In Honor of the Composer’s 50thYortsayt, January 22, 2014 and the First Performance of His Work in Yiddish, March 6, 2014
by Leonard LehrmanI remember the turning of the year from 1963 to 1964 as a season of death: first the assassination of our youngest elected president, November 22nd; then the death of New York’s first Jewish governor, Herbert Lehman, December 5th; then of the composer Paul Hindemith, December 28th; and finally, on January 22nd, the murder in Martinique of the composer/lyricist/translator Marc Blitzstein (born March 2, 1905).
Since that murder seems to have involved not only robbery but gay-bashing (he was killed by three sailors whom he met in a bar), it has turned Blitzstein into a GLBTQ icon. The circumstances of his death are evoked in at least two of his nephew Christopher Davis’s twelve novels: In The Sun in Mid-Career, a 1975 roman à clef, Marc became Alex, his wife Eva became Eve, and Aaron Copland became “Asher Moak.” In The Conduct of Saints (2013), Davis’s fictional Irish-American priest Brendan Doherty, like Blitzstein, hails from Philadelphia, is a hard drinker and heavy smoker, has vivid bisexual experiences in his youth, suspects the motives of everyone, joins the Communist Party, fights against anti-Semitism, fascism, and capital punishment, is obsessed with Italians, worries that all his efforts have been in vain, and is robbed and killed by a bunch of anonymous young hoodlums who leave him lying naked in the street. So far, among the book’s reviewers, only Eric Gordon (author of the first Blitzstein biography, Mark the Music, 1989) has noted any resemblance to the author’s uncle. The publishers (The Permanent Press) were, in fact, surprised when I pointed it out to them.
The name Marc Blitzstein was familiar to me from my parents’ copy of the 1948 People’s Song Book, for which he had arranged “On Top of Old Smoky,” and from his 1950s translation of the Brecht-Weill Threepenny Opera, especially “The Army Song,” which we kids used to run all over the living room singing and dancing to. There was also a framed photo of him (from the magazine Musical America) that had a place of honor on the piano of Elie Siegmeister, my composition teacher beginning in September 1960. In it, Blitzstein is seated at a table with Aaron Copland and Elie, with Leonard Bernstein standing between Marc and Elie, his arms around both of them, all engaged in vehement discussion of the future of music, at the First Conference on American-Soviet Cultural Cooperation, November 18, 1945.
After Blitzstein’s death, and particularly when the Winter 1966 issue of Columbia University Forum featured an article by Joan Peyser on his “Troubled Time” and mentioned his numerous socially-conscious compositions, both finished and unfinished — including some experimentation in twelve-tone writing, with which I was also starting to experiment — I became intrigued to know more about him. Siegmeister was my best source. He lent me his personal score of Blitzstein’s masterpiece, the 1937 labor opera The Cradle Will Rock. I held onto it for more than a year, much longer than the rental agency would have allowed, and with the support of Professor Harry Levin (who had been a mentor to both Blitzstein and Bernstein), I was able to put together (and adapt, direct, re-orchestrate and music-direct) in November 1969, at Harvard, the first Boston production since Bernstein’s of thirty years earlier.
Meeting Bernstein in Dunster House the following month, I had already heard his reaction to having learned of my production: “I’m glad somebody at Harvard still has taste!” In person, he enthused at length on Blitzstein’s importance to him and to American music, crediting him with having virtually invented the American vernacular in opera. One year after that, in Lowell House, I conducted a triple-bill of Blitzstein’s Harpies and I’ve Got the Tune in their Boston premieres, along with Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti, which had been dedicated to Blitzstein. Both Bernstein and his wife Felicia were there, visiting their daughter Jamie, whose godfather Marc had been.
I later learned that on April 19, 1964, Bernstein had put together a Philharmonic Hall tribute to his mentor Marc. A January 25, 1964 letter to Bernstein’s sister Shirley (included in a volume of Bernstein’s correspondence published by Yale University Press in 2013) says it all: “Marc is dead, & I’ve lost an arm. Felicia can’t stop crying.” The notes to these recently published letters mention the concert, which featured a (nearly) complete Cradle, excerpts from the Broadway opera Regina narrated by Lillian Hellman (on whose play The Little Foxes it was based), and an aria from the opera Blitzstein considered his “magnum opus,” Sacco and Vanzetti, about the fate of two Italian immigrant anarchists unjustly convicted and executed in 1927 for a crime they had not committed. (The case had been an obsession with him for over thirty years, having been the subject of an earlier abstract and still-unperformed choral work, The Condemned.) In a January 27, 1964 letter to Bernstein, William Schuman mused about Sacco: “could not the work be completed and orchestrated by another? If this is a possibility, I am very much afraid that you are the only one who can do it.”
Also on that Philharmonic Hall memorial program, José Ferrer, accompanied by the orchestra conducted by Bernstein, sang, with what Harold C. Schoenberg in the New York Times called “a Yiddish accent that would have made a row of blintzes stand up and salute,” a number called “How I Met My New Grandfather.” This was from the opera Idiots First, the first of a set of unfinished one-acts, based on stories by Bernard Malamud, which Blitzstein called Tales of Malamud. Ferrer later told me he had at first thought he was being insulted by the Times; later he realized it had been meant as a compliment. When I played the entire opera through for him, he wrote that he would love to do it, considering the main character “the role of the century.” Al Grand, translator of numerous Gilbert and Sullivan operettas into Yiddish, has collaborated with me on a Yiddish translation of the song, for this article. (Click here to read it.) It will be premiered March 6, 2014 at Florida Atlantic University’s Kultur Festival. (Click here to see a performance video from the 2012 Halifax Summer Opera Workshop.)
The New York Times reported on March 21 and 22, 1964, as did the New York Post and the Daily News on April 20, that Bernstein said he was going to “finish and orchestrate” Idiots First. But the following January, in a Commemorative Tribute, Bernstein wrote: “It could be done, they tell me. Done? With what notes?”
Blitzstein’s devoted sister, Jo Davis, was distraught at Bernstein’s recusal. Through George Rochberg, William Bolcom was asked to consider completing the work. So was David Diamond, as was Elie Siegmeister — who, after my Cradle production, recommended me. On December 5, 1970, Bernstein gave me his blessing, and on January 17, 1974, after I had finished the work and played it for the approval of Siegmeister, Malamud, Jo Davis, and David Diamond, I played and sang Bernstein the score, while he turned pages for me, singing along an octave lower — and then also gave his approval. Trying to help with setting up a New York production, he sent producer Harlan Kleinman to me to discuss pairing Idiots First with Trouble in Tahiti. Nothing came of that, but the work did enjoy four productions, winning the 1978 Village Voice Off-Broadway Opera Award for “most important event of the season.”
In 1990, Richard Flusser, founder of The After Dinner Opera Company (which had revived Blitzstein’s 1928 one-act Triple Sec as its opening production in 1950), announced that Bernstein had called me “Marc Blitzstein’s dybbuk.” After Eric Gordon’s book appeared, Richard Marshall and the Center for Contemporary Opera presented the orchestral premiere at New York University in March 1992.
In 1988 I was called in as a consultant to Soho Rep’s production of Blitzstein’s The Harpies and I’ve Got the Tune, and on the director’s suggestion put together A Blitzstein Cabaret with Helene Williams, which, with the added participation of baritenor Ronald Edwards, became a Premier CD. I suggested to the Blitzstein Estate that it might be good to publish a Marc Blitzstein Songbook. (Original Cast Records would also issue a CD with that title, along with one for the Blitzstein Centennial. The only other CD devoted entirely to Blitzstein’s songs features William Sharp, Karen Holvik, and Steven Blier, on Koch.) They took that idea to Bernstein acolyte Michael Barrett, who had in 1988 done a beautiful job premiering and recording (on CRI) Blitzstein’s Piano Concerto with Lukas Foss and the Brooklyn Philharmonic — but after an initial draft took no action on the Songbook idea for a couple of years. When Tim Robbins’s film Cradle Will Rock was about to come out, they came back to me and asked me to do it. Boosey & Hawkes published it in three volumes, 1999-2003.
While working on that Songbook, editing and completing numerous unfinished sketches, especially for Sacco and Vanzetti, I persuaded the Estate to give me the go-ahead to finish that opera, which was, however, much less complete than Idiots First had been. Blitzstein had himself been incorporating and transforming fragments from other works in both those operas, but much more would have to be appropriated, developed, or written afresh for Sacco. There was also the question of what to do with the scene depicting the Massachusetts legislature struggling in 1959 with the issue of exoneration, an issue that was finally resolved by Governor Michael Dukakis’ 1977 proclamation about the unfairness of the trial. Should the completion include that scene, or cut it and reflect the subsequent closure of the case? With the Blitzstein Estate’s approval, the latter solution was chosen.
The result was a production at the White Barn Theatre in Westport, Connecticut, August 17-19, 2001. Brenda Lewis, the first Birdie in Regina, who later went on to triumph in the title role as well, called it “a powerful work.” (Click here for info and links to the entire production on YouTube.) Sacco’s niece in his hometown, Torremaggiore, commissioned an Italian translation of the libretto. But following the events of September 11, 2001, it became an uphill battle to try to interest a company in a work in which anarchists are the heroes and law-enforcement agents the villains. Publisher Theodore Presser made a valiant effort, presenting a video at last January’s Opera America convention in Vancouver, B.C., where two concerts were given, devoted in large part to Blitzstein, at the Peretz Centre and the Canadian Music Centre. A monograph on the work by musicologist Melissa DeGraaf is eagerly awaited.
The Kurt Weill Foundation, which now owns half of and represents the Blitzstein Estate, provided generous newsletter space about Idiots First in their Blitzstein tribute, noting that it has been called by Ned Rorem “Marc’s best work” and by others “the most powerful Jewish opera ever written.” In The Final Diary, Rorem also commented that “Malamud would have continued to be his ideal collaborator.” Part of Blitzstein’s legacy are the seven Malamud operas by four composers, to date, of which his were the first. (See articles on them in Jewish Currents and Aufbau, along with the YouTube playlist: Malamud Operas.)
The Kurt Weill Foundation was also very helpful in the reconstruction of a song Marc wrote for Lotte Lenya, “Few Little English,” which has had international success. The most recent issue of their newsletter covers last year’s energetic but somewhat eccentric production of Cradle at City Center (in connection with which I gave an interview/lecture/recital on Blitzstein) in a review written by John Mauceri, champion of the uncut Scottish Opera version of Regina.
Productions of Blitzstein’s 1940 labor opera No for an Answer are reportedly in the offing. The Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research, where Blitzstein’s papers are housed, is digitizing its Blitzstein recordings. And there are still many Blitzstein works yet to be seen and heard, among them the opera Parabola and Circula and the piano trio “Discourse.” In 2008, the San Francisco new music group Other Minds recorded the Del Sol Quartet in Blitzstein’s two string quartets, and Sarah Cahill in the Piano Sonata, Percussion Music and Scherzo; but there are two dozen other piano works, including the ballet Cain, as well as twenty-two original choral works, including eleven circular canons on beautiful texts by Millay, Dunbar and others (plus eight arranged posthumously), and 189 songs, most of them unrecorded. Several have recently been translated into Hebrew by Dori Parnes. “I Wish It So” from Juno (the 1959 musical based on Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock) has become the standard Broadway ingenue number. The Encores! series made a valiant attempt at reviving that show in 2008, but did not have quite enough time to make it all work. The 2005 Blitzstein Centennial provided an occasion for the premiere, starring chanteuse Lorinda Lisitza, at the Jean Cocteau Repertory Theatre of Blitzstein’s translation of Brecht’s Mother Courage, as well as two excerpts (also sung by Lisitza) from his translation of Brecht’s Mahagonny, which cries out for editing, completion, and a complete performance.
Most important of all, though, as I wrote in my Outlookreview of the most recent Blitzstein biography by Howard Pollack (Oxford, 2012): “Brenda Lewis told me in 2000: ‘Everything Marc wrote was only preparation for Sacco and Vanzetti.’ The full measure of this great American’s legacy will not be known at least until that work is given the orchestral premiere it deserves.”
Leonard Lehrman is the author of Marc Blitzstein: A Bio-bibliography (Praeger, 2005) and co-author of Elie Siegmeister, American Composer: A Bio-bibliography (Scarecrow, 2010). His series of eight “Jewish Opera Lives!” concerts, beginning March 6th in Boca Raton, FL, will include highlights from Tales of Malamud and his opera Hannah, receiving its U.S. premiere in December.