C1285. LEONARD BERNSTEIN Cond. New York City S.O., w.Charles Holland (T), Walter Scheff (Bar.), Robert Shaw (Narrator): Airborne Symphony (Blitzstein); Walter Scheff: Dusty Sun (Acc. by the Composer). (Canada) St Laurent Studio YSL 78-216, recorded 1946. Transfers by Yves St Laurent.
“This recording was made in October of 1946. When the set of six 78s was released by Victor it was acclaimed for its (then) remarkable sound quality, and it still sounds good today, considering. (The song ‘Dusty Sky’ occupied the last side, so its inclusion here is appropriate.) People who are curious about choral director Robert Shaw's narrative skills should know that they are very good. The New York City Symphony Orchestra was founded in 1944 by Leopold Stokowski. Bernstein took it over the following year, and probably many of its young musicians ended up in the New York Philharmonic when Bernstein took over the reins of that orchestra. Their contribution is solid too."
- Raymond Tuttle, ClassicalNet.com
“The AIRBORNE SYMPHONY by Marc Blitzstein is both the most substantial male-chorus work in the repertory and the single most powerful American composition to emerge from the Second World War. A telling document of its times, it draws on diverse sources such as the LIVING NEWSPAPER (current events staged as theater), Broadway, pop song and film, Shostakovich and Prokofiev, choral speaking, slogans from popular movements, and canteen revue shtick. The composer tosses in barbershop quartet alongside lofty paeans of ‘Glory, Glory’ as the secular victory mass concludes.
Informed by Blitzstein’s sophisticated conservatory training and brash harmonies, the AIRBORNE is the apotheosis of the Norman Corwin / Earl Robinson radio cantata of the 1930s and 1940s, when American composers struggled to find an authentic indigenous voice. Radio composers liberated American choruses to sing about homegrown subjects in a vernacular lifted from our folk and popular traditions.
Born in Philadelphia to Russian immigrant parents, Blitzstein was a Wunderkind at the piano. He attended the University of Pennsylvania and the Curtis Institute. Deciding to become a composer, he studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris and Arnold Schönberg in Berlin. Early works included short chamber operas, piano solo pieces, a concerto, and a number of songs based on erotic Walt Whitman texts, that shocked critics in the 1920s.
After a decade writing in an avant-garde idiom, with approaching fascism Blitzstein turned toward more tonal, populist music, especially theater. In works like the proletarian operas THE CRADLE WILL ROCK and NO FOR AN ANSWER, he found a larger public, without compromising his style or pandering to the lowest common denominator. Later works include REGINA, JUNO, and his masterful translation of THE THREEPENNY OPERA.
Blitzstein joined the U.S. Army in August 1942, working as an entertainment specialist based in London and serving until May 1945. He composed for canteen shows, radio and short films. Blitzstein’s superiors agreed to his writing a large work for the 8th Army Air Force to which he was attached. The AIRBORNE SYMPHONY was conceived originally as the score of a film to be shot around it. Echoes of this idea remain in the Narrator’s language: iris in, train down, focus on the solo balladeer, then back to the big picture. Thus Blitzstein holds us throughout the hour-long piece, redirecting our attention to different aspects of the story. The cumulative effect is all-encompassing as time, men and continents reel past.
In a Soho bar Blitzstein met a young radio gunner from North Carolina named Bill Hewitt, who had flown 65 missions over Germany and who became his companion for the next five years. The AIRBORNE was written for Bill and other fighting men. As a homosexual, Blitzstein was very observant of men’s behavior: the ‘Hurry up’ chorus, with its dressing and undressing scenes, both conceals and reveals the composer’s homoeroticism.
Wartime priorities caused Blitzstein not to finish the AIRBORNE while in uniform. Once discharged, he had no further use for the work. He played through what he remembered of it for Leonard Bernstein, who agreed to conduct the AIRBORNE with the New York City Symphony if Blitzstein would complete it.
The premiere took place on 1 April, 1946, with a chorus drawn from the Robert Shaw Chorale, Orson Welles as the Narrator, and the tenor Charles Holland as soloist. Bernstein recorded the work for RCA that fall. It received few concert performances, however, for a number of reasons: the decline of male choruses, the Cold War (and Blitzstein’s suspect leanings as a former Communist), and perhaps most importantly, the critical hegemony of atonal music and the correspondingly low status of narrative choral music. Still, Bernstein admired the work and during the Vietnam War he revived it with the New York Philharmonic, recording it on LP with Welles.
In the rush to adopt twelve-tone music, composers gave up the power to effect our civic consciousness. With few exceptions, they eschewed works of tropical and historical importance, leaving us a meager civic culture. Creative artists generally laugh at the idea of patriotism, leaving all that to flag-waving know-nothings - a mistake we are still paying for.
In the AIRBORNE, Blitzstein raises questions along with the celebration. We have won the war, but will we once again create a new enemy? He warns us not to become so mesmerized by the chat of ideology or by stunning technological achievement, that we forget the profounder human values. As America embraced anti-Communism in the 1940s, with Jim Crow regnant not only in our deep South, we did not correct the injustices we had just fought ostensibly to wipe out. The AIRBORNE celebrates that epic campaign to eradicate bigotry and racism. Fifty years later, it urges us to strengthen our zeal.”
- Eric A. Gordon, MARK THE MUSIC; THE LIFE AND WORK OF MARC BLITZSTEIN
“’Marc Blitzstein’, said Orson Welles in 1984, ‘was almost a saint. He was so totally and serenely convinced of the Eden which was waiting for us all [on] 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 – [Roosevelt] was just the spokesman for the bourgeoisie! When he came into the room the lights got brighter. He was an engine, a rocket, directed in one direction which was his opera [THE CRADLE WILL ROCK] – which he almost believed had only to be performed to start the Revolution’.
The seeds of Blitzstein’s convictions were, if not planted, nurtured by his relationship with critic and novelist Eva Goldbeck (born in Berlin in 1901). They had met in Europe in 1928 and traveled extensively together, and he had dedicated his Romantic Piece for Orchestra and his String Quartet (both 1930) to her. Although they were both aware that he was homosexual, they were married on his twenty-eighth birthday in Philadelphia. Close friends probably viewed the arrangement as a marriage of convenience, but there is no doubt that their relationship was emotionally significant and intellectually nourishing to them both. Three years later, suffering from anorexia and breast cancer, Eva died suddenly. Blitzstein was devastated. To distract himself from grief and loneliness, he threw himself into the composition of an ‘opera’ – or musical – of political protest: THE CRADLE WILL ROCK. The idea had been suggested to him by Bertolt Brecht, and the notorious circumstances of the work’s première made Blitzstein’s name famous across the nation. Set in Steeltown, USA, ‘Cradle’ is an allegory of corporate greed and corruption, with union organizer Larry Foreman pitted against wicked owner Mr. Mister. The production was originally subsidized by the Federal Theatre Project, but at the last moment armed government agents surrounded New York’s Maxine Elliott Theatre, padlocked the doors, and impounded the costumes, scenery and props – even the leading man’s toupee. The ostensible reason for the shutdown was budget cuts, but it was almost universally believed that whoever was signing the checks objected to the left-leaning slant of the material. Without missing a beat, director Orson Welles, producer John Houseman, and Blitzstein rented a piano and the much larger Venice Theatre. Cast and audience marched through the streets from one theatre to the other, gathering more audience members (for free) along the way. Blitzstein narrated the entire piece from the piano, while cast members spoke and sang their parts from seats in the house, as they were not allowed by Equity rules to perform on stage. It was reported – by Archibald MacLeish, for one, who was there – to be one of the most moving theatrical experiences in memory.
Welles and Houseman, prompted by their triumph, went on to form The Mercury Theatre Company (which, in its radio incarnation, gave us THE WAR OF THE WORLDS). Under these new auspices, the production reopened at the Windsor Theatre in January 1938 and played a total of 108 performances. Soon after its Broadway run, students at Harvard, led by young Leonard Bernstein at the piano, staged their own production, and from that first encounter Blitzstein and Bernstein formed a friendship of tremendous musical and personal importance to them both. Blitzstein turned out two more political works, a radio play dedicated to Welles - I’VE GOT THE TUNE (1937) and a quasi-opera, NO FOR AN ANSWER (1941) – before joining the Army Air Force for the duration of World War II.”
- LEC, Masterworks Broadway
“According to The New York Times’ critic Donal Henahan, (15 Oct., 1990), Bernstein was ‘one of the most prodigiously talented and successful musicians in American history’. He is quite possibly the conductor whose name is best known to the public in general, especially the American public. His fame derived from his long tenure as the music director of the New York Philharmonic, from his conducting of concerts with most of the world's leading orchestras, and from his music for WEST SIDE STORY, as well as CANDIDE, WONDERFUL TOWN, ON THE TOWN and his own MASS. Bernstein was also the first conductor to give numerous television lectures on classical music, starting in 1954 and continuing until his death. In addition, he was a skilled pianist, often conducting piano concertos from the keyboard.
In 1960 Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic held a Mahler Festival to mark the centenary of the composer's birth. Bernstein, Walter and Mitropoulos conducted performances. The composer's widow, Alma, attended some of Bernstein's rehearsals. The success of [Bernstein’s Mahler] recordings, along with Bernstein's concert performances and television talks, was an important part of the revival of interest in Mahler in the 1960s, especially in the US.
In 1964 Bernstein conducted Franco Zeffirelli's production of Verdi's FALSTAFF at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. In 1966 he made his début at the Vienna State Opera conducting Luchino Visconti's production of the same opera with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as Falstaff. He returned to the State Opera in 1968 for a production of DER ROSENKAVALIER and in 1970 for Otto Schenk's production of Beethoven's FIDELIO. Sixteen years later, at the State Opera, Bernstein conducted his sequel to TROUBLE IN TAHITI, A QUIET PLACE, with the ORF orchestra."
- Donal Henahan, THE NEW YORK TIMES, 15 Oct., 1990
“One of Schonberg's most famous criticisms of Bernstein [to whom he referred as] ‘the Peter Pan of music’, written after the famous 6 April, 1962 performance before which Bernstein announced that he disagreed with pianist Glenn Gould's interpretation of Brahms' Piano Concerto #1 but was going to conduct it anyway because he found it fascinating. Schonberg chided Bernstein in print, suggesting that he should have either refrained from publicizing his disagreement, backed out of the concert, or imposed his own will on Gould.”
- Harold C. Schoenberg, THE GREAT CONDUCTORS
“Each of these disks, from Canadian engineer Yves St Laurent… [feature] St Laurent's natural transfer – made without filtering, like all his dubbings – it is easy to listen to, despite the surface noise.”
- Tully Potter, CLASSICAL RECORD QUARTERLY, Summer, 2011