- The Marc Blitzstein Songbook by Marc Blitzstein
Marc Blitzstein’s search for an American voice and form had a profound effect on the American musical landscape. He is regarded by many as “the social conscience of American music” (Eric A. Gordon, Mark the Music: The Life and Work of Marc Blitzstein [New York: St. Martin’s Press; reprint, San Jose, CA: iUniverse.com, 2000], xv), championing leftist causes and creating controversy through his critiques in such journals as Modern Music. He worked tirelessly, often revising repeatedly, and produced numerous instrumental works, piano pieces, cantatas, and film scores. Blitzstein is best known, however, for only a handful of the nearly thirty works he composed for the musical stage, particularly the infamous “play in music” The Cradle Will Rock (1936–37) and the opera Regina (1946–48), based on Lillian Hellman’s play The Little Foxes. Despite the important place of his work in twentieth century music, however, very little of it has been readily available to scholars, performers, and the general public. The recently published two volumes of the Marc Blitzstein Songbook are a long-awaited and desperately needed remedy for this void. The songs collected in this edition span the course of Blitzstein’s career, with selections from The Cradle Will Rock to “Then” from The Magic Barrel (1962–64), as well as songs from Sacco and Vanzetti, an opera left unfinished at the composer’s death in 1964. The music also ranges from well-known numbers to almost completely forgotten, even unfinished, songs, such as “Few Little English,” recently discovered and completed by Leonard Lehrman, the editor of the Marc Blitzstein Songbook and tireless promoter of Blitzstein’s music.
Based on publishing history and present-day availability, the songs in the two volumes fall into three categories: a large number of songs never before published and until now only available in manuscript; the many fewer songs that were published shortly after the premieres of the stage works but saw limited circulation and have been long out of print and difficult to locate; and a few songs in anthologies plus the music from Regina, Blitzstein’s only published songs that were widely circulated and stayed in print. For each volume, Lehrman presents the songs in roughly chronological order, but there is no connection between the two volumes—indeed, I can make no sense of why some songs from a show are in one volume while others from the same work appear in a second volume. Such is the case for the songs from The Cradle Will Rock, and users of these volumes will find going back and forth between volumes both inconvenient and unwieldy. The projected third volume will add to the confusion, unless the editor is planning to include a master index to the volumes.
After years of neglect, interest and scholarship in Blitzstein’s life and works are once again thriving. Tim Robbins’s 1999 film about the infamous opening night of The Cradle Will Rock exposed millions to the composer’s music, and Gordon’s biography of the composer (noted above) was recently reissued in paperback. In addition, a quick search through Amazon.com or other commercial databases reveals numerous recordings that continue to make Blitzstein’s music available to an ever-growing audience.
Chappell published songs from The Cradle Will Rock individually as sheet music in 1938 (now difficult to locate outside of sheet-music research collections), and two of the songs, “The Cradle Will Rock” and “Nickel under the Foot,” also appear in the first volume of Lee Snider’s anthology The Chappell Collection of Great Theatre Composers (New York: Chappell Music, [1970?]; the three other Blitzstein songs in the collection...