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Summary Article: Blitzstein, Marc (1905–64) from The Great Depression and the New Deal: A Thematic Encyclopedia

Marc Blitzstein’s operas fused traditional and popular musical styles. Committed to leftist politics and art accessible to the people, Blitzstein is perhaps best remembered for his 1937 working-class opera The Cradle Will Rock.

Blitzstein was born on March 2, 1905, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His father was a banker and his mother encouraged her son’s musical interest. Blitzstein was something of a child prodigy, beginning piano lessons at age three and performing as a soloist with the Philadelphia Orchestra by his 15th birthday. He was a product of the Philadelphia public schools and attended the University of Pennsylvania. In 1922, he left the university to study with Alexander Siloti in New York. Two years later Blitzstein enrolled at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.

In 1926, Blitzstein expanded his studies abroad, traveling to Paris and Berlin for compositional work with Nadia Boulanger and Arnold Schoenberg. While in Berlin, Blitzstein was exposed to the work of Bertolt Brecht. He returned to the United States in 1928, supporting himself as a performer and music teacher. Although he was a homosexual, Blitzstein married novelist Eva Goldbeck in 1933, but the marriage ended three years later with Goldbeck’s death. Influenced by the ideas of Brecht and Hanns Eisler, Blitzstein was increasingly drawn to the importance of creating art for the masses. He wrote for journals such as New Masses and joined the Communist Party during the 1930s Popular Front era. Blitzstein also joined the Group Theatre in New York, working with socially conscious artists such as Elia Kazan and Clifford Odets.

Embracing the idea of music for the people, Blitzstein composed The Cradle Will Rock, under the auspices of the Federal Theater Project and Works Progress Administration (WPA). Threatened with Congressional budget cuts for supporting radical and controversial art, the WPA pulled funding from the show on the day it was scheduled to open. Although locked out of the Maxine Elliott Theatre, Blitzstein, director Orson Welles and producer John Houseman were able to procure a venue. Blitzstein played the score from an on-stage piano, while actors performed their parts from the audience. The opera celebrated the triumph of the working class and played for over 100 performances at the Mercury Theatre.

During the Second World War, Blitzstein was stationed in England with the U.S. Eighth Army Air Force, and this experience formed the basis for the symphony Airborne (1946), first performed by his friend Leonard Bernstein. During the post war period Blitzstein also came under fire for his political beliefs and in 1951 was subpoenaed to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. In private testimony, he admitted his membership in the Communist Party but refused to name associates. He was blacklisted by the film industry, but he continued a career in the theater. He adapted Lillian Hellman’s play The Little Foxes as the opera Regina (1949), fusing the traditions of European opera with American popular music. He also enjoyed commercial success with his translation of Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera (1952) and Juno (1959) based upon Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock.

Blitzstein died on January 22, 1964, in Martinique after being beaten by three Portuguese sailors following a sexual encounter. At the time of his death, Blitzstein was working on an opera based upon the case of Sacco and Vanzetti. Lauded by Bernstein as a major force in American music, renewed interest in Blitzstein’s work was stimulated by the 1999 Tim Robbins’s film Cradle Will Rock.

See also Federal Theater Project.

References and Further Reading
  • Chase, Gilbert. 1987 America’s Music: From the Pilgrims to the Present. 3rd ed. University of Illinois Press Urbana, IL.
  • Gordon, Eric. 1989 Mark the Music: The Life and Work of Marc Blitzstein. St. Martin’s Press New York.
  • Lehrman, Leonard. 2005 Marc Blitzstein: A Bio-Bibliography. Praeger New York.
  • Briley, Ron
    Copyright 2010 by ABC-CLIO, LLC

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