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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.