On Marc Blitzstein

This essay was originally published in the Huffington Post under the title "Obsessed: Marc Blitzstein" on 14 May 2012. Click here to read it there.

Marc Blitzstein, American composer (1905-1964)

Marc Blitzstein, American composer (1905-1964)

Marc Blitzstein’s music is not exactly an obsession of mine, but I do find the musical DNA of which it is composed indispensable. Strands of that DNA — strict adherence to economy of means, a passion for combining words and music, the belief that music can promote social justice, an abhorrence of pretension — are woven contrapuntally, inextricably, into the music that I compose, and have been, nearly from the start. Here are six dramatic beats about Marc Blitzstein.

One

Marc’s music is powered by the ironic marriage of opposites. A fierce advocate of the poor and disenfranchised, he was born in Philadelphia in 1905 to affluent parents. Determined to write music popular with Regular Joes, he studied composition and piano at the Curtis Institute. Then he went on to Berlin to study with Arnold Schoenberg and to Paris where he worked with Nadia Boulanger. He began as a modernist, but he turned populist in the 1930s, shortly before he (an openly gay communist) married novelist Eva Goldbeck. Three Portuguese sailors in Martinique beat him to death in 1964 after a sexual encounter. In 1937, he entered Broadway history when the Works Progress Administration shut down The Cradle Will Rock — an opera presented as a musical. As the story goes, director Orson Welles and producer John Houseman walked the musicians, cast and audience from the Maxine Elliott Theater to the nearby Venice Theater, where — in order to evade union restrictions — they performed the piece from the audience, with Blitzstein (not a union member) accompanying from an upright piano onstage.

To some, Marc’s signature gambit of destabilizing tonality by throwing a suspended fourth in the bass was crude. But, like a beat cop’s billy club to the ribs, it got things moving. Minus Blitzstein’s example and inspiration, Leonard Bernstein might have been a very different, possibly lesser, composer.

Two

One rainy November 1980 day Karlos Moser, then head of the opera program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where I was an undergraduate music major, and I were working through some songs that I had contributed to a revue he was concocting. My introduction to Marc’s music had come when Karlos cast my older brother Kevin as Ben Hubbard in his production of Blitzstein’s Regina during the late 70s. Karlos mentioned in passing that the State Historical Society possessed the Blitzstein papers. Thrilled, I had sprinted across the street to the archives, filled out a request to see them, and was astonished to be granted immediate access. Within thirty minutes, I held in my hands a Photostat of the manuscript of Blitzstein’s fair copy of the first page of Cradle. I was 17.

Odd it was, only a year later, to find myself a student of Ned Rorem’s at the Curtis Institute, composing and practicing on the same pianos Marc once did, passing his graduation portrait (along with everyone else’s — Leonard Bernstein, Ralph Berkowitz, Gian Carlo Menotti, Samuel Barber, Lukas Foss, and on and on) on my way each week to my piano lesson. Odder yet to have landed there in part because of a letter from his friend Bernstein to my mother, telling her I was “the real thing,” and encouraging her to send me to Juilliard (that’s another story) to study with another of Marc’s close friends, David Diamond.

John Houseman tells the story of opening night of The Cradle Will Rock.

Three

John Houseman’s production of Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock at the Fairbanks opened on 30 July 1983. I was there, seated in the first row. I still weighed about 160, sported a Blitzstein-esque moustache, and was still a student at Curtis. Before the performance, Houseman took the stage to tell the story of the night the show opened — Blitzstein at the piano, Orson Welles dashing around the theater, playing multiple characters, everyone afire with the moment. Ordinarily too abashed to importune, I threw myself at Houseman afterwards. “You captured lightning in a bottle, didn’t you?” I enthused. “Yes, my boy,” he drawled in his Professor Kingsfield voice, “I’m acutely aware of that.” I laughed. He was disarmed. “You look like Blitzstein,” he remarked. I flushed with pleasure. He frowned. “He ended badly.” I waited. Beat. “Yes, I know,” I said, “I’m a composer.” He thrust his chin upwards theatrically as though searching for answers among the klieg lights: “Dear God,” he said, exploding the G, extending the O into a melisma, and plucking the final D like a pizzicato. “What does one do with a composer?” I laughed again, shook his hand vigorously, and thanked him for his time. “Not at all,” he said. “Good luck.” He stared at me, hard, for three long beats. “You’ll need it.”

Four

Summer 1985. Saranac, Serge Koussevitzky’s home overlooking the Berkshires across the highway from the Tanglewood grounds. Late one evening, after hearing me improvise at the piano in Marc’s style and a discussion about Blitzstein’s music, Bernstein asked me to have a go at completing Sacco and Vanzetti, the unfinished opera for the Met found in the trunk of Marc’s car after he died. I told him I’d love to have a try, but couldn’t afford to do it for no fee.

A few days later, at Bernstein’s behest, Jacob Druckman approached me on the back patio and put a little money on the table for the project on behalf of the New York Philharmonic, for whom he was then serving as composer in residence.

My instinct was that, as I did when offered by Ellis Freedman and Sylvia Goldstein a job as Aaron Copland’s final amanuensis, I should refuse it. I told Druckman that I felt that if I wanted to establish myself as a composer, then I needed to be known for my own music, not for what I had done for others’. He said that I had a point, and was impressed enough by the professionalism with which I handled the situation to speak to his wife Muriel about a ballet commission.

Having my hands on Blitzstein’s sketches was just too inviting an invitation to refuse. After spending a few days with them, I concluded that the most responsible thing to do was to leave the thing alone-they were just too fragmentary, too raw. The finished score would require the creation of too much original material to make it coherent.

That May, Eric Gordon helped me to find the manuscript of Marc’s Piano Sonata, which hadn’t been performed publicly since the 20s so that I could program it on the concert series I was putting on in Philadelphia and New York.

Five

During spring 1990, I was fortunate enough to work on my first major opera Shining Brow with Bernstein. As Bernstein once did for Marc with Trouble in Tahiti,I did for Lenny: I would play and sing the scene from Brow that I was working on. He’d amble over to the bench, push me to the side, and start playing off of my manuscript, squinting, sort of wheeze-singing as he briskly double-checked parts he wanted to speak to.

“Okay, baby,” he’d begin. “Try this.” He would “put over” a few bars of what I had written and veer off in a new direction, improvising an entirely different line reading. Then he’d stop, suck on his plastic cigarette holder, quickly page to a different part of the sketch, find something, and say, “Or you could have used this from before, like this.” He’d play a few bars.

“No, that wouldn’t work,” he’d think out loud. I’d improvise a different line reading. “No, no, you can’t do that!” he would laugh, “Marc did that in No for an Answer! Do you know that one?” He’d noodle a few bars. “No, that was Tender Land. Ugh. God.” (Laughter.)

During Wright’s Act 1, scene one pitch to his future mistress, I quoted the “New York, New York” rising fourths motive that he had first used in Trouble in Tahiti, and then in On the Town, on the word, “suburbia,” “Nice lift,” he said, “very Straussian. But you follow it up with stuff that sounds like Ned’s little Frank O’Hara opera. Did I steal that from him for Tahiti or did he steal that from me? I can’t remember. I know you’re talking about theft by putting stolen music in his mouth, but you should come up with something else there.”

At some point, I pointed out that I had been modeling the character of Wright musically on him, and the relationship between Wright and Sullivan on him and Blitzstein. He got it: “That’s 'Maria'. No, it’s the orchestral play-in to the first scene of Marc’s Regina,” he mused aloud. “Well, yes, I stole it from Marc.” Silence. “But he stole it from Aaron!” (Generous, warm laughter.)

It still felt, a few years later, at the family’s Dakota apartment (the day Brow received its workshop run-through after Bernstein’s death), as though he slouched in the low chair in the den, sipping a scotch, pulling on his plastic cigarette holder, growling one of the last things he said to me: “Play and sing that part again, baby—the part that sounds like Marc.”

Daron and David Diamond in the music room at Yaddo a few days before Diamond's death in June 2005. (Photo: Gilda Lyons)

Daron and David Diamond in the music room at Yaddo a few days before Diamond's death in June 2005. (Photo: Gilda Lyons)

Six

“Before I forget, I want to tell you that Marc used to like to sit over there,” said David Diamond, squeezing my hand and pointing at a spot far down the lawn near the rose garden. We were sitting on one of the pews in the Yaddo Music Room. Life-sized full body portraits of the Trask children loomed over us like gravestones. The June 2005 air was lively. Late afternoon light streamed through the leaded windows.

Elaina Richardson had asked me to curate a recital of music by composers who had worked at Yaddo. Michael Boriskin and his Music from Copland House players performed. I wanted to honor David, with whom I had studied, so I programmed his early Flute Quartet. I also suggested that he be invited and, to everyone’s astonishment, he agreed to come. He told me that he had wanted to visit Yaddo once more. I looked at David: his impeccably tailored gray serge sit hung loosely over his diminished frame. His blue shirt’s collar was crisp. There was a large New Zealand-shaped liver spot on his scalp over his right eye. What remained of his hair was colorless. His skin was papery and luminous. His rheumy eyes brimmed with tears. A few days later, on 13 June, he died.

That day, however, David’s observation was piercingly clear: “Marc cared,” he whispered urgently. “When he composed Regina here, he could sing and play every note. He knew words. You remember I told you once that he rewrote the entire libretto for Lenny’s Tahiti without needing to change a note of the music?” (When David reminisced, the facts could sometimes be sketchy, but the point was always clear.)

In May 2007, I sat before the upright piano in the Acosta Nichols Tower studio, the one at which Marc had written Regina, writing with trepidation the title Amelia over what would become the first page of over four hundred pages of piano sketch of my breakthrough opera about flight and rebirth. A bird flew in through the open door and flew frightened circles high above me in the white cone of the ceiling. I got up and spoke quietly to the bird, “You’ll be okay, friend. Everything will be fine. The door is open. Fly through it.” As though on cue, the bird swooped down and glided back out through the door to safety in the surrounding forest.

It was the spirit of Yaddo, yes; but it was also the spirit of Marc.

 

The Milwaukee Symphony and Me

This essay originally appeared in the Huffington Post on 22 December 2013. Click here to read it there.

The Milwaukee Symphony's logo.

The Milwaukee Symphony's logo.

The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, according to its recent [December 2013] press release, is “in danger of running out of money and faces possible extinction if additional pledges cannot be secured to fund the MSO’s much more modest, prudent budget and business plan for the future.” In fact, nearing the end of 2013, the institution now has only weeks to raise nearly four million dollars if it is to stave off bankruptcy.

In November 1968, I was seven years old. The Youth Concert program our music class had been bussed downtown to attend included the Largo of Antonin Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony. Nixon had just won the election and my favorite toy was a plastic Apollo 7 model. But it wasn’t snowing; it was warm, and raining pitchforks.

Small and awestruck in the plush red velvet seat, I was mesmerized by Kenneth Schermerhorn — a protégé of Leonard Bernstein’s, and a strikingly handsome, athletic, charismatic figure on the podium — the newly appointed music director of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. Stephen Colburn played the ravishing English horn solo in the Largo of the Dvořák.

I felt a lump in my throat, a profound sense of longing, the feeling of floating in midair. That was the moment, at the age of seven, that I knew that, no matter what, music would be at the center of my existence.

At that moment, the MSO inspired me to become a composer. Forty-five years later, I’m still at it.

My brother Kevin Hagen, who passed away recently after a 40-year career in orchestra management, won his first orchestra job as operations manager of the MSO back in the 70s. He met his wife Judith Koch, a violinist in the orchestra, across a management / labor negotiating table one afternoon. A few months later, they were married. Judy played in the Milwaukee Symphony for over forty years before retiring.

On 13 July 1979, the summer after graduating from Brookfield Central High School, I proudly accepted my first professional fee as an orchestrator — a Burt Bacharach tune for the MSO—courtesy of John-David Anello, the founding conductor of the Milwaukee Pops, and my first conducting teacher. I still have the pay stub.

The same summer Anello also gave me my first music-copying gig — extracting the solo piano part for the Yellow River Concerto for a “Music Under the Stars” program. Because of that job, when, as a composition student at Curtis, I won a job as a staff music copyist (back when it was still done by hand) at the Free Library of Philadelphia.

In January 1984, I wanted dearly to meet Lukas Foss, then Music Director of the MSO. I had asked my brother Kevin to arrange for me to drive Lukas from his hotel to rehearsal.

“The melting major to minor chord at the very end,” he enthused, hands massaging the air between his chest and the dashboard, “is original here. Some say that this is where Mahler got the idea for the same effect in his sixth.” We were riffing on Beethoven’s third, the great Eroica, the score of which sat on his lap.

“At the end of the second movement, I’m going to try something interesting: as the theme disintegrates — the part marked sotto voce — I’m going to remove players one by one from the tune.”

“Like Beethoven’s hearing leaving him. Cool. How do the players feel about the idea?”

“Oh, they are not too happy. They are a little upset about the scherzo, too.”

“How come?”

“I’m making a little Rossini-style accelerando through the theme so that it sounds like nervous laughter.”

“Beethoven’s nervous breakdown?”

“Night fears following the loss of his hearing....”

“Chattering teeth in a death skull...?”

“Worse. The effects of lead poisoning.”

“Wow,” I said, turning the wrong direction on to a one-way street. Horns honked, cars swerved.
“What’s that?” asked Lukas, abruptly conscious of his surroundings.

“We’re driving the wrong way down a one way street,” I answered, as mildly as I could.

“Oh,” he replied, completely disinterested. “Then, when the finale begins, the variations are a triumph of the...”

I pulled over. We were now five minutes late to the rehearsal and I was hopelessly lost, even though I had grown up in Milwaukee.

“... A triumph,” I attempted to complete his thought, “of the rational, conscious mind, expressed through the exercise of craft that composing variations requires, over the irrational fears of the subconscious?”

“That’s interesting you should say that,” he smiled. “I’ve always thought that fugue, so rational, was, in the end — take the Grosse Fuge — his avenue for exploring madness.”

We made it eventually to the rehearsal, and we remained good friends for the rest of Lukas’ life.
My first conducting teacher, Catherine Comet, served briefly as the MSO’s associate conductor, but I have the MSO to thank for the finest champion of my music I have ever known. Although we had met briefly as students together at Juilliard, I first worked with JoAnn Falletta when the MSO commissioned Lyric Variations, the second movement of my second symphony. She led the orchestra in its premiere in August 1988. She has been a steadfast advocate of my music ever since the MSO brought us together. Recently she recorded my opera Shining Brow with the Buffalo Philharmonic for Naxos; Michael Ludwig and JoAnn will record my violin concerto with that orchestra in a few months. I have the MSO to thank for one of the richest musical associations with which I’ve been blessed.

The MSO taught me an unforgettable lesson about how to treat conductors. One thing a conductor can rely on, to paraphrase Oscar Levant, is that the players will inevitably grow to despise him. I learned this for myself in Milwaukee on 15 April 1990. With the MSO, I alienated Czech conductor Zdenek Macal forever when, in response to his request for a few words, I mounted the podium and, in five minutes, rattled off all of my notes to the orchestra. The players shuffled their feet, applauding me, but really, they were just enjoying the discomfiture of their sovereign.

Still fresh from conservatory, my ability to thrive at the professional level as an orchestral composer was not yet a given. Therefore, for better and for worse, Common Ground (the piece the MSO was rehearsing) became something of a calling card for me because it was chosen as a finalist for the Kennedy Center’s Friedheim Prize in 1990. Commissioned by the Barlow Endowment, it was conceived as the finale of my Symphony No. 2. It combined themes from the previous movements (Fresh Ayre and Lyric Variations) in a sort of Post Cold War Mahlerian stew.

After I left for the east coast, MSO performances became the only place I ever saw my father. “You’re fat,” observed Father to me in front of his friends in the lobby of Uiehlein Hall after one premiere. My head, as the old Irish story goes, was sticking up higher than those around mine were; Father gave it a whack. “Please Dad,” I said, low. “This is my place of business.” “You call this business?” he scoffed. “Enjoy the concert,” was the only thing I could think of to say in return.

On 10 September 2003, Kenneth Schermerhorn and I lunched together before a concert on which he conducted my Much Ado overture with his Nashville Symphony. (He had long since moved on from Milwaukee.) Did he remember the fan letter from the dazzled child unable find a word grand enough to describe how moved he had been by the experience? He laughed and said no. I told him what I had written: “Dear Maestro, your performance last week was just superfluous!”

He exploded in grainy, rueful laughter.

“How like coming home it feels to finally work together,” he mused.

“And how ironic, under the circumstances,” I replied, ‘that the Largo was adapted into a song by Harry Burleigh called Going Home.”

“Indeed,” he agreed, smiling.

We swapped stories for another hour, laughing until we cried.

“I am neither a young nor a healthy man,” he sighed, wiping his eyes, “but I am glad that we are finally sitting together now at this table.”

Alas, although we chatted on the phone now and then, I never saw Kenneth again. But together we had closed our circle, and that was enough.

In retrospect, I’m not surprised that — sitting in Uiehlein Hall at the age of seven trying to decide which of the many instruments on stage I would most like to play — I decided to become a composer first and a performer second. It was because Father had unintentionally taught me that although Power can compel, it does not last; Mother had by example taught me that Authority could inspire, and therefore last forever. These issues are central to a composer’s life. 

Like love, Authority must be earned. Every time a new piece of music is read for the first time the composer starts with all of the Power and no Authority. If the music inspires and moves the performers, then the composer’s Authority grows.

If it does not, well, as Virgil Thomson once told me, “Don’t worry about withdrawing pieces, baby; they have a way of withdrawing themselves.”

Really, my brother Kevin’s relationship with the orchestra was more intimate than mine. As one of his first tasks as a new operations manager, he was told to arrange for the sound of canon fire during the finale of Tchaikovsky’s “1812” Overture, as is the tradition with the piece. Kevin rang up the National Guard and requested artillery. After a few beats, the astonished corporal on the other end of the line replied, “Um, yes, sir. Will that be with, or without, nuclear warheads?”

Near the end of Kevin’s tenure with the MSO, the orchestra was on tour somewhere in Europe and, the orchestra having tuned up, everyone, including the audience, was waiting for Lukas Foss to take the stage and ascend the podium. No Lukas. Kevin was used to packing extra socks, batons, and even pants for his forgetful friend. Backstage, there were three doors: one led to Lukas’ dressing room; one led out to an alley behind the theater; the third led below-stage. Looking for his socks, Lukas had chosen the wrong door. Kevin was unfazed. In short order, he found Lukas in the basement, happily looking up at the numbered traps of the stage above. “Isn’t this fascinating?” Lukas mused. “Yes,” Kevin calmly replied, handing Lukas his socks and guiding him upstairs. “You know it is time to conduct now, don’t you?” “I wasn’t worried, Kevin. I knew you would take care of me.”

Now.

Who will take care of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra?

Afterward

During winter 2014 Milwaukee's art lovers came together to save their orchestra in an extraordinary outpouring of generosity. The orchestra's musicians also pitched in with significant labor concessions. The orchestra was saved.

In the changing of the guard over the years, though, what the orchestra seems to have lost is a sense of instititional memory, that thing loosely defined as a collective set of traditions, shared experiences, and sense of community that transcends the individual.

Why do I write that? Any performing organization's activities shift to match the interests of its current music director, but, when a wealthy donor in 2014 offered to underwrite a commission for me to compose a major new work for the orchestra with which I had such intimate lifelong associations, the new young artistic administrator (despite having read the Huffington Post article above, which was used as a fundraising tool) turned the money down, explaining to me that "the orchestra has moved on to new interests when it comes to contemporary music."

While I took this with cordial annoyance and moved promptly on to another project, it did raise a flag for me. On its surface, I was being told that there was a new chef in the kitchen, and that he simply didn't dig my spice. But, on a deeper level, I found his response troubling. Collective memory requires the ongoing transmission of an organization's memories between members (and generations) of the group. There is, whether each new generation as it takes the reins of power finds it convenient or not, both an artistic and a human component to the long continuum that constitutes music history. When that chain is broken, reinventing the wheel becomes acceptable, and Edmund Burke's admonition that "people will not look look forward to posterity, who never look backward to their ancestors" comes into full force.

John-David Anello, Kenneth Schermerhorn, Lukas Foss, my brother, are all dead. Stephen Colburn and my sister in law have retired. Even the artistic administrator in question has moved on to another, larger orchestra. But I am still composing. One's hometown orchestra has traditionally supported its native composerds. I still remember the orchestra of my youth; but I admit with affectionate rue that it has forgotten me.