Blitzstein, Marc, significant American composer; b. Philadelphia, March 2, 1905; d. Fort de France, Martinique, Jan. 22, 1964. He studied piano and organ with Sternberg in Philadelphia. In 1921 he entered the Univ. of Pa. on a scholarship, but left the following year when he failed to meet the physical education requirements. He then studied piano with Siloti in N.Y. From 1924 1926 he was a composition student of Scalerò at the Curtis Inst. of Music in Philadelphia. After further training with Boulanger in Paris and Schoenberg in Berlin (1926–28), he returned to the U.S. and wrote a few generic instrumental works in either a late Romantic or a more modern, Copland- influenced jazz style. However, he soon turned to creating works for the theater à la Brecht and Weill, in which “art for society’s sake” and “social consciousness” of a fervent left-wing persuasion became the norm. Particularly notable was his play in music, The Cradle Will Rock (N.Y., June 16, 1937). In 1940–41 and 1941–42 he held Guggenheim fellowships. From 1942 to 1945 he served in the U.S. Army Air Force in England, where he was music director of the American Broadcasting Station for Europe. Upon his return to the U.S., he resumed composing for the theater. However, in the 1950s he was unable to sustain his musical standing as his unique blending of musical theater and opera went out of fashion, as did his penchant for social protest. During the last decade of his life, his works became more conventional. In 1959 he was elected to membership in the National Inst. of Arts and Letters. In 1960 he received a Ford Foundation grant to compose an opera on the subject of Sacco and Vanzetti for the Metropolitan Opera in N.Y., but the work was never finished. Two other operas were also left incomplete. Blitzstein died from injuries sustained after a savage beating by 3 sailors in an alley. Three arias, 1 each from his 3 unfinished operas, were premiered at a memorial concert conducted by Bernstein in N.Y., April 19, 1964. Blitzstein remains best known for his adaptation of Weürs Die Dreigroschenoper as The Threepenny Opera (Waltham, Mass., June 14, 1952). It opened off Broadway on March 10, 1954, and had a remarkable 6-year N.Y. run, becoming a classic of the American theater.
DRAMATIC: Radio: Svarga, ballet (1924–25); Jig-Saw, ballet (1927–28); Triple Sec, opera- farce (1928; Philadelphia, May 6, 1929); Parabola and Circula, opera- ballet (1929); Cain, ballet (1930); The Harpies, satirical chamber opera (1931; N.Y., May 25, 1953); The Condemned, choral opera (1932); The Cradle Will Rock, “play in music” in 10 scenes with “social significance” (1936–37; N.Y., June 16, 1937, composer at the piano); I’ve Got the Tune, “radio song-play” (CBS, N.Y., Oct. 24, 1937); No for an Answer, short opera (1938–40; N.Y., Jan. 5, 1941); The Guests, ballet (1946–48; N.Y., Jan. 20, 1949; incorporates the unperformed ballet Show, 1946); Regina, musical theater to Hellman’s play The Little Foxes (1946–49; tryout, New Haven, Oct. 6, 1949; N.Y. premiere, Oct. 31, 1949; rev. 1953 and 1958 for N.Y. opera house perfs.); Reuben Reuben, musical play (1949–55; Boston, Oct. 10, 1955); Juno, musical play (1957–59; N.Y., March 9, 1959); Sacco and Vanzetti, opera (1959–64; unfinished); The Magic Barrel, opera (1962–64; unfinished); Idiots First, opera (1962–64; unfinished but completed by L. Lehrman, 1973; piano score, Ithaca, N.Y., Aug. 1974). Incidental Music T o : Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (1937), Büchner’s Danton’s Death (1938), Shaw’s Androcles and the Lion (1946), Hellman’s Another Part of the Forest (1946), Shakespeare’s King Lear (2 versions, 1950, 1955), Jonson’s Volpone (1956), Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1958) and A Winter’s Tale (1958), and Hellman’s Toys in the Attic (1960). F i 1 m : Hande (1927); Surf and Seaweed (1931); The Spanish Earth (1936–37; in collaboration with V. Thomson); Valley Town (1940); Native Land (1940–41); Night Shift (1942); The True Glory (1944–45; not used). OTHER: Tr. and adaptation of Weill’s Dreigroschenoper as The Threepenny Opera (1950–52; Waltham, Mass., June 14, 1952). ORCH.: Sarabande (1926); Romantic Piece (1930); Piano Concerto (1931; first perf. with orch., Brooklyn, Jan. 24, 1986); Surf and Seaweed, suite from the film (1931); Orch. Variations (1934; N.Y., Oct. 9, 1988); Freedom Morning (London, Sept. 28, 1943); Native Land, suite from the film (1946; rev. 1958); Lear: A Study (1957–58; N.Y., Feb. 27, 1958; includes music from the 2 incidental scores to King Lear). CHAMBER: String Quartet, The Italian (1930); Serenade for String Quartet (1932; in 3 uncontrasted movements all marked Largo); Discourse for Clarinet, Cello, and Piano (1933; unfinished). Piano: Sonata (1927); Percussion Music for the Piano (1928–29); Scherzo (1930); Piano Solo (1933); Le monde libre (1944); The Guests, suite from the ballet (1946–48). VOCAL: Gods for Mezzo–soprano and Strings, after Whitman (originally for Voice and Piano, 1926; rescored 1927; Philadelphia, Feb. 15, 1928); A Word Out of the Sea, cantata for Women’s Chorus and Instrumental Ensemble, after Whitman (1928; 3 extant movements); Is Five, 5 songs for Soprano and Piano, after e.e. cummings (1929); Invitation to Bitterness for Men’s Chorus and Supplementary Altos (1939); The Airborne Symphony, cantata for Tenor, Bass, Narrator, Men’s Chorus, and Orch. (1943^6; N.Y., April 1, 1946, Orson Welles narrator, Bernstein conducting); This is the Garden, cantata (1956–57; N.Y., May 5, 1957); Six Elizabethan Songs for Voice and Piano (1958); From Marion’s Book, 7 songs for Voice and Piano, after e.e. cummings (1960).
R. Dietz, The Operatic M. B. (diss., Univ. of Iowa, 1970); E. Gordon, Mark the Music: The Life and Work of M. B. (N.Y., 1989).
—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire