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From the Archives: Bernstein, Blitzstein and Weill

Posted November 27, 2023

Bernstein, Blitzstein and Weill
By Rebecca Schmid

(as printed in the 2019 Spring/Summer issue of Prelude, Fugue & Riffs)

Photo: Marc Blitzstein and Leonard Bernstein at Tanglewood. Photo by Ruth Orkin. Courtesy of the Library of Congress Music Division.

Leonard Bernstein’s own brand of serious music theater was shaped by two figures: The American composer Marc Blitzstein, who played a key role in the reception of Kurt Weill in the U.S., and Weill himself. Bernstein’s career had become intertwined with that of Blitzstein in his student years. In 1939, while studying at Harvard, he mounted a production of Blitzstein’s The Cradle will Rock which Blitzstein later wrote “packed a thrilling wallop for me.” Bernstein in turn saw the composer, who was 13 years his senior, as a “giant who had written those notes which seduced my soul.”

The Cradle will Rock marked a new phase in Blitzstein’s career in which he pursued the ideal of socially relevant music theatre combining elements of both European modernism and American vernacular. At the encouragement of Bertolt Brecht, the “play in music” explored the struggle between union workers and the ruthless Mr. Mister in the fictional town of Steeltown, U.S.A. Allusions to Weill’s Die Dreigroschenoper are only thinly veiled, particularly through the numbers of the prostitute, Moll, as the show takes on the hypocrisy of capitalist society.

Weill’s work was also an eye-opener for Bernstein. He had encountered a recording with Lotte Lenya singing the role of Jenny in 1937 which he later recalled made him “instantly” fall in love. But he credited Blitzstein in large part for his intimacy with the music. “Through Marc I came to feel that I knew Kurt Weill,” he wrote. “His drives, his courage, his foibles and his great humanity.”

If Blitzstein’s own contact with Weill had been limited, his English adaptation of Die Dreigroschenoper, The Threepenny Opera, started an American renaissance for the German émigré’s pre-exile works (it was also the most lucrative undertaking of Blitzstein’s career). Bernstein conducted the premiere at Brandeis University in 1952 during the same festival that unveiled his opera Trouble in Tahiti. Dedicated to Blitzstein, the score of that opera was finished in the cabin outside Saratoga, New York, where the elder composer had been working on his musical drama, Reuben Reuben.

As Bernstein rose to international fame, he remained a champion of Blitzstein’s work. He premiered Blitzstein’s Airborne Symphony with the New York City Symphony and, in 1955, tried to convince the artistic administration of La Scala to mount the opera Regina. Bernstein was so passionate about the drama’s historic importance that he had published a preview piece in The New York Times upon its 1949 premiere, writing of an operatic tradition that is “wholly an outgrowth of our culture.”

It was against this backdrop that he created Trouble in Tahiti which, like Regina, offers an unflinchingly honest portrayal of American domestic life in an idiom that veers freely between the popular and the melodramatic. The “opera in seven scenes” was in some ways a problem child. Blitzstein admitted to friends while “lively musically,” Trouble in Tahiti suffered from a “dreary” story and “somewhat inept lyrics.” Bernstein himself called the work “half-baked” after the premiere (he would write the sequel A Quiet Place three decades later, which in the 1984 version incorporates the first opera as a flashback). But Bernstein’s score is a formal experiment that created an important stepping stone toward Candide and West Side Story.

Even more so than by Blitzstein, that path was paved by the innovations of Weill, who had probed the possibilities of a mixed genre defying the boundaries between opera and musical theatre. The development began in his collaborations with Brecht and continued in the U.S. The “musical play” Lady in the Dark weaves together dream sequences with the everyday life of a magazine editor as she undergoes psychoanalysis. The “American opera” Street Scene explores stories of thwarted romance at a New York apartment house, quoting Wagner and Puccini while integrating a range of popular idioms.

Weill’s ambitions may have been too lofty, for Street Scene has not maintained a foot in commercial theatres but rather opera houses. West Side Story, on the other hand, entered the mainstream (foremost through the 1961 film version) as it told of warring Puerto Rican and Caucasian-American factions on the streets of New York. There are numbers that lean toward opera (the “Tonight” Quintet), more catchy songs (“I Feel Pretty”) and those that reside somewhere in between (“Maria”).

Candide, meanwhile, which premiered a year before West Side Story, in 1956, pays homage to the likes of Cunegonde and Bellini while maintaining a distinctly American carefree spirit, satirizing the hunt for communists during the McCarthy era while reveling in the glamour of Old World culture. Looking back through the lens of today’s world, it is easy to become nostalgic for a time when it was so self-explanatory for artists to cross the Atlantic, philosophically and otherwise. If Bernstein died before realizing his vision of an opera about the Holocaust, Candide is a biting satire that shows the possibility of a better world in which people are not judged by their social status, religious background or political affiliations.

Despite a life-long struggle to reconcile his inner tension between the pensive composer and the jet-setting conductor, he managed to produce stage works that combine his gifts as a communicator and musical craftsman. That did not stop Stephen Sondheim from rewriting “The Saga of Jenny” from Lady in the Dark as “The Saga of Lenny” upon Bernstein’s 70th birthday, teasing him about the inability to make up his mind: “Poor Lenny/Ten gifts too many/the curse of being versatile/ To show how bad the curse is/We’ll need a lot of verses/and take a little Weill.” As the lyrics tacitly acknowledge, Bernstein drew important impulses from the émigré composer as he created works that both educate and entertain. The comparison of scores by Weill, Blitzstein and Bernstein continues to reveal how a specific tradition was absorbed and transformed into musical hybrids that remain beloved on stages around the world.

REBECCA SCHMID holds a PhD in musicology and media studies from Humboldt University, Berlin, and is an independent scholar with a focus on 20th- and 21st-century music.

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