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 o '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 Schonberg 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 mens' 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 premiere 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
“Bernstein gave a credibility to American musicianship that hadn’t existed before, easing our sense of inferiority. He came along and did what seemed impossible: bringing Mahler back to Vienna!
He loved storytelling, and music for him was just a vehicle for telling stories. Often his stories had important morals as well: There was always a lesson to be learned. For me that was a big takeaway. He was so many things: a great conductor, great composer, great pianist. But he was also a TV star, he was a thinker, he was a philosopher, he was a political activist. How many people could wear all of those hats at once? It’s a rare thing.”
- Marin Alsop, THE NEW YORK TIMES, 23 Aug., 2018