Mark the Music: The Life and Work of Marc Blitzstein
Eric A. Gordon.
New York: iUniverse. 2000. 644 pp.
Summary for the Busy Executive: Marking history, rather than music.
As far as I know, Gordon has produced the first book-length study of
American composer Marc Blitzstein. An historian by training, Gordon has
done his work at the eleventh hour. Most of Blitzstein's contemporaries
are dead or soon will be. Gordon has assiduously sought the survivors
out, and the book benefits from the wealth of first-hand information.
The public has largely forgotten Blitzstein's music - a shame, really.
Blitzstein began as a hard-core Modernist, became a pupil of Schoenberg,
and produced several avant-garde pieces in the Twenties and early Thirties,
notably a wonderful piano concerto. However, like many artists during
the Depression, he fell in with the American Communist Party. Blitzstein,
however, was no political theorist. Although his ardor for Communism
at this time was sincere, it was mostly heart and little head. I don't
believe he read much Marx, for example. Instead, an almost Biblical
rage against the failures of capitalism and American social injustice
fueled him. After all, at the time no major political party other than
the Communist concerned itself with things like exploitation of migrant
workers or civil rights for blacks. Republican leaders had sold out in
the Nineteenth Century with the election of Hayes, which put the kibosh
on Reconstruction. In Roosevelt's New Deal, Democrat leaders kept power
by holding onto both a Southern base and Northeast and Midwest industrial
labor. The Progressive movement had largely ignored blacks and unskilled
labor and thus left the Communists the only game in town.
At any rate, the Party strictures on art at the time happened to
coincide with Blitzstein's own artistic concerns. He wanted his music
to reach a large number of people so that he could help change society.
He realized early that the "hard" modern music he had written up to that
point turned off the audience he wanted to reach. On the other hand,
he didn't want to write treacle or what he despised as corrupt "moon-June"
pop. The "worker songs" by German composer and leftist Hanns Eisler
gave him some direction. He then wrote his first success - at the time,
a succes de scandale - the "union opera," The Cradle Will Rock, to his
own libretto. The play is a Brechtian vaudeville of connecting skits
on the theme of "prostitution" (of church, academia, medicine, and so
on), set in an idiom that plays brilliantly off popular forms like
ragtime, "Hawaiian" serenades, "jazz" croons, parlor waltzes, and blues
and yet retains a Modern edge. In the late Forties, he broke with the
CP over what he regarded as artistic interference but kept his populist
orientation, proving, I believe, that art and independence of conscience
meant more to him than the momentary political shift. Blitzstein in
many ways cleared the path for Leonard Bernstein, although his music is
much too good to be a mere adjunct. It's so good, in fact, that Bernstein
stole from Blitzstein (Bernstein stole from a lot of good people -
Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Hindemith, Copland - but through some alchemy
made the steals his own). Blitzstein, recognized as one of the stars
of the younger generation and working mainly in something close to popular
theater, should have had it made. In fact, he struggled financially
almost all his life, despite his artistic accomplishments.
Part of this was due to the fact that he felt compelled to write his
own libretti. In contrast to his considerable musical facility, he was
no playwright, and he knew it. On the other hand, he had the acumen
to recognize when something "worked" theatrically. He just had to get
there. As a result, he delayed works for years simply because he couldn't
get a story or a character that worked right. Why he didn't collaborate,
especially when he himself thought it a good idea, remains mysterious.
Ironically, his greatest popular success, his unsurpassed translation
of the Brecht-Weill Threepenny Opera (even the English title is
Blitzstein's), is a collaboration of sorts. Doubly ironic is the fact
that following Schoenberg and his disciples, he started out dismissing
Weill's music as cheap and tawdry. By the Forties, however, he had come
around, at least to Weill's European work. Brecht purists may sniff at
Blitzstein's work, but for me it is the only Dreigroschenoper translation
that doesn't sound like one (about the recent Broadway production with
Alan Cummings and Cyndi Lauper, don't ask). It is beautifully idiomatic
and fiercely clever English lyric, worthy of Ira Gershwin, Lorenz Hart,
and Johnny Mercer. It also possesses a raffishness thoroughly consistent
with Brecht's whores and highwaymen.
Still, Blitzstein's main achievement remains his original work, too
little known: The Cradle Will Rock, No for an Answer, Regina, the Airborne
Symphony, Juno, This is the Garden, Native Land, Reuben Reuben, Freedom
Morning, and especially his opera on Sacco and Vanzetti. At present,
recordings are pitifully few, although his achingly lovely "I Wish It
So" from Juno enjoys recordings from a few enterprising singers.
I doubt, however, this book will rekindle interest. Gordon, an historian
rather than a musician, other than noting composition history, performances,
and critical and public reception, leaves the music alone. Instead,
he concentrates on the milieu of left-wing musical circles in New York,
in which Blitzstein played a leading role. He confines his discussion
of Blitzstein the creator to noting where and when and discussing the
political implications of Blitzstein's libretti. In short, he fails to
give us the main reason for caring about Blitzstein in the first place.
After all, Earl "Ballad for Americans" Robinson in many ways would
illustrate the same history (Gordon has indeed written a book on him),
but his music has dated horribly. Blitzstein's music still lays artistic
claim on us. Nevertheless, if you want to know something about art from
the Thirties left, Gordon can tell you many interesting things and in
detail. The research runs deep and wide, and Gordon manages to keep his
story clear and compelling. A solid piece of history.