- Marc Blitzstein: His Life, His Work, His World by Howard Pollack
When American composer Marc Blitzstein (1905-1964) suddenly died, the victim of gay bashing, the national shock was such as to merit a memorial concert in Lincoln Center with commemoratives coming from the likes of Leonard Bernstein, Lillian Hellman, Aaron Copland, and many more. With Bernstein at the piano, a bevy of stars recreated scenes from The Cradle Will Rock, including Betty Comden, Adolph Green, Barbara Harris, and original cast members Will Geer and Howard Da Silva. Jose Ferrer, Anita Ellis and Luigi Alva sang arias from Blitzstein’s operas. It was an evening of warm tributes. Yet today Blitzstein is largely forgotten. Author Howard Pollack, known for his ambitious biographies of George Gershwin and Aaron Copeland, here tackles the daunting task of resurrecting Blitzstein’s complex life and reputation in a densely detailed authoritative biography.
Blitzstein is mostly known for two works: the Brecht-inspired, Federal Theatre-damning opera, The Cradle Will Rock, for which he wrote book, lyrics, and score; and his highly successful adaptation of the Brecht/Weill musical, The Threepenny Opera (1954), whose unexpected long run is sometimes credited for initiating the Off-Broadway theatre movement. Born to an affluent Jewish family in Philadelphia, Blitzstein was quickly recognized as a musical prodigy, studying with the likes of Nadia Boulanger in Paris. He became a concert pianist and an erudite champion of avant-garde Modernist music. Throughout his life Blitzstein extolled the virtues (or failings) of many up-and-coming composers. A life-long Marxist, Blitzstein came to believe that good music could come from anywhere and anyone, not only highbrow aesthetes. He helped promote folk music—banjo songs, spirituals, labor songs—as much as he did the work of Copland, Stravinsky, or Prokofiev. Though gay, Blitzstein married Eva Goldbeck, herself an accomplished cultural critic. Eva’s premature death (at age 34) devastated Marc; it was she who had urged him to write The Cradle Will Rock, completed shortly thereafter.
Complete success for his music eluded Blitzstein. Pollack recounts multiple instances of Blitzstein compositions winning critical acclaim, but never quite achieving renown, or of Blitzstein’s famously gifted mentee, Leonard Bernstein, so inspired by Blitzstein’s work that Blitzstein’s phrases take flight through Bernstein’s songs (including in West Side Story). Blitzstein found greater success writing music for theatre and film. Following The Cradle Will Rock, Blitzstein wrote rarely for purely musical venues. He scored theatrical productions for Orson Welles, John Houseman, and Lillian Hellman. He composed music for New Deal films and, drafted into the Army for World War II, composed for director William Wilder’s war documentaries. After the war Jerome Robbins enlisted Blitzstein [End Page 89] to write music for The Guests, marking Robbins’s choreographic debut with the New York City Ballet. Blitzstein also turned increasingly to Broadway. In 1949 he transformed Hellman’s The Little Foxes into the musical Regina, which enjoyed a modest run. Blitzstein followed this with Reuben Reuben and then, more notably, with Juno (1959), his musical version of O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock. At the time of his death Blitzstein was working on a musical about Sacco and Venzetti, for which he intended to write the music, lyrics and book.
Pollack’s book brings to life this complex man and his work and does so with extraordinary detail and expertise. Pollack has made himself conversant in a broad range of settings and knowledge, equipping him to describe and assess the late composer’s times in their own context. He utilizes a lengthy list of sources, including Blitzstein’s letters, to achieve a close account of Blitzstein’s life accompanied by his views on seemingly everything: friends, lovers, the nature of music and theatre, politics, his travels, progressions of key events, and so forth. This proves critical for a biography of a man so loving and yet also so opinionated. Pollack’s careful research also uncovers gems from other prominent artists. For example, one from...