Marc Blitzstein Papers, 1918-1989


Composer-lyricist Marc (Marcus Samuel) Blitzstein was born in Philadelphia on March 2, 1905, to banker Samuel M. Blitzstein (died 1945) and Anna (Levitt) Blitzstein (died 1970). From his earliest years he displayed musical talent and he began public appearances at the age of six. Blitzstein began composing at the age of twelve, and in his teens he was called a “piano prodigy.” At 15 he was a piano soloist with the Philadelphia Orchestra. After attending public schools in Philadelphia, he entered the University of Pennsylvania in 1921 but transferred to the Curtis Institute of Music in 1923. There he spent two years, studying composition with Rosario Scalero, at the same time as he studied piano with Alexander Siloti in New York. In 1926 Blitzstein moved to Europe. In Paris he studied music composition with Nadia Boulanger, and at the Berlin Akademie der Kunste he worked with Arnold Schonberg. While in Berlin he composed the score for the film Hands (Hande).

Blitzstein's musical energy found its release in many forms: concert works, opera, film scores, and the musical stage. A one-act opera, Triple-Sec, was first performed in 1929 in Philadelphia; a year later it became a part of Garrick Gaieties in New York.

During the late twenties and early thirties few artists could escape questioning the role of their work in a world faced with urgent social and political needs. Blitzstein was particularly haunted by the conflict between art for art's sake and art as a tool for social reform. He was also one of the few who used art for social needs without sacrificing his musical genius. Blitzstein also passed on his ideas to others. In 1935 he began lecturing at the New School for Social Research; he also taught individual students. He was playwright-in-residence at Bennington College in 1962-1963.

In 1936 Blitzstein's first major work, The Cradle Will Rock, was scheduled to be presented by the Federal Theatre Project. The script, which called for steelworkers to unionize and strike, was considered too controversial by the Works Progress Administration, and work on the show was halted. Blitzstein, director Orson Welles, and producer John Houseman moved the piece to another theater; its opening was characterized as “the most exciting evening of theatre this New York generation has seen.”

On April 15, 1936, Blitzstein's Piano Concerto and piano solo piece Scherzo - Bourgeois at Play premiered at the Composer's Forum-Laboratory program, held at the then Federal Theatre Building in New York City. In a letter of August 8, 1964, Norman Cazden, who played solo parts for both pieces, noted that the program was wholly devoted to Blitzstein's works, and that the composer himself played the accompaniment to the Piano Concerto.

In 1938 Blitzstein's radicalism became increasingly political when he joined the Communist Party. (He resigned his membership in 1949.) Continuing to search for socially relevant art, Blitzstein wrote the opera No for an Answer about the attempts of workers to organize. Produced in 1941 it, too, was controversial and was objectionable to the New York Commissioner of Licenses. After World War II began, Blitzstein elected to discontinue performances of No for an Answer, saying “This is no time to wash our dirty linen in public.” (Quote provided by Josephine Davis, 1985.) However, Blitzstein's abilities were recognized publicly in 1940 and 1941, when he received two John Simon Guggenheim Fellowships, and in 1946 when he won the composition prize of the National Institute of Arts and Letters.

On August 29, 1942, Blitzstein enlisted in the military; ultimately he served as a sergeant with the Army Air Force and was attached to the Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Force, European Theatre. He was an “Entertainment Specialist,” whose duties included composing musical scores and writing scripts for concerts, radio, and films; directing the U.S. Army Negro chorus; and directing the music of the American Broadcasting Station in Europe (O.W.I.). His works, Freedom Morning, first sung in Royal Albert Hall, London, in 1943, and The Airborne Symphony, premiered by the New York City Symphony in 1946, were products of these years. Blitzstein was discharged from the military June 26, 1945.

Regina, based on Lillian Hellman's play The Little Foxes, was Blitzstein's next major opera; it opened in New York in 1949. Reuben, Reuben followed in 1955 and Juno, based on Sean O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock, was produced in 1959. During the 1950s Blitzstein's most acclaimed work was the translation and adaptation of Bertolt Brecht's The Threepenny Opera, which ran from 1954 to 1961. Blitzstein's version of the song “Mack the Knife” became an immediate hit. With the collaboration of Kurt Weill, Blitzstein made the piece into a minor classic. First performed in 1952 at Brandeis University, The Threepenny Opera opened in New York in 1954.

In 1960 Blitzstein was awarded a Ford Foundation grant to write an opera about Sacco and Vanzetti. For the composer, the Sacco-Vanzetti case was a symbol of the plight of the oppressed in society. The story had interested Blitzstein for decades, and he had first composed it as a tone poem in 1932 while in Italy on a Prix de Rome. For more than a year during the early 1960s Blitzstein struggled with the project, but he was torn by the contradiction that seemed to exist between the story and the institutions which were sponsoring his writing. He found he could not write freely about oppression when he was funded by the Establishment.

Determined to work on a new project, Blitzstein left for Martinique and it was there that he was robbed and murdered on January 22, 1964. He was survived by his elderly mother, his sister, Josephine Davis, and her sons, novelist Christopher Davis and lawyer Stephen Davis.

Marc Blitzstein was married once, to Maria Luise Eva (called Eva) Goldbeck, who was born August 26, 1901, in Berlin. She was the daughter of writer Eduard Goldbeck and opera singer Karoline Goldbeck (known professionally as Lina Abarbanell). The family came to the United States in 1910. Eva graduated from Northwestern University in 1920, and the following year the state of Indiana issued her a certificate to teach Latin. On February 27, 1922, Eva married Cecil H. Goldbeck. The were divorced January 1, 1924, but probably remarried a few years later. In the early 1930s Marc Blitzstein met Eva Goldbeck, who was by then a radical writer and translator. They were married March 2, 1933. Eva Goldbeck was in poor health compounded by emotional problems for many years, and in 1935 she became critically ill. She died of pernicious anemia and starvation (probably anorexia nervosa) on May 26, 1936.