Marc Blitzstein, the hard-left American composer whose steeltown musical The Cradle Will Rock was one of the most storied cultural events of the New Deal period, would have been one hundred today. He was born into a rich Philadelphia family and showed early promise as a piano virtuoso. Taking up composition, he studied in Paris with Nadia Boulanger and in Berlin with Schoenberg, who snarled at him, "Go ahead, you write your Franco-Russian pretty music." In the late twenties, his politics swerved far to the left, partly under the influence of the radical Berlin-born novelist Eva Goldbeck, who married him in spite of the fact that he was gay. The Cradle Will Rock was inspired by Brecht; according to Orson Welles, who directed the premiere, Blitzstein believed it would incite an American revolution. In the forties, the composer completed two other high-profile projects, the Airborne Symphony and Regina, despite a gathering storm against real and supposed Communist infiltration of the arts. Ironically, his greatest success was his forceful translation of The Threepenny Opera, which had failed to catch on in previous American incarnations. Some of Blitzstein's agitprop music now sounds pretty thin, and the specter of Stalinism lurks behind even his most innocent homilies to minorities and the working class. But at his best — in the anti-elitist anthem "Art for Art's Sake," for example — he rivals Weill and Eisler at their most savagely potent. Whatever else you think of him or his politics, Blitzstein's music has great historical importance; it reflects the strange soul of America in the thirties, when, according to polls, twenty-five percent of the country wanted some form of socialist government. Much more about this remarkable period in The Rest Is Noise: The Book.
Last week I stated that the Blitzstein centennial was being pretty much ignored on the East Coast. I stand by that generalization, but there's still activity to report. The biggest happening is the Kennedy Center's production of Regina, Blitzstein's operatic adaptation of Lillian Hellman's Little Foxes. The semi-staged production stars Patti LuPone, no less, and plays for four performances, from March 10 to 12. Here in NYC, the activist composer Leonard Lehrman has organized a string of events lasting through the summer: read more on his website. Tonight at 7:30PM, the Brecht Forum is holding a Blitzstein concert-symposium; the panel includes Ned Rorem and Eric Salzman, and Helene Williams and Lerhman will perform a selection of Blitzstein songs. Lehrman has also organized Blitzstein concerts this weekend, one at the People's Voice Café on East 33rd St., the other at the Aaron Copland School of Music in Flushing. The lineup of performers includes the Workmen's Circle Chorus, the Metropolitan Philharmonic Chorus, and the Solidarity Singers of the New Jersey Industrial Union Council. (The Cultural Front lives on!) Note that Lehrman has put together a completed version of Sacco and Vanzetti, which was commissioned by the Met, no less, and which the alcohol-bedeviled composer struggled for years to finish. He died in 1964, at the hands of three sailors in Martinique. He did not write Franco-Russian pretty music.