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Marc Blitzstein (left), Leonard Bernstein (circa 1945)
Blitzstein with Leonard Bernstein (seated).

Remembering Blitzstein in the Bernstein Year

“We are almost telepathically close. Sometimes we compose startlingly similar music on the same day, without seeing each other.” – Marc Blitzstein on Leonard Bernstein

2018 marks the centennial of the birth of Leonard Bernstein. Bernstein and Blitzstein shared an especially close friendship, and Bernstein served as one of Blitzstein’s most vocal proponents and champions.

Blitzstein and Bernstein met in 1939 when Bernstein led a production of The Cradle Will Rock at Harvard. Their meeting led to an “instant and lifelong” friendship, a relationship which Howard Pollack describes as “so symbiotic as to make it difficult to pinpoint influence.” The nature of their friendship is documented in the many letters and telegrams they exchanged, and by Bernstein in his own writings and interviews.

Bernstein premiered three of Blitzstein’s most important works, giving the premiere of the orchestral version of Cradle (New York City Center, 1947), as well as the Boston-area premiere of the piano-only version while a senior at Harvard in 1939; Airborne Symphony (New York City Symphony, 1946), which he also recorded twice; and the Boston try-out of Blitzstein’s adaptation of The Threepenny Opera (Brandeis University, 1952). Furthermore, Bernstein dedicated his 1952 opera Trouble in Tahiti to Blitzstein, and Blitzstein in turn dedicated his Six Elizabethan Songs (1958) to Bernstein.

Their relationship extended well beyond the professional realm. The Bernsteins named Blitzstein godfather to their firstborn daughter, Jamie, for whom Blitzstein composed a short work for solo piano, Innocent Psalm. Bernstein’s two younger children were also named for characters in Blitzstein’s works – Alexander, named for Alexandra (Regina), and Nina (Reuben, Reuben).

“I was tremendously influenced by Marc in everything I wrote for the theater and even some things that weren’t.” – Bernstein on Blitzstein

Learn More

Eric Gordon’s Mark the Music: The Life and Work of Marc Blitzstein (St. Martin’s Press, 1989) and Howard Pollack’s Marc Blitzstein, His Life, His Work, His World (Oxford University Press, 2012) each offer rich detail of their friendship and collaborations.

The Leonard Bernstein Letters, ed. Nigel Simeone (Yale University Press, 2013), includes select correspondence between Bernstein and Blitzstein.

Love and Betrayal”, episode 2 of Guy Livingston’s 4-part radio documentary, The Cradle That Rocked.

Bernstein Centennial Exhibit at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts & the Skirball Center

Pianist Lara Downes releases world premiere recording of “Innocent Psalm”

Bernstein on Regina

Bernstein performs Blitzstein’s “Zipperfly”

 

 

World Premiere Recording of “Innocent Psalm”

Pianist Lara Downes’ forthcoming CD For Lenny features music written by Bernstein, but also selections by other composers written for Bernstein. The recording includes the world premiere recording of Blitzstein’s Innocent Psalm (for the Bernstein Baby), (solo piano, 1953). Blitzstein composed the work in honor of the birth of the Bernsteins’ oldest daughter, Jamie.

Jamie Bernstein on Blitzstein:

“My parents adored Marc. So close a friend was he that they appointed him my godfather when I was born. He immediately composed a piano piece in my honor — “To Baby Girl Bernstein;” I didn’t even have a name yet.

“In the summers, my parents were in the habit of making fairly elaborate home movies with story lines. In the summer of 1960, they made ‘Call Me Moses,’ their own silent Exodus epic. Marc was cast as the Pharaoh’s whipmaster, lashing the slaves on the beach at Martha’s Vineyard as they toiled to build the pyramids. Our family watches this movie every year at Passover. Somehow, as Marc laughs with silent-movie evil glee, burnished and handsome under the New England summer sun and melodramatically kissing his cat o’ nine tails, he remains completely adorable.”

(originally published in Kurt Weill Newsletter, Vol. 30 No. 1, Spring 2012)

Display panel from "Leonard Bernstein at 100" exhibit. (Image courtesy of the Skirball Cultural Center.)

Bernstein Centennial Exhibition with a Blitzstein Connection

“I was tremendously influenced by Marc in everything I wrote for the theater and even some things that weren’t.” – Bernstein on Blitzstein

2018 marks the centennial of the birth of Leonard Bernstein, close friend and collaborator of Blitzstein. A new exhibit sponsored by the Grammy Foundation shines a spotlight on the influence of Blitzstein on Bernstein’s work, and includes recordings of Blitzstein’s music and biographical information. The exhibit is currently on display at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts (through 24 March), and moves to Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles in April.

Leonard Bernstein on “Regina”

2018 marks the centennial of the birth of Leonard Bernstein. Bernstein and Blitzstein shared an especially close friendship, and Bernstein served as one of Blitzstein’s most vocal proponents and champions.

In particular, Bernstein was a very vocal proponent for Blitzstein’s 1949 opera Regina, calling it “a kind of apex, a summation of what Blitzstein has been trying to do” (“Prelude to A Blitzstein Musical Adaptation,” published in the New York Times, October 30, 1949). On learning that the Broadway run had announced a premature closing, Bernstein and eleven other theater and music dignitaries took out a paid advertisement (“We Saw Regina” NY Times Dec 13, 1949) in that same publication in an attempt to rally support for the show and prolong its run.

In the late 1970s, Bernstein embarked on a project with conductor John Mauceri to attempt to “fix” the opera, by restoring material cut from the original score and even early drafts. Though Bernstein died before bringing the project to completion, Mauceri continued the work, and in 1991, premiered this expanded version at the Scottish Opera (resulting in the so-called “Scottish Opera Version”).

Drawing once again on the symbiosis the two composers shared, Howard Pollack writes, “Bernstein, who also admired the opera [Regina], virtually plagiarized a theme at the top of the dinner party scene for ‘Maria’ from West Side Story (1957)…” Pollack goes on to note other similarities, “with ‘Galop’ from Fancy Free (1944) looking ahead to Regina’s second act finale, which in turn anticipated ‘Auto-da-fe’ from Candide (1956).”

In the midst of this year’s Bernstein celebration, opportunities to hear Blitzstein’s music still abound, including a new production of Regina at Opera Theatre St. Louis, opening May 26. For a complete list of upcoming performances, visit the performance calendar. 

New Production of “The Cradle Will Rock” Makes Its Own Headlines

Opera Saratoga’s new production of Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock opened 9 July, and has quickly garnered attention for the work’s enduring relevance 80 years after its legendary premiere. In the New York Times, Joshua Barone discusses the work’s timelessness in “a year when political messages onstage are under acute scrutiny, and when the show’s themes are as present in the news as ever. A case about unions’ rights has once again arrived at the Supreme Court. The latest woes of a Pennsylvania steel town were recently on the front page of The New York Times. ‘Cradle’ even has a song about fake news.”

Read more:
Philadelphia Inquirer: Philly Firebrand Who Mentored Bernstein is Back in the Spotlight, Big-time
Conductor John Mauceri on Blitzstein’s legacy: Putting the Baby Back in the Cradle
La Scena Musicale: At Opera Saratoga, New Hands Rock Blitzstein’s Cradle
Albany Times Union: Opera Saratoga Performance a Moment in History & Review
Interview with director Lawrence Edelson and John Mauceri on WMHT Radio
Performance preview by Daron Hagen​

And this week, Opera Saratoga announced plans for a commercial recording, currently in the works! Stay tuned for more information.

See also: Opera Saratoga Resurrects the Original “The Cradle Will Rock”

Historical marker installed at 419 Pine Street, Philadelphia

Blitzstein Birthplace Historical Marker Unveiled

A ceremony on June 12 commemorated the unveiling of the new historical marker installed at the site of Marc Blitzstein’s birthplace, 419 Pine Street, Philadelphia. A small crowd of thirty or so Blitzstein devotees gathered on the tree-lined street in the historic Society Hill neighborhood to witness the unveiling. Local historians and Blitzstein experts shared remarks about Blitzstein’s connection to Philadelphia, his musical influence, and social and political legacy.

Further resources

Recap of the unveiling from the Philadelphia Inquirer and Jewish Exponent

Video highlights of the ceremony from ABC News 6

Remarks from Elizabeth Blaufox, Associate Director of Programs and Promotion for the Kurt Weill Foundation for Music

 

Blitzstein and the cast of "The Cradle Will Rock" in rehearsal, 1937

Opera Saratoga Resurrects the Original “The Cradle Will Rock”

16 June will mark the 80th anniversary of the infamous premiere of The Cradle Will Rock—the night the Federal Theatre Project locked the cast and crew out of the Maxine Elliot’s Theater, forcing them to scramble to find a new venue for the opening night of Blitzstein’s highly anticipated agitprop musical. Undeterred, the cast marched up Broadway to the Venice Theater, where Blitzstein performed the score from the piano onstage and the actors sang and spoke their parts from the audience.

While it has become nearly impossible in the intervening years to separate the spectacle of that first performance from the notoriety of the show itself, Cradle has remained a repertoire staple, though almost exclusively performed in a pared-down, piano-only version. However, that is about to change:  This summer, Opera Saratoga in upstate New York offers theater-goers a rare opportunity to hear The Cradle Will Rock as Blitzstein intended, in a fully staged production with his original orchestration. Lawrence Edelson directs this new production, which takes the stage for four performances 9–16 July, conducted by noted Blitzstein expert John Mauceri. The cast features three past prizewinners of the Lotte Lenya Competition (a program of the Kurt Weill Foundation): Ginger Costa-Jackson (2013 Lys Symonette Award) as Moll, Justin Hopkins (2012 2nd Prize) as Reverend Salvation, and Lisa Marie Rogali (2017 Special Award) in the ensemble.  This will be the first time the original orchestration has been heard since the New York City Opera production in 1960.

Other Events

Additionally, Opera Saratoga offers several ancillary events to enhance audience members’ knowledge of Blitzstein’s music. On 16 June, the evening of the 80th anniversary of the world premiere, OS presents Marc Blitzstein – A Life in Song, curated and hosted by Hopkins. The program will include excerpts from Blitzstein’s theatrical and operatic works as well as lesser-known songs. Another song evening, Broadway in the 1930s on 14 July, will feature songs by Blitzstein and Weill, along with the usual suspects, Gershwin, Porter, and Rodgers and Hart.

Further Resources

Find more information and tickets on the Opera Saratoga website.

Listen to an interview with director Lawrence Edelson and conductor John Mauceri on WMHT radio.

New Historical Marker to Commemorate Blitzstein’s Birthplace

Thanks to the efforts of the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission, in partnership with the National Museum of American Jewish History, Curtis Institute of Music (Blitzstein’s alma mater), and a couple of dedicated Blitzstein fans, a new historical marker is to be installed at the site of Blitzstein’s birthplace, 419 Pine Street, Philadelphia. The marker will be installed on 12 June, four days ahead of the 80th anniversary of the premiere of The Cradle Will Rock. The installation ceremony, which begins at 11:00 am at the site, will feature Blitzstein experts and scholars speaking on various topics including his musical legacy, work as an activist, and his connection to Philadelphia. The ceremony is free and open to the public.

That evening, a reading of the play “It’s All True” which recounts the creation of Cradle, by Jason Sherman, will take place at 7:00 pm at the National Museum of American Jewish History. Additional information and tickets available here.

Blitzstein at Tanglewood, 1946

“The Cradle That Rocked” Radio Documentary Now Airing in the US

Guy Livingston‘s 4-part radio documentary series on the life and work of Marc Blitzstein is now airing on radio stations around the United States, via the WFMT Radio Network. The series had its American broadcast premiere on Illinois’ WILL radio on March 5. Episodes three and four can be heard Sunday March 19 and 26, respectively, at 8:00 pm (CST). The program will air on other stations around the country through out the year, so be sure to your check your local public radio station’s listings for air dates. Additionally, all four episodes are available to download as podcasts via iTunes, or listen online anytime.

Listen Online

Previously Unknown Blitzstein Manuscript Comes to Light

A previously unknown manuscript piano score for Blitzstein’s early ballet Cain surfaced this summer. The owner donated the score to the Kurt Weill Foundation for Music in October 2016. The 115-page manuscript in red and black ink post-dates the full score, currently held in the Blitzstein papers at the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research, whose holdings also contain another holograph piano vocal score.

Jehovah addresses Cain.

Composed in 1930 for a competition sponsored by the League of Composers, Cain retells the biblical story of Cain and Abel and the first murder. Heavy in allegorical implication, Blitzstein wrote in his preface to the synopsis, “Cain is a tragic ballet. Its philosophy is that we are all killers, and that murder is our heritage.” The work is structured in twelve sections divided into two parts separated by an interlude and runs approximately 30 minutes in duration. The ballet requires twelve solo dancers, a company, and one singer – a baritone representing the voice of Jehovah, heard only through an amplifier from off-stage (the vocal part is notated in red in Blitzstein’s piano score; see accompanying image). As usual with Blitzstein, the scoring is lavish: sixteen winds, fourteen brass, two percussion players, piano, and strings. Blitzstein began a version for smaller orchestra; that unfinished score is also held in Wisconsin. Both piano manuscripts bear Blitzstein’s notes on a concert suite derived from the work, but the movements and ordering differ slightly.

Detail of Blitzstein’s notes for a suite.

Blitzstein dedicated the work to his future wife, Eva Goldbeck, and in a letter to his sister, Jo, wrote of his progress on the piece, “It will be a wow; or at any rate the work and love going into it deserve a wow.” Upon completion, he wrote again to Jo, describing it as “the best thing I have written in my career.” Despite such high expectation by the composer and the admiration of several of his colleagues, including Copland, Nadia Boulanger, and interest from Stokowski, the work never received a complete public performance in Blitzstein’s lifetime.

Little is known of the score’s provenance. The donor acquired it in the 1950s from an unknown estate as part of a larger lot of published and manuscript music. The score then lay forgotten among the donor’s belongings until he rediscovered it this summer and contacted the Kurt Weill Foundation. The find presents a potentially interesting discovery in tracking this early composition which the promising young composer invested with such high hopes. The question as to why Blitzstein created two different piano vocal scores for the same, unpublished, unperformed work demands musicological inquiry; comparison of the two scores may yield new insights on Blitzstein’s technique and creative process. Inquiries are encouraged; the score currently resides at the Weill-Lenya Research Center at the Foundation offices in New York City (wlrc@kwf.org).