Blitzstein, Marc(us Samuel)

views updated

Blitzstein, Marc(us Samuel)

Blitzstein, Marc(us Samuel), astringent American composer, lyricist, and librettist; b. Philadelphia, March 2, 1905; d. Fort-de-France, Martinique, Jan. 22, 1964. Blitzstein was a notable composer of contemporary classical music and wrote the music, lyrics, and books of several operalike Broadway musicals. But he is best known for his libretto and English lyrics for the Off-Broadway production of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera, including “Mack the Knife” which became a standard.

Blitzstein was the son of Russian immigrants Samuel Marcus and Anna Lewytski (later Levitt) Blitzstein; his father worked in the family’s bank. A musical prodigy, Blitzstein began picking out tunes on the piano at age three, gave his first public performance at seven, and appeared as a soloist with the Philadelphia Orch. at 16. He attended the Univ. of Pa. (1921–23) while studying piano with Alexander Siloti, then enrolled at the Curtis Inst. of Music (1924–26), where he studied composition with Rosario Scalerò. In 1926 he went to Paris and studied with Nadia Boulanger, and in 1927 he enrolled at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin and studied with Arnold Schoenberg.

After completing his studies, Blitzstein returned to the U.S., where he composed classical works, lectured, and wrote music criticism. His satiric one-act opera Triple-Sec (libretto by Ronald Jeans) was premiered in Philadelphia on May 6, 1929, then interpolated into the Broadway revue The Garrick Gaieties (N.Y., June 4, 1930), marking his musical theater debut. Although homosexual, he married writer (Maria Luisa) Eva Goldbeck on March 2, 1933; they remained married until her death on May 26, 1936.

By the mid-1930s, Blitzstein had begun writing works reflective of his left- wing political views; by 1938 he had joined the Communist party. His first major foray into musical theater was the pro-union The Cradle Will Rock. The show was initially sponsored by Federal Theatre Project of the U.S. government’s Works Progress Administration, but when budget cuts forced its cancellation, producer John Houseman and director Orson Welles put it on anyway in a celebrated performance with the composer at the piano and the actors in the audience. After brief runs in June and December 1937, it reopened on Broadway Jan. 3, 1938, for a profitable run of 108 performances; Musicraft Records’ release of a seven-disc 78-rpm album of the show in April 1938 marked the first full-length cast recording of a Broadway musical. In the meantime, Blitzstein had written and performed in a musical for radio, I’ve Got the Tune; composed incidental music for a production of Julius Caesar (N.Y., Nov. 11, 1937) by Orson Welles’s Mercury Theatre. He contributed a sketch to Harold Rome’s revue Pins and Needles (N.Y., Nov. 27, 1937). He also composed incidental music for the Mercury Theatre production of Danton’s Death (N.Y., Nov. 2, 1938).

Blitzstein’s follow-up to The Cradle Will Rock was 1941 ’s No for an Answer, which was mounted for three minimally staged performances but, despite critical acclaim, never had a full-scale production due to its political content. The composer served in the army air force during World War II; he spent his time in England, writing his Airborne symphony (premiered by the N.Y. City Symphony, conducted by Leonard Bernstein, at the City Center in N.Y. on April 1, 1946). His next musical, Regina, based on Lillian Hellman’s play The Little Foxesran for 56 performances in late 1949. The following year, Blitzstein directed Benjamin Britten’s children’s show, Let’s Make an Opera (N.Y., Dec. 13, 1950), and he provided incidental music for a Broadway production of King Lear (N.Y., Dec. 25, 1950).

The first performance of Blitzstein’s adaptation of The Threepenny Opera was a concert version conducted by Bernstein at Brandéis Coll. on June 14, 1952. The show was then produced Off-Broadway in 1954 for 96 performances, returning in 1955 for a record-breaking run of 2, 611 performances. “Mack the Knife” was recorded by Louis Armstrong for a Top 40 hit in March 1956; Bobby Darin’s recording sold a million copies and was the biggest hit of 1959; and Ella Fitzgerald revived it again for a Top 40 hit in July 1960.

Blitzstein’s next musical, Reuben Reuben, opened in Boston on Oct. 10, 1955, but closed without going to Broadway. Juno, based on Sean O’Casey’s play Juno and the Paycock, for which Blitzstein wrote music and lyrics, got to Broadway in 1959, but only for 16 performances. Blitzstein worked for several years on a musical about the executed anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, but it was left unfinished when he was robbed and beaten to death at the age of 58.


(only works for which Blitzstein was a primary composer or lyricist are listed): musicals/revues:The Cradle Will Rock (N.Y., June 16, 1937); No for an Answer (N.Y., Jan. 5, 1941); Regina (N.Y., Oct. 31, 1949); The Threepenny Opera (N.Y., March 10, 1954); Juno (N.Y., March 9, 1959). radio:I’ve Got the Tune (CBS, Oct. 24, 1937).


E. Gordon, Mark the Music: The Life and Work of M. B. (N.Y., 1989).

—William Ruhlmann