- Marc Blitzstein: His Life, His Work, His World by Howard Pollack
Just as the composer Franz Liszt was more than a transcriber of Beethoven symphonies, Schubert lieder, and Wagner arias, Marc Blitzstein, the translator of Die Dreigroschenoper, deserves far more recognition as a composer in his own right than he has so far received. In fact, it may be time to reconsider the statement of his eminently more successful longtime friend and supporter Leonard Bernstein, who appeared to dismiss Blitzstein's musical achievement when he described his former mentor's career as a "long chain of beautiful work-failures" (p. 186). Despite this implicit criticism, it should be noted that Bernstein clearly admired at least one dimension of Blitzstein's legacy when he praised his friend as "the greatest master of the setting of the American language to music" (p. 500).
Bernstein's (and nearly everyone else's) seemingly contradictory assessment of Blitzstein can be found in Howard Pollack's magisterial and revelatory new 600-page biography, Marc Blitzstein: His Life, His Work, His World, a biography which follows (and surpasses) Eric Gordon's earlier 600-page well-researched, enlightening, and pioneering study of America's first (and perhaps only, to date) major Jewish-Communist-gay composer (Mark the Music: The Life and Work of Marc Blitzstein [New York: St. Martin's Press, 1989]). For those who are wondering why we need, for example, a combined total of nearly ten pages to help us decipher the plot of Reuben, Reuben, Pollack, who uses his predecessor's research effectively, respectfully, and selectively on an as-needed basis, answers this fundamental question clearly, simply, and tactfully at the end of his new study: "As to Gordon's book itself, commentators extolled the author's extensive research, even if a few missed more substantial discussion of the music" (p. 496).
Pollack has previously authored an impressive list of composer biographies, including definitive portraits of two indisputable giants of American music, Aaron Copland (1999) and George Gershwin (2006), and before that the lesser-known Walter Piston and John Alden Carpenter. In notable contrast to Gordon, Pollack incorporates into his study of the artist's life a meaningful musical examination of virtually every work, large and small of this prolific but still largely unknown American original, who possessed a special predilection and passion for many forms and genres of theater music (for a list of works as well as other interesting biographical and critical information, however, one may still wish to keep Gordon handy). Pollack's exceptional command of the primary manuscripts as well as secondary sources enables him to trace the many and surprisingly early origins of the later works in Blitzstein's career as well as to provide rich analytical and critical discussions and histories, especially of the major theater works: the labor musical The Cradle Will Rock (1936), which merits two chapters; the radio opera I've Got the Tune (1937); the musical No for an Answer (1937-40), which closed after three nights and three years of work on its intended journey to Broadway; Airborne Symphony (1943-46), a wartime cantata for male chorus and Blitzstein's only major orchestral success, which was premiered and twice recorded by Bernstein; Regina (1946-49), the highly praised and regularly produced adaptation of Lillian Hellman's [End Page 262] The Little Foxes (1939), arguably Blitzstein's major ticket to the operatic canon (also two chapters); the disappointing fiasco Reuben, Reuben (1949-55), which closed before reaching Broadway; and Juno (1957-59), which many, including the present reviewer, consider to be an underrated and revivable Broadway adaptation of Sean O'Casey's classic play, Juno and the Paycock (1924).
Pollack invariably writes helpfully and often insightfully on all these works and much more. For example, readers will learn about such little-known terrain as Blitzstein's innovative (and fortunately mostly available) work as a film composer between the late 1920s and early 1940s. We learn about the incidental music to several Shakespeare plays that...