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Book Review

Marc Blitzstein

Marc Blitzstein by Pollack

His Life, His Work, His World

Howard Pollack
Oxford University Press, 2012. 618 pages
Illustrations, extensive notes and index
ISBN-10: 0199791597
ISBN-13: 978-0199791590 (alkaline paper)
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The indefatigable Howard Pollack presents us here with his fourth comprehensive and thorough biography of an American Composer since 1995, following lengthy works on Gershwin, Copland and Carpenter. Unlike the one on Gershwin, but like the one on Copland, this book does not separate life and works. Overwhelmingly, it focuses on details of his biography, the making and construction of the works, and productions of his dramatic works, including reactions to and journalistic criticism of the stage presentations. In fact, it gives blow-by-blow accounts of all these matters. Discussion of the strictly musical makeup of his compositions takes a secondary position but what there is proves to be apt and to the point, as one would expect of Pollack.

Born in Philadelphia in 1905, Blitzstein died – in fact was murdered – in 1964. Among his teachers were Nadia Boulanger in Paris and Schoenberg in Berlin. Of the two he much preferred the former and much of his early music was neoclassical, a fact that surprised this reader, as he is best known for musical works for Broadway. He also wrote operas, some of which have been produced, and some of which were left unfinished at the time of his death, including one commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera, Sacco and Vanzetti, and two short ones based on stories by Bernard Malamud. His Regina, based on Lilian Hellman's Little Foxes, was a flop in Boston, with the first night audience walking out because it was operatic and they had expected a musical. Reuben, Reuben, a comedy inspired by Dostoyevsky's story White Nights, was referred to by Blitzstein both as a musical play and an opera. A number of his works proved to be unsuccessful productions. He was able to make a living by writing musical theatre, and he wrote lyrics and librettos in addition to scores, but if he had been in a financial position to focus on operas he might have left quite a different legacy. In addition to works for the stage, he wrote incidental music for several Shakespeare plays, including two different scores for different productions of A Midsummer Night's Dream. His most successful and best-known work is his English version of The Threepenny Opera, (a work that has delighted me since I had a small acting part in it in a local production in the mid-1960s). The Threepenny Opera made a great deal of money and there were a large number of cover versions of its most popular song, "Pirate Jenny," even one by Judy Collins. Some of his other songs were based on poems of e. e. cummings. The Cradle Will Rock, a radical musical from the mid-thirties, is another of his most famous works, an instrumental version of which premiered at Harvard by Leonard Bernstein when Lenny was a student there. Bernstein would later record Blitzstein's Airborne Symphony. Among Blitzstein's few available concert works is a recording of his Piano Concerto, which I can recommend. His music was influenced by Satie, Stravinsky, Eisler, Weill, and Copland.

Bernstein became a life-long friend of Blitzstein, and spoke at the latter's memorial service about Blitzstein's feelings for the natural world. Bernstein was Blitzstein's literary executor, along with Aaron Copland. The composer David Diamond was another of Blitzstein's life-long friends and correspondents. Blitzstein worked with Orson Welles, Jerome Robbins and other well-known theatrical people.

Blitzstein's political and social sympathies were always on the left and on the side of minorities. He represented several: he was Jewish, gay, a classically-trained and inclined composer, and a communist. He belonged to the CPUSA for several years, 1938-1949. Called before a subcommittee of the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s, he questioned its authority but agreed to testify about himself – and no one else. Asked in a HUAC hearing, "Do you know or have you ever known a person by the name of Sean O'Casey," Blitzstein responded with a putdown, "I have never known Mr. O'Casey personally. I have known him obviously as all students of drama have known him as one of the chief writers of drama of the twentieth century." Blitzstein wrote a musical based on O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock.

Although gay, Blitzstein had a loving marriage with Eva Goldbeck, whom he met at the MacDowell Colony in 1928. Goldbeck worked for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, reviewing French and German reviews of European films. She also wrote three unpublished novels. Regrettably she died young, in 1936.

Never an observant Jew, Blitzstein came to appreciate his Jewish heritage somewhat in the course of a summer in Israel in one of his last years. Some have seen traces of a Jewish style in some of his music.

In the concluding paragraph of his book, Pollack eloquently describes Blitzstein as "the creator of moving and entertaining works full of acid wit and aching desire, bitter anger and tender affection, dark despair and stirring optimism, works that expose life's hardship and cruelty but that celebrate its joy and valor as well."

There was an earlier biography of Blitzstein, by Eric Gordon, published in 1989, whose personal assistance is acknowledged in the Introduction, but I am not in a position to compare the two books, not having read Gordon's. My only cavil with this book is that I wish that Pollack had used broader strokes in relating some plot summaries, especially in his first chapter on The Cradle Will Rock. More factual background on the famous Sacco-Vanzetti case would have been welcome also. But this book should give the reader detailed information on just about anything one might want to know about this under-appreciated composer.

Copyright © 2013 by R. James Tobin.