piano, while cast members spoke and sang their parts from seats in the house, as they were not allowed by Equity rules to perform on stage. It was reported – by Archibald MacLeish, for one, who was there – to be one of the most moving theatrical experiences in memory.

Welles and Houseman, prompted by their triumph, went on to form The Mercury Theatre Company (which, in its radio incarnation, gave us “The War of the Worlds”). Under these new auspices, the production reopened at the Windsor Theatre in January 1938 and played a total of 108 performances. Soon after its Broadway run, students at Harvard, led by young Leonard Bernstein at the piano, staged their own production, and from that first encounter Blitzstein and Bernstein formed a friendship of tremendous musical and personal importance to them both.

Blitzstein turned out two more political works, a radio play dedicated to Welles (I’ve Got the Tune 1937) and a quasi-opera, No for an Answer (1941 – “it’s later than we think and it has something to say that I want said right now”), before joining the Army Air Force for the duration of World War II.

While he was stationed in London as director of the American broadcasting system, he continued to compose: his symphonic poem Freedom Morning premiered at the Royal Albert Hall in September 1943, and after a grueling audition process he was commissioned to write a large-scale choral piece. The Airborne Symphony for soloists, male chorus, and orchestra was temporarily lost in the confusion of Blitzstein’s return to America in 1946, and by the time the original score turned up again, he had re-composed the first movement in a version he considered much improved. The new version was performed and recorded with Bernstein conducting in New York in 1946, but it has seldom been heard since.

By 1949, Blitzstein had reached his full stride in the musical theatre. Aside from a ballet, The Guests, he produced his most ambitious and significant work, Regina, a musical setting of Lillian Hellman’s play The Little Foxes (play 1939, film 1941). Although its initial run was a scant six weeks, later revivals (1953, 1958) established it as an essential component of the American operatic repertoire. It remains Blitzstein’s most frequently performed composition.

In terms of commercial and popular success, Blitzstein made the greatest impact with his adaptation of the Kurt Weill/Bertolt Brecht Threepenny Opera. After a trial production under Leonard Bernstein at Brandeis University in 1952, it was produced off-Broadway in 1954 and enjoyed one of the longest runs (2,611 performances) in history. By the end of the decade, Blitzstein’s lyrics (particularly for “Mack the Knife”) were on every tongue and had been recorded by many diverse artists.

But the successes of Regina and The Threepenny Opera were never to be duplicated. His next two musicals were flops: Reuben, Reuben (1955) closed in Boston and has never been revived; Juno (1959), based on Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock (1924), in spite of direction by José Ferrer, choreography by Agnes De Mille, and Shirley Booth in the lead role, lasted no more than two weeks on Broadway. In 1958 the New York Philharmonic commissioned a tone poem called Lear: A Study; it was performed and critically acclaimed, but has not surfaced since its premiere. The Metropolitan Opera commissioned a full-length opera revisiting the subject of Sacco and Vanzetti, but it was left incomplete at Blitzstein’s death.

In 1958 Blitzstein was summoned before the House Un-American Activities Committee. In closed session, he admitted that he had been a member of the Communist Party before 1949, but refused to name names or to cooperate any further. Although he was recalled for a public session, he spent the day in a waiting room and was never asked to testify.

Blitzstein left New York in November of 1963 to spend the winter in Martinique. Two months later, late in an evening of bar hopping and heavy drinking, he picked up three Portuguese sailors, and after a sexual encounter in an alley with one of them, was brutally beaten by all three and robbed of everything but his shirt and socks. In a hospital the next day, he was able to identify his assailants before bleeding to death from internal injuries. The sailors were later convicted of manslaughter.