This month Houston becomes the first city in
the South to see and hear Marc Blitzstein's 1949
Today Blitzstein's name is barely recognized by the
American public; abroad it is virtually unknown.
Yet in his day, Blitzstein figured among the
most widely recognized composers, especially for the theater, where he gave
back in music the speech patterns of our entire range of social classes from
Greek immigrant waiters to society matrons. No one surpassed his genius for
setting American words to American music.
Ironically, it is not even for his own music that he is most
remembered, but for translating Kurt Weill's and Bertolt Brecht's Threepenny Opera. It was his version, starring Weill's widow Lotte Lenya, that
played off-Broadway for seven years in the late '50s and early '60s,
resuscitating interest in Brecht in
English-speaking countries. Weill's influence on Blitzstein can be found in many works. Indeed, some may
regard it as more than coincidence that the two composers shared the same
March 2 birthday. This milestone year marks what would have been Weill's 80th and Blitzstein's
the work with which Blitzstein's reputation now
largely survives, the composer summed up a life of dedication both to
American music and to high democratic ideals. It reflects the musician's
personal odyssey through a series of noted teachers (Alexander Siloti, Rosario Scalero, Nadia Boulanger and Arnold Schönberg),
through other musical influences (Weill, the German
exile Hanns Eisler, Aaron
Copland, the Soviet composers), and through the 20th-century political
movements and social causes he embraced.
Prominent in Blitzstein's work is the theme
of the underdog in American societv. As early as
1932, in a choral opera called The Condemned, he portrayed the sentiments of
a man on the eve of his execution for his unconventional beliefs. It was an
unmistakable reference to the martyred anarchist immigrant laborers Sacco and Vanzetti. The musical
modernity and virtual unproduceability of the work
relegated it to oblivion. When Hitler took power in Germany soon after, Blitzstein changed musical course. Now considering
himself a militant in the anti-fascist united front, he no longer cared to
write music beyond the comprehension of mass audiences.
After a number of May Day marching songs and sketches for left-wing
revues, Blitzstein produced the work which
overnight brought him fame, the "proletarian" opera The Cradle Will
Rock. Written at white heat in five weeks in the summer of1936, it was
inspired by and dedicated to Brecht, the exiled
German poet and playwright who had made his first trip to America with Eisler
in 1935 to supervise his play The Mother.
"play in music," as he called it, glorifies the industrial unionism
of the CIO in Steeltown,
mill community controlled by the Big Business villain Mr. Mister. Though
painted in bold black-and-white strokes appropriate to the pages of The Daily
Worker, The Cradle Will Rock represented less an organizing appeal to workers
and more a warning to the middle class that the historical moment now forced
the choice between democracy and fascism.
Failing to secure any producer's commitment to a staging, Blitzstein despaired that his opera would ever reach the
boards. Then Orson Welles heard the composer play
it through. As director of the WPA Federal Theater Project 891 in New York, Welles decided to
stage it at the Maxine
The large cast went into rehearsal early in 1937, soon followed by the
full orchestra required by the composer, who all along feared that some
contretemps would threaten the production. For in just this period, after the
CIO unions had forced the Big Steel corporations to sign contracts, and while
Little Steel held out, tensions between labor and the industrial bosses
reached the highest point since early in the century. On Memorial Day, police
attacked crowds of striking Republic Steel workers in Detroit and killed ten, seven of them shot
in the back. At the same time, workers employed in other WPA projects were
staging sit-down strikes protesting personnel cutbacks.
The opera was scheduled to open on June 17th. At the last minute, word
came down from Washington
- and, some allege, from FDR himself - that the performance could not go on
under federal auspices.
Undaunted by the withdrawal of government support, Welles
and Blitzstein were determined to rock New York with their
Cradle. They located the dusty, unused Venice Theater 20 blocks uptown, and
the audience marched. Scores, sets, costumes and props remained locked in the
Elliott. An hour late, Blitzstein began, fully
prepared to sing the entire score at the piano himself, if necessary; for it
was considered a breach of union contract for the actors to appear on any
other than the federal stage. But the cast had taken seats in the Venice, and with few
exceptions, sang their parts from the house, the audience straining necks to
locate the performers. The next morning, newspapers all over the country
carried a startling item about an opera banned by the government and produced
in unorthodox fashion.
In subsequent performances, the cast sang in street clothes on a bare
stage, still to Blitzstein' s piano accompaniment. In 1938 The Cradle Will Rock
became the first Broadway musical issued on discs. Leonard Bernstein
performed the piece when he graduated from Harvard in1939. From that occasion
dates the long friendship between Bernstein and Blitzstein
that was to yield premieres, recordings and many musical cross-influences. A
popular play for left-wing theater companies ever since, it achieved a fully
staged production with the original orchestration only in 1960, when New York
City Opera revived it with Tammy Grimes.
Marc Blitzstein began his friendship with
Lillian Hellman about the time of Cradle. They
shared a commitment to humanitarian principles which, as a self-confessed " moral writer," she had shown in her badly
received play about labor unions and economic paternalism, the 1936 Days to
Come. In 1937 she worked on a filmscript for The
Spanish Earth, a semi-documentary by Joris Ivens with a narration by Ernest Hemingway
, which presented a forceful defense of the Spanish Republic
against Franco's fascism. Together with Virgil Thomson, Blitzstein
constructed a score for the film from Spanish folklore recordings. He also
wrote film music for Native
Land, featuring Paul
Robeson. Robeson recorded excerpts of another Blitzstein
opera on a labor theme, the less successful No for an Answer. In later years,
Blitzstein would write incidental music for Hellman's plays Another Part of the Forest
and Toys in the Attic.
In the summer of 1942, when Nazism nearly vanquished the Soviet Union, the composer was 37 years old. Not one to
preach what he didn't practice, Blitzstein
joined the U.S. Army that August and embarked on a three-year military career
based in London.
He composed for the Allied cause and directed musical activities for the
American Broadcasting Station in Europe.
Among his achievements was a concert he prepared in 1943 using a chorus of
200 black soldiers.
The distinguished black tenor Roland Hayes was specially flown to England
to join them in Royal Albert Hall. The program contained Earl Robinson's
Ballad for Americans, spirituals and classical arias. Blitzstein's
men sang "Certainly, Lord," the chorus that later was to bring Regina to a gloriously
optimistic close. The London Symphony Orchestra performed Freedom Morning, a
short piece on Negro themes which Blitzstein had
composed for the occasion.
The Airborne Symphony, an hour-long cantata on the history of flight
and an alarm against militarism, came out of the war period. In it, Blitzstein specifically called for a Negro tenor soloist.
Premiered by Bernstein in 1946 and twice recorded by the same conductor, the
Airborne was revived by Victor Alessandro in San Antonio in 1953, when the armed forces
celebrated the 50th anniversary of powered flight. Again, the theme quickly
dated itself, but a good listener will hear more than superannuated military
slang and appreciate the composer's grasp of a comprehensive American musical
Once life had settled clown in the post-war period, Blitzstein hit upon Hellman's
The Little Foxes as the subject for another opera. The composer considered it
the finest play written in America.
He approached the author with the idea, and as he explained to a reporter on
the eve of Regina's Boston tryout, "She looked at me in frank
astonishment – and she wasn't the last one to do so, either - and said,
'Of course you may do it if you really wish to, but I don't know how you can
add anything to the Hubbards that will make them
any more unpleasant than they are already."'
By now America
was experiencing a second-wave attempt at establishing a native opera, with
new works by such composers as Douglas Moore, Gian
Carlo Menotti, Samuel Barber and Kurt Weill. At the
end of the 1940s it appeared as though Broadway were the proper stage for
this movement, as the opera houses seemed firmly in the saddle of the
appeared on Broadway, some in the audience demanded their money back at
intermission -they had thought they were to see a musical. But Regina was far more than
that. As Blitzstein put it, "I wanted to write
something as real musically to Americans as Italian opera is to the
Italians." Coincidentally, Hellman's
Montserrat opened on a Saturday, Weill's Lost in
the Stars on Sunday, and Regina
on Monday, October 31, 1949. The following month saw Blitzstein's
dance score The Guests produced at the New York City Ballet. Choreographed by
Jerome Robbins, it starred Maria Tallchief and
dealt with racial or social discrimination.
title role, Blitzstein invited Risë
Stevens to appear on Broadway. The Metropolitan Opera star declined, stating
that works like Regina
belonged in the opera house and only there would she do them. The composer
settled on an unlikely soprano, a member of the popular radio and stage
children's singing trio of the 1930s, the Pickens Sisters. Jane Pickens had
graduated to fancy supper clubs and to a regular weekly radio spot on NBC,
but had never given up her aspirations for a career in classical music that
she had nurtured ever since studying at the Curtis Institute of Music with
Marcella Sembrich. The part of Regina is exceedingly difficult to perform
eight times a week; Stevens' refusal is easily understood.
Others in the original cast included William Warfield and William Wilderman. Brenda Lewis sang the role of Birdie; later
she would assume the title role and record it for Columbia. In parts excised from later
productions, and thus from the recording, the well-known jazz trumpeter Bill
Dillard played as the leader of a New Orleans-style ragtime band and
nine-year-old Philip Hepburn danced up a storm as Chinkypin.
This youngster once delayed a matinee performance for 15 minutes because he
had forgotten and gone off to school that day. Aline
Bernstein designed the costumes and Horace Armistead the set. Anna Sokolow supplied the dances, and Maurice Abravanel conducted.
Regina is for many reasons an unusual piece, even for the opera house. Most
notable is the absence of a love story, though the plot is suffused with relations
gone murderously awry. Blitzstein saw Bizet's Carmen as an inspiration, for it, too, with its
spoken passages, is in the opera comique tradition,
and similarly seems to emerge out of a bouquet of dance forms. In Regina can be found
hymns, blues, foxtrots, ragtime, polkas, field songs and an entire musical
palette of the burgeoning 20th century.
The critics both damned and praised the work. Some condemned it for
having spoken dialogue, and others for being too
operatic. Some compared it unfavorably with the original play, a criticism
less meaningful today, as the play is not so fresh in the public memory. Blitzstein's old friends on the left saw Regina
as less successful propaganda than The Cradle will Rock, although Hellman's play, set in Alabama
at the turn of the century, could be read as an indictment of America's
economic royalism. After one performance a reporter
buttonholed Aaron Copland and asked him for a comment. Caught up in the
excitement, the dean of American composers replied that "With Regina Mr.
Blitzstone has created a milestein
in the theater,"
When he read the more favorable reviews, Blitzstein
felt that he could at last make a little money from his new show. But this
was not to be. Regina
was too far ahead of its time. Ironically, it paved the way for the Broadway
success of Menotti's The Consul, a moving opera but musically far less
interesting. Menotti's conservative, if not Cold War theme, however, appealed
to the critics, whereas the broad hope for black freedom in Regina had perhaps unsettled them.
Regina closed after seven weeks, a 20th of the time it had taken to write
it. The producer, Cheryl Crawford, showed her confidence in the work by
storing all the sets and costumes in hopes of a revival when the public was
In 1952 Regina
received a concert performance with Hellman
narrating, an occasion she describes in Scoundrel Time, her account of the
McCarthy period. The following year, the impoverished New York of Crawford's
City Opera made use foresight and staged Regina, with some musical tightening and
less spoken recitative. The company revived it last in 1959, and it has since
been produced in several other cities.
Regina was Blitzstein's last work to achieve
anything near critical acclaim, though financially he did better with The Threepenny Opera. Reuben Reuben,
an original musical for which he wrote both libretto and score, and starring
Houston's Evelyn Lear in her first stage role, met with the Boston critics'
disapproval in 1955. Through from a musical point of view it is one of the
composer's most brilliant scores, it never got to Broadway. Four years later,
another show did: Juno, based on Sean O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock.
Featuring, incredibly, Melvyn Douglas and Shirley Booth as dancing
singing-actors, Juno aimed with its bittersweet Irish theme for the kind of
success recently enjoyed by My Fair Lady. The music is several cuts above the
Broadway standard, but the whole production became too weighty to carry the
story. After two weeks it folded.
In the early 1960s Blitzstein turned back to
opera. Under a Ford Foundation grant he began a three-act work for the
Metropolitan Opera based on the Sacco and Vanzetti case. Simultaneously, he adapted two short
stories by Bernard Malamud into one-act operas.
Tragically, these projects were cut short by the composer's sudden, violent
death at the hands of three rowdy sailors in Martinique,
where he had gone in the winter of 1963-64 to compose.
It was an immeasurable loss to American music, for though Blitzstein had long since become a secondary figure with
a string of failures trailing his name, he represented the vanguard of the
theater and music world's social conscience. Even the ebullient generation of
the 1960s never turned out as sophisticated and committed an artist as Marc Blitzstein. Those who despair at the widening gap between
the contemporary composer and the general public still must return to his
achievements for study and inspiration.