Marc Blitzstein, classical music composer

Marc Blitzstein


Marcus Samuel Blitzstein, better known as Marc Blitzstein (March 2, 1905 – January 22, 1964), was an American composer. He won national attention in 1937 when his pro-union musical The Cradle Will Rock, directed by Orson Welles, was shut down by the Works Progress Administration. He is known for The Cradle Will Rock and for his Off-Broadway translation/adaptation of The Threepenny Opera by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. His works also include the opera Regina, an adaptation of Lillian Hellman's play The Little Foxes; the Broadway musical Juno, based on Seán O'Casey's play Juno and the Paycock; and No for an Answer. He completed translation/adaptations of Brecht's and Weill's musical play Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny and of Brecht's play Mother Courage and Her Children with music by Paul Dessau. Blitzstein also composed music for films, such as Surf and Seaweed (1931) and The Spanish Earth (1937), and he contributed two songs to the original 1960 production of Hellman's play Toys in the Attic.

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 Kurt Weill, who he felt debased their standards to reach a wider public.

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 (although in Blitzstein's case, not influenced by Jazz), and described by himself as "wild, dissonant, and percussive." All of which was very far removed from the Schoenbergian line of compositional thought.

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. Blitzstein 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 Goldbeck. She died of anorexia in 1936, and Blitzstein's grief prompted him to throw himself into the work of creating The Cradle Will Rock. Blitzstein summered at the Pine Brook Country Club located in the countryside of Nichols, Connecticut, which became the summer rehearsal headquarters of the Group Theatre in the 1930s and 1940s.

Blitzstein was murdered during a visit to Martinique in 1964, at the age of 58.

The dramatic premiere of the pro-union The Cradle Will Rock was 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 theater. There, without costumes or sets, they performed the production, with actors and musicians performing from the audience (to evade union restrictions on their performance) and Blitzstein narrating at 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 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 – to be part of a set of one-acts called Tales of Malamud – which Ned Rorem has called "his [Blitzstein's] best work". It was the piece Blitzstein said would be his magnum opus, a three-act opera commissioned by the Ford Foundation and optioned by the Metropolitan Opera, 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 received a subpoena to appear before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). Appearing first in a closed session, Blitzstein admitted his membership in the Communist Party (which had ceased in 1949), and, challenging the right of HUAC to question him at all, refused either to name names, or cooperate any further. He was recalled for a further public session, but after a day anxiously sitting in a waiting-room, he was not called to testify.


Composer Title Date Action
Marc Blitzstein Emily (The Ballad of the Bombardier) 09/26/2011 Play Add to playlist
Marc Blitzstein Penny Candy 09/26/2011 Play Add to playlist
Marc Blitzstein The Rose Song 09/26/2011 Play Add to playlist