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Marc Blitzstein: Wikis


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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 best 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 Sean 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 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.



Blitzstein was born in Philadelphia on March 2, 1905, the son of affluent parents. His 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 Liszt and Tchaikovsky), and made his professional concerto debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra in Liszt’s E flat Piano Concerto when he was 21.

After studying composition at the Curtis Institute of Music, he continued his studies in Europe with Arnold Schoenberg in Berlin (with whom he did not get on), and Nadia Boulanger in Paris (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 - whom 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 and they had no children. His mother-in-law was Berlin-born musical star and opera singer Lina Abarbanell.

In 1964, Blitzstein was robbed and beaten in Fort-de-France, Martinique by three Portuguese sailors after a sexual encounter. He identified his assailants, who were later convicted of manslaughter after he had died of his wounds in the hospital.


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.

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 the long-awaited Marc Blitzstein: A Bio-Bibliography, by Leonard Lehrman. At 645 pages it is the longest published biographical bibliography of any American composer (see [1]).


Blitzstein was at one point a member of the Communist Party USA, and later cited his homosexuality as the reason for discontinuing his membership, as the party did not consider homosexuality compatible with its ideals. Another is that the organization became somewhat anti-intellectual when Foster replaced Browder as its head, and many of its most intelligent and artistic members left.

In 1951 Blitzstein was subpoenaed to appear before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. In closed session he admitted having been a member of the Communist Party and then refused to "name names", and wound up not being called upon to testify publicly. However, he was blacklisted by the movie studio bosses.


References and sources

  • John Warrack and Ewan West (1992), The Oxford Dictionary of Opera. ISBN 0-19-869164-5
  • Eric A. Gordon (1989), Mark the Music: The Life and Work of Marc Blitzstein. New York: St. Martin’s Press. Reprinted: New York: iUniverse, 2000. ISBN 0595092489

External links

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