Marc Blitzstein was born in Philadelphia on March 2, 1905, the son of affluent parents. In 1928 his father Sam Blitzstein married Robert Serber's sister-in-law Madeline Leof. Blitzstein's musical gifts were apparent at an early age; he had performed a Mozart piano concerto by the time he was seven. He went on to study piano with Alexander Siloti, (a pupil of Tchaikovsky and Liszt), and made his professional concerto debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra in Liszt's E-flat Piano Concerto when he was 21. His first relationship was in 1924, when he traveled to Europe with conductor Alexander Smallens.
After studying composition at the Curtis Institute of Music, he went to Europe to continue his studies in Berlin with Arnold Schoenberg (with whom he did not get on), and in Paris with Nadia Boulanger (with whom he did). Despite his later political beliefs, he was, in the early years of his career, a self-proclaimed and unrepentant artistic snob, who firmly believed that true art was only for the intellectual elite. He was vociferous in denouncing composers — in particular Respighi, Ravel, and Kurt Weill — who, he felt, debased their standards to reach a wider public.
Marc Blitzstein and Leonard Bernstein
His works of this period, mostly pianistic vehicles such as the Piano Sonata (1927) and the Piano Concerto (1931) are typical of the Boulanger-influenced products of American modernism — strongly rhythmic (though not influenced by jazz) and described by himself as "wild, dissonant and percussive." These early works were far removed from the Schoenberg style.
Although Blitzstein married novelist Eva Goldbeck on March 2, 1933, he was openly gay; they had no children. His mother-in-law was Berlin-born musical star and opera singer Lina Abarbanell. He dedicated a number of works, including Romantic Piece for Orchestra (1930), String Quartet, 'The Italian' (1930), the ballet Cain (1930), and the Serenade for String Quartet (1932) to his wife-to-be. She died of anorexia in 1936, and his grief prompted him to throw himself into the work of creating The Cradle Will Rock. He summered at the Pine Brook Country Club located in the countryside near Nichols, Connecticut, which became the summer rehearsal headquarters of the Group Theatre in the 1930s and 1940s.
During a visit to Martinique in 1964, at the age of 58, Blitzstein was murdered by three Portuguese sailors he had picked up in a bar, one of whom he was said to have propositioned.
The dramatic premiere of the pro-union The Cradle Will Rock took place at the Venice Theater on June 16, 1937. The cast had been locked out of the Maxine Elliott Theatre by the Works Progress Administration, the government agency which had originally funded the production, so the cast and musicians walked with the audience to the nearby Venice. There, without costumes or sets, they performed the work concert-style, actors and musicians alike, sitting among the audience (to evade union restrictions on their performance) with Blitzstein narrating from the piano. In 1939, Blitzstein's close friend Leonard Bernstein led a revival of the play at Harvard, narrating from the piano just as Blitzstein had done. The 1999 film Cradle Will Rock was based on this event, though heavily embellished. In the film, Blitzstein (played by Hank Azaria) is portrayed as gaining inspiration through ghostly appearances by his idol Brecht and his late anorexic wife.
Additional major compositions include the autobiographical radio song play I've Got the Tune, The Airborne Symphony, and Reuben, Reuben. At the time of his death Blitzstein was at work on Idiots First, a one-act opera based on the eponymous story by Bernard Malamud – intended to be part of a set of one-acters called Tales of Malamud – which Ned Rorem has called "his [Blitzstein's] best work". This was followed by the work Blitzstein intended to be his magnum opus, a three-act opera commissioned by the Ford Foundation and optioned by the Metropolitan Opera entitled Sacco and Vanzetti.
Both Tales of Malamud and Sacco and Vanzetti were completed posthumously, with the approval of Blitzstein's estate, by composer Leonard Lehrman.
Leonard Bernstein and others judged Blitzstein's legacy to be "incalculable".
On September 30, 2005, Praeger published Lehrman's long-awaited Marc Blitzstein: A Bio-Bibliography. At 645 pages, it is the longest published biographical bibliography of any American composer.
In 1958, Blitzstein was subpoenaed to appear before the notorious red-baiting U.S. House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). Appearing first in a closed session, Blitzstein admitted his membership in the Communist Party (ending in 1949) and, challenging the right of HUAC to question him at all, refused to name names or cooperate any further. He was recalled for a further public session, but after a day sitting anxiously in a waiting room he was not called to testify.
Blitzstein was played by Hank Azaria in Tim Robbins's Cradle Will Rock.
Marc Blitzstein: His Life, His Work, His World by Howard Pollack
Hardcover: 648 pages
Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA (October 3, 2012)
Amazon: Marc Blitzstein: His Life, His Work, His World
A composer and lyricist of enormous innovation and influence, Marc Blitzstein remains one of the most versatile and fascinating figures in the history of American music, his creative output running the gamut from films scores and Broadway operas to art songs and chamber pieces. A prominent leftist and social maverick, Blitzstein constantly pushed the boundaries of convention in mid-century America in both his work and his life.
Award-winning music historian Howard Pollack's new biography covers Blitzstein's life in full, from his childhood in Philadelphia to his violent death in Martinique at age 58. The author describes how this student of contemporary luminaries Nadia Boulanger and Arnold Schoenberg became swept up in the stormy political atmosphere of the 1920s and 1930s and throughout his career walked the fine line between his formal training and his populist principles. Indeed, Blitzstein developed a unique sound that drew on everything contemporary, from the high modernism of Stravinsky and Hindemith to jazz and Broadway show tunes. Pollack captures the astonishing breadth of Blitzstein's work--from provocative operas like The Cradle Will Rock, No for an Answer, and Regina, to the wartime Airborne Symphony composed during his years in service, to lesser known ballets, film scores, and stage works. A courageous artist, Blitzstein translated Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's The Threepenny Opera during the heyday of McCarthyism and the red scare, and turned it into an off-Broadway sensation, its "Mack the Knife" becoming one of the era's biggest hits.
Beautifully written, drawing on new interviews with friends and family of the composer, and making extensive use of new archival and secondary sources, Marc Blitzstein presents the most complete biography of this important American artist.
More LGBT History at my website: www.elisarolle.com/, My Ramblings/Gay Classics
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