On January 22, 1964, the American composer Marc Blitzstein met a violent and tragic death at the age of 58. Blitzstein’s radical politics and hard-to-peg compositional style for musical theater limited his recognition and commercial success during his lifetime, but the past few decades have seen growing appreciation and increased performance of his work.
Marcus Samuel Blitzstein was born on March 2, 1905, in Philadelphia, where he grew up. His father Samuel Blitzstein was born in Odessa and arrived in the United States with his family as a child.
In Philadelphia, the family operated an “immigrants bank,” which provided financial and other services for recent arrivals from Eastern Europe. Marc’s mother, the former Anna Levitt, was U.S.-born, but her parents were Jewish immigrants from Russia — Yiddish actors who were also involved with the nonprofit Wayfarer’s Hotel run by the Blitzsteins.
Marc’s family was socialist in its leanings and atheistic; instead of Hebrew school, he was sent to the Ethical Culture Society, and he did not become a bar mitzvah. His musical talent manifested itself early — by age 7, Marc was performing a Mozart piano concerto. By age 14, he had decided to become a composer.
Blitzstein graduated from West Philadelphia High School and attended the University of Pennsylvania briefly before beginning studies at the Curtis Institute of Music. In the mid-1920s he traveled to Europe to study composition, first with Arnold Schoenberg in Germany, later with Nadia Boulanger in Paris.
From early on, Blitzstein recognized that he was gay, or perhaps bisexual. But Blitzstein did marry, in 1933, and not just for the sake of appearances. He met Eva Goldbeck in Europe in 1928, and by all accounts they were profoundly attached to each other, both emotionally and intellectually. Blitzstein dedicated several pieces of music to Eva, and when she died in 1936, he mourned deeply.
The cradle rocked
Although early in his career Blitzstein was contemptuous of composers like Kurt Weill and Maurice Ravel, who wrote accessible and popular music, by 1935 he was declaring that “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.” To this end, Blitzstein began writing for the theater — both musicals and plays.
Blitzstein joined the Group Theater in New York, whose other members included Lee Strasberg, Elia Kazan and Clifford Odets. His first play, “Condemned,” written in 1932 but never produced, dealt with the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti.
After his wife’s death (she had suffered from both anorexia and breast cancer), Blitzstein threw himself into writing the words and music for what became his most famous work, “The Cradle Will Rock,” a 1937 musical about a confrontation between organized labor and the capitalist system.
Part of its fame derived from the fact that the Depression-era Federal Theater Project, its sponsor, withdrew its support, and the night of the play’s premiere, the cast, crew and audience found themselves locked out of the theater. A new venue was quickly found and the company, led by director Orson Welles, producer John Houseman and Blitzstein, walked with the audience to the new theater for a concert-style performance of the play. (This extraordinary event was the subject of the 1999 film “Cradle Will Rock,” written and directed by Tim Robbins.)
Though he was 36 when the United States entered World War II, Blitzstein insisted on serving and was a composer for the Army Air Corps, one product of which was his 1946 “Airborne Symphony.” Other important works included the English adaptation of Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s “Mack the Knife,” which ran on Broadway for more than 2,600 performances, and “Regina,” a musical adaptation of Lillian Hellman’s “The Little Foxes.”
Blitzstein died on the island of Martinique, where he was spending the winter of 1964. He was attacked after picking up three Portuguese sailors in a Fort-de-France bar and died from internal injuries. But he lived long enough to identify his assailants, who were later convicted of manslaughter.