Composer Who Rocked the 'Cradle'

Marc Blitzstein Embraced Leftism and Yiddishkeit

A Pair of Steins: Marc Blitzstein (right) led a more down-to-earth existence than that of his friend and fellow-composer Leonard Bernstein.
Courtesy of The Library Of Congress
A Pair of Steins: Marc Blitzstein (right) led a more down-to-earth existence than that of his friend and fellow-composer Leonard Bernstein.

By Benjamin Ivry

Published August 21, 2012, issue of August 24, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 2 of 2)

Instead of completing the Sacco and Vanzetti project, which remained a mere fragment, Blitzstein launched into a new effort with more overt Yiddishkeit. As a guest teacher at Bennington College, in Vermont, Blitzstein was enthused about stories written by fellow faculty member Bernard Malamud. Blitzstein eventually selected two of Malamud’s tales to transform into short operas, “Idiots First” and “The Magic Barrel,” although both would remain unfinished.

In the first, a terminally ill Jewish man tries to stave off Death personified in order to make arrangements for the care of his mentally handicapped son. In the latter, a rabbinical student becomes the lover of a prostitute. These unorthodox themes inspired Blitzstein, and enough of “Idiots First” was written before the composer’s untimely death that a representative performing version could be completed by Kansas-born pianist-composer Leonard Lehrman, a Blitzstein maven and devotee.

Lehrman’s completion of “Idiots First,” first performed in 1974, has won consistent praise, whereas his 2003 version of Blitzstein’s “Sacco and Vanzetti” drew some critical ire, since Blitzstein left so little original music to guide the choices made by Lehrman, despite his experience with the late composer’s idiom.

Blitzstein has always attracted talented and devoted admirers, including his longtime friend Bernstein, whose ever-glamorous manner differed from Blitzstein’s down-to-earth lifestyle. In a 1964 letter to his sister, which is now in the Library of Congress, Bernstein, by then living on Park Avenue and in Fairfield, Conn., as the New York Philharmonic’s maestro, mourned Blitzstein’s murder at the hands of three sailors in a sexual pickup gone wrong. Noting that the cause of death was first revealed to be an auto accident and later revised to a beating by sailors, and at last the “blessed word robbery was mentioned, Bernstein added with anguish, “We pray the story gets no murkier — or should I say clearer?” He concluded, “Marc is dead, & I’ve lost an arm.”

Unlike Bernstein, Blitzstein ferociously courted Mack the Knifes in real life, and paid with his life for this unfortunate, if artistically inspiring, predilection. Quintessentially Jewish and American, Blitzstein deserves a place in the musical pantheon not far from his fellow gay Jewish leftist and celebrator of the common man, Aaron Copland.

Watch a 2005 performance by Sarah Cahill of Blitzstein’s never-published 1920s modernist “Piano Percussion Music” here.

See Micki Grant performing “Joe Worker,” about a brother who was killed on the job, from a 1964 off-Broadway revival of “The Cradle Will Rock” here.

From the same production, watch Jerry Orbach perform the final song, “The Cradle Will Rock” here.

See Louis Armstrong charming a 1950s British audience with Kurt Weill’s “Mack the Knife” with Blitzstein’s lyrics here.

Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to the Forward.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.