Widely unknown but celebrated by NYFOS, Marc Blitzstein just might be my all-time favorite 20th century song composer. Yes—you read that correctly. I like Blitzstein more than Bernstein, the Beatles, Britten, Barber, and any other 20th century composer that starts with a Bravo or an Alpha, Charlie, or Delta for that matter. My “Songs in the Key of Steven Blier” binder is filled with Blitzstein songs—seven, in fact, as of my last count.
I love Blitzstein’s music for so many reasons but paramount among these is this human-like, real world quality that I find in almost all of his songs. Listening to his music feels like an extended respite from everyday life, an opportunity to laugh or a chance to consider a new perspective. I often turn to Blitzstein’s songs when I need a piece for a recital that feels approachable. As an example, I immediately turned to Blitzstein when asked to return to my old high school in Tennessee for a performance during assembly. Of course, I found room for some Schubert too, but I knew that while they might oooh and ahhh over the virtuosic music and totally foreign language being sung at them, there was no way I was going to get a group of two hundred, teenage guys to sit up and listen without offering them a line or two of Blitzstein.
While I consider so much of what Blitzstein composed to be so effective in its simplicity, he was quite the prodigious musician. By the time he was seven he had played almost all of the Mozart piano concertos. As a student at Curtis, he studied with Alexander Siloti (a renowned pedagogue and student of Franz Liszt) and at twenty-one, made his professional concerto debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra playing Liszt’s E flat piano concerto. From what I have read about Blitzstein’s life, those who knew him well saw someone that was consistently unsatisfied with being good at just one thing —he had to excel at everything. In fact, many of his professors at Curtis believed him to be far more naturally gifted than fellow classmates Samuel Barber and Aaron Copland. Kind of a shocking thing to take in on a first read!
Unfortunately, Blitzstein’s obsessive, perfectionistic attributes led him much further down a path of frustrations and failures more than it did a path of success. There were many times that he would write a show, only to see it get two or three performances due to his obsessive re-writing all the way through the tech process and up into opening night. And sometimes he just had terrible luck—such as the time a set piece fell and killed one of the actors at the start of one one of his newest shows. Many called him a failure, but I just see him as so utterly human—a lifelong artist that had his fair share of bad luck and detrimental habits but never stopped trying to get his music and ideas out into the world.
I first started singing Blitzstein songs the summer after my freshman year of college. Steve had emailed me a bunch of possibilities after a coaching one day and I proceeded to learn them all ahead of a summer at the Seagle Music Colony in the Adirondack Mountains of New York. None of the staff at Seagle had heard of Blitzstein or his songs but I began to get frequent requests to return to them again and again for audition classes or donor functions.
Today’s song of the day features the Blitzstein song I hold most dear—”Stay in my Arms“. The song is a beautiful love ballad which Blitzstein, although gay, wrote for his wife Eva Goldbeck who at the time was suffering from an illness that would eventually take her life. In it, he pleads for her to get better, to stay with him. What I love most about this song is the timelessness of its message. In our world that is far from peaceful, that struggles with achieving justice and building understanding across differences—we need a song like “Stay in my Arms” to remind us to stick close to those we love most. To cling tightly. To keep fighting for what is important. To carry on.
Today’s recording? Steven Blier and William Sharp, of course.
And as you listen, you must read the beautiful lyrics by Mr. Blitzstein himself. They are really quite special.
In this great city where will I find one peaceful, pretty spot where noise is not?
A bit of quiet, untouched by all the hectic riot would help things a lot.
Our temples automatic – science reveals.
Our pace is acrobatic – life moves on wheels.
Here’s my admission –
I haven’t very much ambition for the mad existence of our time.
Let’s just be old fashioned.
Let’s just be lazy.
The world’s gone crazy
so stay in my arms.
My most dear; come close dear.
Don’t be afraid to.
My hands were made to shield you from alarm.
What’s all the shooting for?
Where are they rushing?
Whom are they rooting for?
Whom are they crushing?
Forget them or let them grow dim and hazy.
The world’s gone crazy
so stay in my arms.
Let’s lie here
year by year midfield and daisy.
The world’s gone crazy
so stay in my arms.
While millions of millions go wildly prancing.
I’ll be romancing a song of your charms.
They dance a dance that kills – mad and defenseless.
Such jumping Jacks and Jills.
It’s all so senseless.
I love you.
You love me.
That much is plain, dear.
The world’s insane, dear:
So stay in my Arms!
Five years after his production of The Cradle Will Rock was abruptly cancelled by the Works Progress Administration, Marc Blitzstein composed the score for the 1942 anti-fascist, anti-KKK documentary film Native Land, featuring today’s selection, “American Day.” Paul Robeson, frustrated with the type-casting of black performers in Hollywood, sang in and narrated this, his final film. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times had the following reaction to the film on May 12, 1942, following its premiere:
“Although this country is today engaged in open warfare against a foreign enemy which threatens our national heritage, the struggle to preserve our rights and freedom has been marked by long and bloody strife. And it is to remind us of the fight which the American people have waged to win and hold their civil liberties, especially against “the fascist-minded on our own soil” in recent years, that Frontier Films is presenting the feature-length documentary film, ‘Native Land,’ which opened at the World Theatre last evening…. Manifestly, this is one of the most powerful and disturbing documentary films ever made, and certainly it will provoke much thought and controversy. ‘Native Land’ is a graphic presentation through re-enacted scenes of incidents of brutal violations of the American Bill of Rights as revealed in actual testimony before the Senate Civil Liberties Committee in 1938. It is, to put it bluntly, a sharp indictment of certain subversive elements in this land—elements which are never precisely identified, other than by such terms as “the big shots,” “the interests” and “powerful corporations,” but which emerge by implication as all foes of free speech, of free assembly and the active opponents of labor organization.”
Would that I could draw no parallels between 1942 and 2019. Sadly, it seems racism and fascism are on the rise throughout our world over the past few years, and corporations have inexplicably mutated into persons more powerful than people. Will we ever learn, or are we destined to be caught in a perpetual “Groundhog Day?” Are we just “millions of ordinary people, who take the Bill of Rights for granted?”
“Wake up, brother, wake up.”
Marc Blitzstein’s No For An Answer will be featured on the Nov. 19 NYFOS concert at Merkin Hall. Steve Blier and I had our very first collaboration at Tully Hall in a Blitzstein celebration about 35 years ago. It cemented my friendship with Steve, and helped us see a lot of things about songs concerts in a different light. Some years later Steve was able to make a beautiful recording of many of Blitzstein’s best songs. One of my favorites is “Penny Candy”. It comes from No For An Answer. Here is the amazing and characterful William Sharp with Steve Blier at the piano.
We are gearing up for a concert performance of Marc Blitzstein’s No For An Answer on Nov. 19 at Merkin Concert Hall. No For An Answer came together in 1941 and had a very short run over a few weekends at what is now City Center. No For An Answer was Blitzstein’s follow-up to his 1936 The Cradle Will Rock. Known as “agitation propaganda” (agit prop) in the Brechtian tradition, Cradle caught an important slice of the American zeitgeist when labor was beginning to organize against big business. This is also the central theme of Cradle. Blitzstein’s musical style is often compared to Kurt Weill’s. They wrote in the language of the common man and woman. And Blitzstein would easily move between spoken language (often in a a specific rhythm) and song. He sought “actors who could sing a little” rather than opera singers. Here is the opening number of The Cradle Will Rock. The young Patti LuPone is joined by Tim Robbins and Henry Stram. Your truly is at the piano. It was my first musical job in NYC. 1984.
Michael and I both had a hankering to revive NYFOS’ tradition of presenting rare theater pieces in concert versions. Kurt Weill’s “Silverlake” was a feature of the last NYFOS@Juilliard evening, and the three songs we did whetted my appetite for more. It is extremely unlikely that New Yorkers will be seeing a staged version any time soon, and the material seemed uncannily apt for the current political moment. Michael had his eye on Marc Blitzstein’s “No For an Answer,” whose songs have periodically graced our programs over the years.
Each of these works was stillborn, with just a couple of performances at the time of their creation. The Nazis shut down “Silverlake” and pronounced Weill an enemy of the state. He fled the country. Blitzstein, on the other hand, mainly had himself to blame for the three-show run of “No For an Answer.” He couldn’t let go of the piece, tinkering with the script season after season, waiting for the perfect venue, determined to have the perfect cast. Eventually the war intervened and his musical no longer captured the Zeitgeist as it would have three or four years earlier. In addition, the Mecca Temple where it played was plagued with a slew of building violations, and the city government shut the production down. “No For an Answer” garnered respectful reviews, and it featured the Broadway debut of a promising performer—Carol Channing. But its moment had passed. Blitzstein had to content himself with a succès d’estime. Soon after, he was shipped off to London to serve in the Army.
Here’s one of the songs from the show: “In the Clear,” originally sung by Clara, wife of the wealthy, alcoholic Paul. She is philosophical and perceptive, he is idealistic and somewhat belligerent. Here she gently rebukes her husband, reminding him that he can’t simply be “full of promise” as he nears the age of 30. I know of very few other songs that address this delicate subject: the uncomfortable moment when a young adult realizes he can no longer coast on his potential.
The performance: William Sharp, with me at the piano.
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