Historian Eric A. Gordon, author of the first biography of Marc Blitzstein (1989),1 recalled his editor's remark that “[t]here will never be another biography of Blitzstein, so write what you feel needs to be there.”2 This advice led to a 605-page tome, a massive effort that brought much-needed recognition to a significant but neglected American composer who is perhaps still best known for three dramatic works: The Cradle Will Rock (1937), which has received renewed attention with numerous restagings over the last few decades and with the film Cradle Will Rock directed by Tim Robbins (1999); Regina (1949), based on Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes and called by the New York Times “one of the best operas by an American” (quoted p. 469); and his brilliant adaptation of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht's Die Dreigroschenoper (1954), warmly praised by Brecht, Lotte Lenya, Virgil Thomson, and Arthur Berger (pp. 355, 360–61). Fortunately for readers eager to learn more about Blitzstein and his music, the editor's declaration to Gordon turned out to be inaccurate. Howard Pollack's splendid biography of Blitzstein, also clocking in at over 600 pages, was published twenty-three years after Gordon's, expanding and deepening the field of Blitzstein studies.
With Marc Blitzstein: His Life, His Work, His World, Pollack offers scholars and general readers alike an intricate and engaging narrative that gives greater attention to musical matters than does Gordon's earlier life-and-times study. Pollack's exquisitely researched work gracefully traces the arc of the composer's life and explores the wide range of Blitzstein's oeuvre, attending to important but lesser-known compositions such as Danton's Death (1939), No for an Answer (1940), the Airborne Symphony (1946), Reuben Reuben (1955), Juno (1959), the set of songs From Marion's Book with texts by e. e. cummings (1960), and Sacco and Vanzetti, an opera that was to have been premiered at the Metropolitan Opera but was left unfinished at Blitzstein's untimely death in 1964. Pollack rightly notes that “Blitzstein has become a much dimmer figure today than in 1964” (p. 4), even after the publication of Gordon's laudable biography and Leonard Lehrman's informative bio-bibliography.3 Pollack's volume illuminates many corners of Blitzstein's career and life, providing a multifaceted portrait of this intriguing figure in relation to his music, his subjectivity as a Jewish, gay/bisexual, leftist, politically committed composer, and his work with many luminaries in the arts, including Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, Orson Welles, John Houseman, Maria Tallchief, George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, and Lillian Hellman.
Unlike his biographies of Aaron Copland (1999) and George Gershwin (2006),4 Pollack's Blitzstein biography has a fairly narrow field of previous scholarship with which to contend. He judiciously draws upon some of the same key materials as Gordon while vigorously pursuing many new sources in crafting a taut account of Blitzstein and his music. The book's chronological organization largely focuses on individual compositions chapter by chapter (with Chapter 7 devoted to Blitzstein's critical writings and Chapter 25 to his unfinished operas), from early works composed during his late teens to compositions still in progress when he died aged fifty-eight in Martinique, “the apparent victim of a gay bashing” (p. 469). Pollack's narration of the attack on Blitzstein by three seamen who robbed and beat him—which notes that “Blitzstein reportedly slipped into a deserted alley with one of the three for some sexual encounter” (p. 468)—at last answers the question prompted by the book's opening sentence, which mentions but does not describe the circumstances of “Blitzstein's violent death” (p. 3). Pollack describes Blitzstein as “[h]alf-undressed” when he was found “calling for help” in a public square the morning after the attack, while Gordon gives more painful details about Blitzstein's humiliation by the men who “left him there in the alley stripped of every piece of clothing but his shirt and socks,” after which he was found by policemen, “hearing his cries and moans.”5
Pollack addresses Blitzstein's sexuality throughout the book, writing of his “first known sexual relationship” at the age of nineteen with conductor Alexander Smallens in France and his sexual relations with women in Europe in 1929 (p. 21). He quotes from a moving coming-out letter written by Blitzstein to his sister Josephine (Jo) Davis in August 1929 at the age of twenty-four: “It has become imperative … that I … let out what has been secret and furtive in me for so long. Shame is the largest single enemy … until now what has gone on has been an instinctive process of self-protection. … Now, I accept what I am” (pp. 21–22). In October he refers to his “homosexuality,” and in December he writes, “I believe I should be medically classed a bisexual, since I have had sexual experience with women, and liked it” (p. 22). Pollack identifies Blitzstein, as well as his friend and supporter Leonard Bernstein, as “predominantly homosexual” (p. 184).
Pollack treats Blitzstein's eight-year relationship with writer and translator Eva Goldbeck tenderly, noting simply that she “remained … the love of his life” (p. 115). He quotes one particularly poignant journal entry by Goldbeck, which recalls Blitzstein's words to her: “You complete me, in my life and in my work” (p. 110). According to Pollack, Goldbeck “had a sophisticated grasp of contemporary music” and Blitzstein's music “became an overriding preoccupation of her life” (p. 66). Goldbeck and Blitzstein married in 1933—Blitzstein characterized their marriage as “platonic” while Pollack observes that it “in fact included sexual relations” (p. 72)—and she died, probably of anorexia nervosa, three years later at the age of thirty-four. Pollack comments that the marriage provided companionship but also “served [Blitzstein's] artistic ambitions” (p. 72). Of Goldbeck, Blitzstein remarked that she “can sometimes get more brilliance and expression out of me than any other person” (p. 68). Pollack gives the reader a sense of the “dense, opaque” prose style (p. 65) of Goldbeck's many writings, including essays, poems, translations, book reviews, and journal entries, and notes the lack of acknowledgment by Blitzstein of Goldbeck's writing, at least as revealed in their considerable surviving correspondence (p. 66). Pollack's focus on Blitzstein's relationships with women throughout his life—Goldbeck, older sister Jo Davis, writers Berenice Skidelsky and Mina Kirstein Curtiss, soprano Lina Abarbanell (Goldbeck's mother who became “a second mother to him,” p. 71, and later the casting director for Regina, p. 333), playwright Lillian Hellman, editor Minna Lederman, and others—proves to be one of the most fascinating threads in the book. He notes that several formative figures for Blitzstein were “intellectual, progressive, often older Jewish women” (p. 12).
Pollack's discussion of Blitzstein's long commitment to engaging with issues of politics, labor, and race in his music permeates the text. He marks 1934 as the year “communism had become that much more important to Blitzstein's work,” pointing to his Children's Cantata (also titled “Workers’ Kids of the World, Unite!”), composed that summer (p. 102), and to a galvanizing event for Blitzstein and Goldbeck in the fall—their arrest and deportation from Brussels after they attended a meeting of the Communist Youth of Belgium (p. 100). Blitzstein was a member of the New York Composers’ Collective, which aimed to create music “for the workers of America which shall serve to unite and hearten them in their struggle against economic exploitation, against war and against fascism” (p. 103). The subject matter that interested him for his operas—for example, No for an Answer's “coming-of-age story in which a young heroine breaks with her corrupt family in favor of those less privileged than herself” (p. 320), and the tragic circumstances of the Italian anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti—underscores Blitzstein's leftist political convictions. Pollack's exploration of Blitzstein's resolution to “bring [racism] to the fore in Regina” and his theatricalized use of “a black Dixieland band” in order to represent, in Blitzstein's words, “the first voice of protest of the colored people in a secular way against the eternal ‘small-gypping’” (quoted p. 323) further emphasizes the political inclinations of Blitzstein's art.
After mentioning the contrasting critical responses by Lawrence Mass and Robert Kendrick to Gordon's treatment of Blitzstein's sexuality and ethnicity,6 Pollack joins the side of neither, commenting in a parenthesis, “it might be added that Blitzstein seems to have regarded his Jewish background and his homosexuality not as matters of pride so much as conferring a doubly oppressed minority status that helped sharpen his perception of social injustice and dysfunction in general, with his work exploring the corrosive effects of such discrimination on humanity as a whole” (pp. 496–97). Although muted in this almost offhand remark, the perspective that Pollack articulates in the conclusion provides a vanishing point for the book as a whole.
An amazingly thorough researcher, Pollack seems to lift every stone in order to build the most comprehensive account possible. One of the most surprising and interesting turns he takes is the decision to include interpretations of a dream Blitzstein recorded in a letter to Bernstein in December 1963. Pollack solicits readings of the dream, which he takes to be an “autobiographical statement,” from depth psychotherapist Beth Martin and from composer and student of Jungian psychology Edward Applebaum (pp. 466–67). In recounting the tragic circumstances of Blitzstein's death in Martinique, he references an interview he conducted in 2010 with former US vice-consul William Milam, who went to the hospital to assist Blitzstein the morning after the attack (p. 468).
In a biography that maps different terrain from Gordon's, Pollack presents many absorbing observations about Blitzstein's music. For example, asserting that the Orchestra Variations (1934) were “patently modeled … after Copland's Piano Variations,” Pollack points to the closing “quiet, dissonant chord for strings (C–C♯–E), a sonority that duplicates three of the four notes at the heart of Copland's Variations” (p. 143). Turning to the end of Blitzstein's career, he remarks that the surviving score of Blitzstein's unfinished opera Sacco and Vanzetti contains “the sort of grim, dissonant language not really heard in Blitzstein's work for close to thirty years,” and that for this opera Blitzstein sketched “several twelve-tone rows and their standard permutations … with his very first musical draft. … [T]he surviving music shows little evidence of any strict twelve-tone writing” (p. 483). Pollack's account of Blitzstein's brief studies with and strong opinions about Schoenberg makes for lively reading, and he charts a marked change in Blitzstein's views, from vehement disagreement with Schoenberg over his “demands to sacrifice beauty on the altar of Scheme” (p. 31) in the 1920s to a softening toward his teacher's compositions in the 1930s, Blitzstein expressing admiration for Pierrot lunaire and the String Quartet no. 3, and declaring in 1962, “I love many serial works” (p. 33).
Disappointingly, the book does not include any music examples. Given the inaccessibility of the majority of Blitzstein's scores (an exception being The Marc Blitzstein Songbook edited by Lehrman and published by Boosey & Hawkes in three volumes in 1999, 2001, and 2003), examples would have helped to illustrate Pollack's remarks about the music and to afford a new generation contact with the scores. Even if “the public has access to virtually the composer's entire oeuvre by way of the Marc Blitzstein Papers at the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theatre Research” (p. 5), having to view the collection on microfilm at the Center or through interlibrary loan will surely discourage many who might be eager to get better acquainted with Blitzstein's music.
I found myself wishing more than once for an annotated list of works that updated and expanded the list that appears in Gordon's 1989 biography. To take one example, no information is provided as to where one might find Discourse, a piece for clarinet, cello, and piano (“transcribed and completed by Leonard Lehrman in 2004,” p. 142), which receives only brief mention in Mark the Music and does not appear in its list of works.7 Pollack reports that for Discourse Blitzstein planned to use “four themes composed of various series of notes (ninety-one, twenty, twenty-one, and twenty-three …) along with their inversions and retrogrades” and listed dozens of tetrachords as motivic material (p. 141). Discourse is especially noteworthy as a piece that suggests possible influence by Schoenberg and the Composers’ Collective. As described by Pollack, Discourse also bears the imprint of music by Henry Cowell and Ruth Crawford, as well as the interest of fellow Collective member Charles Seeger in heterophony and dissonant counterpoint. Pollack makes the thought-provoking suggestion that Discourse “anticipated the music of Elliott Carter,” a composer who socialized with both Blitzstein and Goldbeck but seems not to have acknowledged any musical influence by Blitzstein (p. 141).
Pollack notes that “[b]ecause of the relative unfamiliarity of Blitzstein's work, readers might profitably consult recordings, videos, and scores in conjunction with this book” (p. 4), and he helpfully provides in the following paragraphs titles of a number of recordings available at the time of publication. It would nevertheless have been useful to have an appendix containing a comprehensive and current Blitzstein discography as well as a filmography/videography that includes the five surviving films scored by Blitzstein. A number of publishers, including Oxford University Press, have established companion websites that provide access to audio and video examples not widely available.8 Such a website for Marc Blitzstein would greatly assist the reader.
Given the thicket of sources that Pollack skillfully works through—correspondence, diaries, scores, sketches, recordings, telecasts, interviews, criticism, and studies in music, theater, literature, history, and politics, a bibliography would also have been a valuable inclusion. The format for endnotes, by which one endnote might contain multiple citations, sometimes makes it challenging to connect citations to the main text. In Pollack's retelling of Blitzstein's first meeting with then Harvard senior Leonard Bernstein in May 1939, for example, endnote 46 (p. 528) cites four sources: Bernstein's “Tribute to Marc Blitzstein” in his 1982 book Findings, his “Marc Blitzstein Remembered” in the 1964 Memorial Concert program (possibly the original source for the 1982 “Tribute”?), his taped remarks at a 1985 tribute to Blitzstein, and “MB to LB, June 2, 1939” in the Marc Blitzstein Papers at the Wisconsin State Historical Society. It is not immediately clear in which of the first three of these sources Bernstein recorded his beautiful recollection of “Marc lying on the banks of the Charles, talking, bequeathing to me his knowledge, insight, warmth … with endless strength drawn, like that of Antaeus, from his contact with the earth” (p. 184). Keeping track of the abbreviations used for frequently cited sources (pp. 503–4) can also be difficult at times: “LEH” is the abbreviation for Leonard Lehrman's bio-bibliography, while “LL” refers to Lehrman himself, “MEL” stands for Wilfrid Mellers's book Music in a New Found Land, and so forth.
Despite the scope and depth of Pollack's volume, there is ample room for additional Blitzstein scholarship, and fortunately more materials are becoming available. The Kurt Weill Foundation for Music, which publishes a superb newsletter, maintains the official Marc Blitzstein website.9 In 2012 it began administering Blitzstein's intellectual property, the beneficiary of a 50 percent share donated by his nephew Stephen Davis, and as of this writing “is in the process of building a reference collection at the Foundation that will serve scholars, performers, and fans.”10 Also as of 2012 materials “documenting Blitzstein's musical works, as well as correspondence files between biographer Eric A. Gordon and Blitzstein's family, friends and collaborators” for Gordon's Mark the Music, were made accessible at the ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives, USC Libraries, University of Southern California.11
Those interested in twentieth-century music, American music, musical theater, LGBTQ history, Jewish composers, music informed by considerations of politics including race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality, and leftist musicians and artists are in Pollack's debt for this magnificent, richly detailed study. It will, I trust, prompt many more performances, critical editions of scores, and greater analytical engagement with Blitzstein's music, generating fresh views on a remarkable composer and person.