Marc Blitzstein

Marc Blitzstein

Marc Blitzstein, the son of a wealthy banker, was born in Philadelphia on 2nd March, 1905. His father was a socialist, but Blitzstein later recalled that he was "as modern in social thinking as he was conservative in musical taste". A child prodigy, he performed as a soloist with the Philadelphia Orchestra when he was only fifteen. He studied at the Curtis Institute of Music and later trained with Nadia Boulanger in Paris and Arnold Schonberg in Berlin.

Blitzstein wrote plays as well as music and joined theGroup Theatre in New York City where he worked with Harold Clurman, Lee Strasberg, Elia Kazan and Clifford Odets. Members of the group tended to hold left-wing political views and wanted to produce plays that dealt with important social issues.

In 1932 Blitzstein wrote Condemned, a play about the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti. The following year he married the novelist, Eva Goldbeck. Blitzstein was openly homosexual and the couple had no children. Eva introduced her husband to the work of Bertolt Brecht, a German writer who she had translated into English. Blitzstein wrote in 1935: “It is clear to me that the conception of music in society… is dying of acute anachronism; and that a fresh idea, overwhelming in its implications and promise, is taking hold. Music must have a social as well as artistic base; it should broaden its scope and reach not only the select few but the masses”. Soon afterwards he joined the American Communist Party. He also contributed to left-wing journals such as New Masses.

Eva Goldbeck died on 26th May, 1936. She had been suffering from breast cancer and anorexia nervosa. Blitzstein was shattered, and in order to escape his grief, he threw himself into his work, beginning composition of a political opera, The Cradle Will Rock, suggested to him by Bertolt Brecht some months earlier.

In 1937 Blitzstein worked with Orson Welles and John Houseman in order to put on this musical about the tyranny of capitalism. Houseman argued that Blitzstein, described as "a play with music (while others, at various times, called it an opera, a labour opera, a social cartoon, a marching song and a propagandistic tour de force)". Welles later recalled: "Marc Blitzstein was almost a saint. He was so totally and serenely convinced of the Eden which was waiting for us all the other side of the Revolution that there was no way of talking politics to him.... When he came into the room the lights got brighter. He was a an engine, a rocket, directed in one direction which was his opera - which he almost believed had only to be performed to start the Revolution."

Developed within the Federal Theatre Project, the original production of The Cradle Will Rock, with Howard da Silva and Will Geer, was banned for political reasons. It eventually was performed at the Mercury Theatre (108 performances). Another Blitzstein play, No For an Answer (1941), was also closed down because of its political content.

Brooks Atkinsonwas one of the reviewers who appreciated his work: Marc Blitzstein's in the New York Times: "If Mr. Blitzstein looks like a mild little man as he sits before his piano, his work generates current like a dynamo. He can write anything from tribal chant to tin pan alley balladry, and when he settles down to serious business at its conclusion, his music-box roars with rage and his actors frighten the aged roof of the miniature Mercury Theatre." The theatre producer, Hallie Flanagan, added: "Marc Blitzstein sat down at the piano and played, sang and acted with the hard, hypnotic drive which came to be familiar to audiences, his new opera. It took no wizardry to see that this was not just a play set to music, nor music illustrated by actors, but music and play equaling something new and better than either."

Blitzstein served in the US Air Force during the Second World War. His abilities were used as music director of the American broadcasting station in London. His ballet, The Guests, was performed in 1949. An adaptation of The Threepenny Opera by Bertolt Brecht appeared in 1954 and ran for the next seven years on Broadway (2,611 performances). It included Blitzstein's only hit song, Mack the Knife.

Like other former members of the American Communist Party who worked in the entertainment industry, Blitzstein's name appeared in Red Channels. In 1958, Blitzstein received a subpoena to appear before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Blitzstein admitted his membership of the Communist Party but refused either to name names, or co-operate any further. As a result he was blacklisted.

Other work included a musical, Regina (1949), based on the play, The Little Foxes, by Lillian Hellman and Juno (1959), based on Sean O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock. His biographer, Eric A. Gordon, has argued that Blitzstein was "the first theater composer to set to music the authentic American language as spoken by all social classes from immigrant laborers to society matrons."

In January 1964 Marc Blitzstein went on holiday to the island of Martinique. According to his biographer: "Late one evening, in January 1964, following a session of heavy drinking, he had picked up three Portuguese sailors. Exactly what happened next is unclear, but it seems that whilst travelling between bars, one slipped into a nearby alley with Blitzstein in response to his sexual advances. The other two followed and all three robbed him, beat him up and stripped him of all his clothes except his shirt and socks. The police found him moaning and crying in the middle of the night, and took him to a hospital. The injuries did not appear serious, but he was bleeding to death from internal contusions and he died the next evening, January 22nd, 1964."Marc Blitzstein, the son of a wealthy banker, was born in Philadelphia on 2nd March, 1905. His father was a socialist, but Blitzstein later recalled that he was "as modern in social thinking as he was conservative in musical taste". A child prodigy, he performed as a soloist with the Philadelphia Orchestra when he was only fifteen. He studied at the Curtis Institute of Music and later trained with Nadia Boulanger in Paris and Arnold Schonberg in Berlin.

Blitzstein wrote plays as well as music and joined theGroup Theatre in New York City where he worked with Harold Clurman, Lee Strasberg, Elia Kazan and Clifford Odets. Members of the group tended to hold left-wing political views and wanted to produce plays that dealt with important social issues.

In 1932 Blitzstein wrote Condemned, a play about the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti. The following year he married the novelist, Eva Goldbeck. Blitzstein was openly homosexual and the couple had no children. Eva introduced her husband to the work of Bertolt Brecht, a German writer who she had translated into English. Blitzstein wrote in 1935: “It is clear to me that the conception of music in society… is dying of acute anachronism; and that a fresh idea, overwhelming in its implications and promise, is taking hold. Music must have a social as well as artistic base; it should broaden its scope and reach not only the select few but the masses”. Soon afterwards he joined the American Communist Party. He also contributed to left-wing journals such as New Masses.

Eva Goldbeck died on 26th May, 1936. She had been suffering from breast cancer and anorexia nervosa. Blitzstein was shattered, and in order to escape his grief, he threw himself into his work, beginning composition of a political opera, The Cradle Will Rock, suggested to him by Bertolt Brecht some months earlier.

In 1937 Blitzstein worked with Orson Welles and John Houseman in order to put on this musical about the tyranny of capitalism. Houseman argued that Blitzstein, described as "a play with music (while others, at various times, called it an opera, a labour opera, a social cartoon, a marching song and a propagandistic tour de force)". Welles later recalled: "Marc Blitzstein was almost a saint. He was so totally and serenely convinced of the Eden which was waiting for us all the other side of the Revolution that there was no way of talking politics to him.... When he came into the room the lights got brighter. He was a an engine, a rocket, directed in one direction which was his opera - which he almost believed had only to be performed to start the Revolution."

Developed within the Federal Theatre Project, the original production of The Cradle Will Rock, with Howard da Silva and Will Geer, was banned for political reasons. It eventually was performed at the Mercury Theatre (108 performances). Another Blitzstein play, No For an Answer (1941), was also closed down because of its political content.

Brooks Atkinsonwas one of the reviewers who appreciated his work: Marc Blitzstein's in the New York Times: "If Mr. Blitzstein looks like a mild little man as he sits before his piano, his work generates current like a dynamo. He can write anything from tribal chant to tin pan alley balladry, and when he settles down to serious business at its conclusion, his music-box roars with rage and his actors frighten the aged roof of the miniature Mercury Theatre." The theatre producer, Hallie Flanagan, added: "Marc Blitzstein sat down at the piano and played, sang and acted with the hard, hypnotic drive which came to be familiar to audiences, his new opera. It took no wizardry to see that this was not just a play set to music, nor music illustrated by actors, but music and play equaling something new and better than either."

Blitzstein served in the US Air Force during the Second World War. His abilities were used as music director of the American broadcasting station in London. His ballet, The Guests, was performed in 1949. An adaptation of The Threepenny Opera by Bertolt Brecht appeared in 1954 and ran for the next seven years on Broadway (2,611 performances). It included Blitzstein's only hit song, Mack the Knife.

Like other former members of the American Communist Party who worked in the entertainment industry, Blitzstein's name appeared in Red Channels. In 1958, Blitzstein received a subpoena to appear before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Blitzstein admitted his membership of the Communist Party but refused either to name names, or co-operate any further. As a result he was blacklisted.

Other work included a musical, Regina (1949), based on the play, The Little Foxes, by Lillian Hellman and Juno (1959), based on Sean O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock. His biographer, Eric A. Gordon, has argued that Blitzstein was "the first theater composer to set to music the authentic American language as spoken by all social classes from immigrant laborers to society matrons."

In January 1964 Marc Blitzstein went on holiday to the island of Martinique. According to his biographer: "Late one evening, in January 1964, following a session of heavy drinking, he had picked up three Portuguese sailors. Exactly what happened next is unclear, but it seems that whilst travelling between bars, one slipped into a nearby alley with Blitzstein in response to his sexual advances. The other two followed and all three robbed him, beat him up and stripped him of all his clothes except his shirt and socks. The police found him moaning and crying in the middle of the night, and took him to a hospital. The injuries did not appear serious, but he was bleeding to death from internal contusions and he died the next evening, January 22nd, 1964."

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Orson Welles, interview with Barbara Leaming (30th June, 1984)

Marc Blitzstein was almost a saint. He was so totally and serenely convinced of the Eden which was waiting for us all the other side of the Revolution that there was no way of talking politics to him. He didn't care who was in the Senate, or what Mr. Roosevelt said - he was just the spokesman for the bourgeoisie! When he came into the room the lights got brighter. He was a an engine, a rocket, directed in one direction which was his opera - which he almost believed had only to be performed to start the Revolution.

(2) John Houseman, Run-Through: A Memoir (1972)

Blitzstein's father was a banker and a socialist of the old school, of whom his son once wrote that he was "as modern in social thinking as he was conservative in musical taste". Marc's own political conversion and its creative expression came late, after the advent of the New Deal. The Cradle Will Rock, which its author, Marc Blitzstein, described as "a play with music" (while others, at various times, called it an opera, a labour opera, a social cartoon, a marching song and a propagandistic tour de force), had been written at white heat one year earlier - in the spring of 1936.

(3) (3) Hallie Flanagan, Arena (1940)

Marc Blitzstein sat down at the piano and played, sang and acted with the hard, hypnotic drive which came to be familiar to audiences, his new opera. It took no wizardry to see that this was not just a play set to music, nor music illustrated by actors, but music and play equaling something new and better than either.

(4) Brooks Atkinson, New York Times (6th December, 1937)

If Mr. Blitzstein looks like a mild little man as he sits before his piano, his work generates current like a dynamo. He can write anything from tribal chant to tin pan alley balladry, and when he settles down to serious business at its conclusion, his music-box roars with rage and his actors frighten the aged roof of the miniature Mercury Theatre.

(5) James Mason Brown, New York Post (6th December, 1937)

The Cradle Will Rock is the most exciting propagandistic tour de force our stage has seen since Waiting for Lefty burst like a bombshell upon this town. The sincerity of the actors sweeps across the footlights carrying everything before it. There is no room for humbug in this kind of unaided acting. To reach our hearts it must come from the hearts of its creators.