The Airborne Symphony (1943-46)

By Eric a. Gordon, author, Mark the Music; The Life and Work of Marc Blitzstein

Written for the concert Between War and Peace, performed on April 30, 1995 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

The Airborne Symphony by Marc Blitzstein (1905-1964) is both the most substantial male-chorus work in the repertory and the single most powerful American composition to emerge from the Second World War. A telling document of its times, it draws on diverse sources such as the Living Newspaper (current events staged as theater), Broadway, pop song and film, Shostakovich and Prokofiev, choral speaking, slogans from popular movements, and canteen revue shtick. The composer tosses in barbershop quartet alongside lofty paeans of “Glory, Glory” as the secular victory mass concludes.

Informed by Blitzstein’s sophisticated conservatory training and brash harmonies, the Airborne is the apotheosis of the NormanCorwin/Earl Robinson radio cantata of the 1930s and 1940s, when American composers struggled to find an authentic indigenous voice. Radio composers liberated American choruses to sing about homegrown subjects in a vernacular lifted from our folk and popular traditions. These singers from the Era of the Common Man didn’t roll their “r’s,” nor wallow in portly Victorian harmonies.

Born in Philadelphia to Russian immigrant parents, Blitzstein was a Wunderkind at the piano. He attended the University of Pennsylvania and the Curtis Institute. Deciding to become a composer, he studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris and Arnold Schoenberg in Berlin. Early works included short chamber operas, piano solo pieces, a concerto, and a number of songs based on erotic Walt Whitman texts, that shocked critics in the 1920s.

After a decade writing in an avant-garde idiom, with approaching fascism Blitzstein turned toward more tonal, populist music, especially theater. In works like the proletarian operas The Cradle Will Rock and No for an Answer, he found a larger public, without compromising his style or pandering to the lowest common denominator. Later works include Regina, Juno, and his masterful translation of The Threepenny Opera.

Blitzstein joined the U.S. Army in August 1942, working as an entertainment specialist based in London and serving until May 1945. He composed for canteen shows, radio and short films. Blitzstein’s superiors agreed to his writing a large work for the 8th Army Air Force to which he was attached. The Airborne Symphony was conceived originally as the score of a film to be shot around it. Echoes of this idea remain in the Narrator’s language: iris in, train down, focus on the solo balladeer, then back to the big picture. Thus Blitzstein holds us throughout the hour-long piece, redirecting our attention to different aspects of the story. The cumulative effect is all-encompassing as time, men and continents reel past.

In a Soho bar Blitzstein met a young radio gunner from North Carolina named Bill Hewitt, who had flown 65 missions over Germany and who became his companion for the next five years. The Airborne was written for Bill and other fighting men. As a homosexual, Blitzstein was very observant of men’s behavior: the “Hurry up” chorus, with its dressing and undressing scenes, both conceals and reveals the composer’s homoeroticism.

Wartime priorities caused Blitzstein not to finish the Airborne while in uniform. Once discharged, he had no further use for the work. He played through what he remembered of it for Leonard Bernstein, who agreed to conduct the Airborne with the New York City Symphony if Blitzstein would complete it.

The premiere took place on April 1, 1946, with a chorus drawn from the Robert Shaw Chorale, Orson Welles as the Narrator, and the tenor Charles Holland as soloist. Bernstein recorded the work for RCA that fall. It received few concert performances, however, for a number of reasons: the decline of male choruses, the Cold War (and Blitzstein’s suspect leanings as a former Communist), and perhaps most importantly, the critical hegemony of atonal music and the correspondingly low status of narrative choral music. Still, Bernstein admired the work and during the Vietnam War he revived it with the New York Philharmonic, recording it on LP with Welles.

In the rush to adopt twelve-tone music, composers gave up the power to effect our civic consciousness. With few exceptions, they eschewed works of tropical and historical importance, leaving us a meager civic culture. Creative artists generally laugh at the idea of patriotism, leaving all that to flag-waving know-nothings–a mistake we are still paying for.

In the Airborne, Blitzstein raises questions along with the celebration. We have won the war, but will we once again create a new enemy? He warns us not to become so mesmerized by the chat of ideology or by stunning technological achievement, that we forget the profounder human values. As America embraced anti-Communism in the 1940s, with Jim Crow regnant not only in our deep South, we did not correct the injustices we had just fought ostensibly to wipe out. The Airborne celebrates that epic campaign to eradicate bigotry and racism. Fifty years later, it urges us to strengthen our zeal.

Between War and Peace: The End of the Second World War

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Between War and Peace, performed on April 30, 1995 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

This final concert of our 1994-95 season honors the momentous events of fifty years ago. In the spring of 1945, the war in Europe came to an end. At the San Francisco Conference, the hope of humankind, the United Nations was created.

In the brief period between the end of Hitler’s War (and with it the full recognition of the unparalleled brutality and horror of Nazism) and the dawn of the Atomic Age on August 6, it was perhaps still possible to believe that the worst humanity had to offer had been overcome. The sense of triumph was not merely one of military victory and national pride. Amidst the despair visited on all that resulted from the destruction of Europe there was a glimmer of hope that the world had just experienced the war to end all wars; that the radical evil of the hate, terror, and atrocities exemplified by Nazi Germany would never be repeated. The United Nations held out the possibility that the old ways of power politics would be changed.

The arts were not left unaffected by the War. Each nation, on both sides of the conflict, marshaled its leading musicians into the battle for the heart and minds of its people. Marc Blitzstein was commissioned by the Air Force to write The Airborne Symphony. Although later on he distanced himself somewhat from the Nazis, at the start of the regime Richard Strauss accepted an official position as head of the music section of the Cultural Ministry. Arthur Honegger’s sympathies for the French Resistance were clear from the start.

In modern history, World War II shattered the illusion that music can remain neutral and value free, an aesthetic arena concerned with beauty that stands independent of politics. Good music is just good music, one might like to say. Even though this is not quite the case, since music is different from art and language, it offers a unique forum and vehicle for communicating. The often repeated claim that music is a universal language is somewhat true in that the variety of meanings to which it is subjected can never be exhausted and never remains stable. The motto of victory for the allies was the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Yet the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven was performed repeatedly under the Nazi flag in the context of the celebration of the Third Reich. And Beethoven is performed today without any shred of evident political meaning and without any residue of its use and abuse during the Second World War. Music resists evil by simply being elusive. It is susceptible at any hearing to any individual’s way of listening and ascribing meaning.

At the same time, music has been able to give voice to a sense of existential hope and despair in ways that remain recognizable and that transcend the historical moment. It is therefore not surprising that war has inspired the writing of great and lasting music. One thinks, for example, of the Napoleonic Wars and the work of Haydn and Beethoven.

This program chooses three examples of music inspired by the closing years of the war, when victory was within grasp, the recognition of suffering unavoidable, and the yearning for a better world matched only by a fear of the total destruction of civilization. In the case of Strauss’s Metamorphosen, the composer’s pessimism and despair led him to write a work whose musical language broke the barrier of his own narrow and amoral attitudes. A profound expression of sorrow and humanity could emerge from Strauss only in music, never in words. Here a sense of loss and defeat is expressed in terms that remind us all of our common fate and limitations as human beings; it overcomes our rage and resentment of those who were once our enemies. Dark as the work is, it is at the same time an expression of hope in that it shows the best of that of which any of us might be capable: the ever-present possibilities of redemption from evil.

Despite the rousing patriotism of The Airborne Symphony, Blitzstein was careful to end the work with a plea to reject the false sense of moral superiority that victors inevitably display. The lesson of America’s bravery in the air, the sacrifice of its fighting men, and the promise of modern technology was a world beyond nations–the open sky of a universe marked by international cooperation and tolerance.

This concert contains one work by the vanquished and one by the victor. The other work is by Arthur Honegger, who was Swiss. While he was actively anti-Nazi, he was formally a citizen of a neutral nation. In symbolic terms his presence in this concert represents the voice of the engaged bystander–the many individuals who were left to resist, withdraw, watch, and try to understand helplessly the killing and suffering. This great work–like Karl Amadeus Hartmann’s Symphony No. 1–reminds us of the horror of war and oppression. But unlike Hartmann’s work, Honegger’s looks ahead as well as back. Within its overtly religious framework it offers, in music, an expression of faith in humanity’s divine spark–our capacity to begin from the rubble again, perhaps in a more just and noble fashion.

Many readers of this program will reflect on how little progress seems to have been made in the last half-century. The events in Bosnia and all over the world–not to mention the hate and violence with which we live every day in our own country–can lead us to hopelessness. Our collective failure to restrain evil and violence and our callous adaptation to an environment marked all too regularly by suffering and death are perhaps signs of our inability to redeem the possibilities that faced the world in 1945. At the same time, this music, written fifty years ago, should remind us that it is never too late to start, to renew the idea of international cooperation, to secure human rights for all, to educate and extend ourselves to others, to display tolerance, to resist radical evil, and to prevent war. The music on today’s concert reasserts the unpredictable and staggering power and richness of the human imagination. The greatness that is possible in music by individuals should be equally possible in the conduct of everyday life.

Symphony No.3, “Liturgique” (1945-46)

By Richard E. Rodda, Case Western Reserve University

Written for the concert Between War and Peace, performed on April 30, 1995 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Arthur Honegger was born in Le Havre, France of Swiss parents, and maintained a strong allegiance to (and the citizenship of) Switzerland throughout his life. He studied for two years at the Zurich Conservatory before transferring to the Paris Conservatoire, where his teachers included Gédalge, Widor and d’Indy. Honegger’s first important work, a violin sonata, appeared in 1918, at about the time that he was arbitrarily inducted by a French journalist into the group of composers known as “The French Six,” whose other members included Poulenc, Milhaud, Tailleferre, Auric and Durey. Though respectful of these musicians, and supportive of the vibrant musical activity they brought to Paris, Honegger’s sympathies were as heavily weighted toward the traditions of Germany as those of France, and he drifted away from “Les Six” in the 1920s. Of his artistic philosophy, he wrote, “I attach great importance to musical architecture, which I should never want to see sacrificed for reasons of literary or pictorial order. My model is Bach…. I do not seek, as do certain anti-Impressionists, the return to harmonic simplicity. I find, on the contrary, that we should use the harmonic materials created by the school which preceded us, but in a different way–as the base of lines and rhythms.” His oratorio King David (1921) and the “Symphonic Movement” Pacific 231 (1923) brought him international prominence, and he toured widely in Europe and the Americas for the last three decades of his life as lecturer, conductor and pianist. His large output comprises thirty stage works, including operas, oratorios, ballets and vaudevilles, a vast quantity of incidental music and film scores, five symphonies, many independent orchestral compositions, scores for chorus and orchestra, chamber music and songs. Of Honegger’s musical style, the critic Henry Pruniëres wrote, “In him … the best qualities of French and German schools meet and blend. Simple melodies, with natural inflections, develop one from another. Each instrument in his chamber music, and each group of instruments in his orchestral scores, seems to have its individual life, and speaks its own language.”

Honegger lived much of his life in Paris, and he was there when the city was occupied by the Nazis in 1940. Though he was invited time and again to conduct his music in Germany and over the German-controlled radio in France, he adamantly refused. The Nazis did not interfere with him, however, and he withdrew into his studio for the duration of the War, largely keeping to himself and composing, though he did take part in some activities of the French Resistance. In 1941, he completed the intense Symphony No. 2 for Strings and Trumpet as a mirror of his moods and feelings during that difficult period. A year later he wrote a Chant de Libération in anticipation of the end of the War, but this music could not be heard until October 22, 1944, two months after the Allies and the Resistance freed the city.

The depth of Honegger’s feelings incited by the War were inevitably given voice in an orchestral work that he began soon after the hostilities ended. “My Symphony is a drama,” he said, “in which three characters–real or symbolic–play: misery, happiness and man. It is an eternal problem. I have tried to face it anew.” He titled this new Symphony, his third, Liturgique, and headed each of its movements with a phrase from the Roman Catholic liturgy: “Dies irae” (“Day of Wrath,” the terrifying depiction of the Judgment day in the Requiem Mass); “De profundis clamavi” (“Out of the depths Have I Cried,” Psalm 130, used in the Office for the Dead); and “Dona nobis pacem” (“Grant us peace,” the last section of the Mass Ordinary). Honegger did not quote the chant melodies associated with these words, but used the movement titles instead to indicate the general expressive progression of the Symphony as it reflected his experience of the War. The opening of “Dies irae” suggests chaos, barbarity and destruction, and “De profundis clamavi,” anxiety and exhaustion made bearable only by hope; the two-part “Dona nobis pacem” begins with a stern march reflecting mankind’s struggle against violence, and ends with a hymnal apotheosis of peace. Though Honegger never gave a more detailed program for the piece than that implied by its titles, Charles Munch, the conductor for whom it was written, thought that the Symphony “poses the problem of humanity vis-à-vis God” in broaching the subject of man’s revolt against, and final submission to, a higher will. The Belgian critic Arthur Hoéreé found the Liturgique to be the expression of “a spirit in search of serenity amid all the unrest which is our present state,” a comment as appropriate today as it was upon the Symphony’s premiere in 1946. That Honegger could find a positive, life-giving and hopeful close to the War-impelled Symphonie Liturgique shows not only of his renewal of the expressive tradition of the Romantic symphonic apotheosis in distinctly modern terms, but also of his belief in the inextinguishable spirit of mankind.

Metamorphosen for 23 Solo Strings (1944-45)

By Michael Steinberg, Cornell University

Written for the concert Between War and Peace, performed on April 30, 1995 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

How should we listen to the Metamorphosen, and what do we hear in them? Is this last work of an aged and great composer truly a work of summational wisdom? And how do we hear and judge in this music the work of cultural mourning it claims to undergo–the mourning for Munich after its bombardment by the Allied Powers in the Second World War?

In the concluding passage to his recent book Musical Elaborations, Edward Said chose the Metamorphosen as the paradigm for enlightened and ethical musical experience, shared by composer and listener:

In the perspective afforded by such a work as Metamorphosen, music thus becomes an art not primarily or exclusively about authorial power and social authority, but a mode for thinking through or thinking with the integral variety of human cultural practices, generously, non-coercively, and, yes, in a utopian cast, if by utopian we mean worldly, possible, attainable, knowable.

This laudatory view of the Metamorphosen is widely held, though rarely so eloquently expressed. But it was not always so apparent. In November 1947 an article in an Amsterdam newspaper accused Strauss of having written the work as a memorial to Hitler. The Swiss Strauss scholar Willi Schuh quickly responded with the archetypal argument of Strauss’s apolitical nature. But the work has its own references. Strauss had written the first sketches for the Metamorphosen on the day the Munich Staatstheater was bombed in October 1943, and had given them the name “Mourning for Munich.” The final work, completed in a month in March and April of 1945, indeed amounts to a lamentation for German aesthetic culture. To conflate this gesture with Nazi loyalty makes no sense. If in the 1930s Strauss was unable to distinguish between German and National Socialist ideas of culture, it is not to be assumed that he maintained that association. Neither music nor context supports this latter interpretation in any way. But the political references are present, and they are not at all clear.

If Strauss mourns for Munich through music in 1945, what is the moral position and quality of such an act of mourning and memory? Does the unquestionable beauty of the music serve to mystify the complicated associations necessarily invoked by the referent “Munich”: the city of Bavarian beauty and art but also, as one musicologist reminds us, “the city of the regime?” We foreclose on too many important issues if we rush to bless the Metamorphosen as absolute music. Thus, in an important review of Edward Said’s Musical Elaborations, the musicologist Rose Rosengard Subotnik puts this question squarely. “Recalling” she says, “how it was the bombing of an opera house (in the Third Reich) rather than the murder of fellow human beings that drew this expression of grief from Strauss, I remain troubled. . .by Said’s choice of this particular work as the endpiece of his book.”

The Metamorphosen offers its listeners a moving journey into the sonic representation of mourning and melancholy. In Sigmund Freud’s classic essay of 1917 on “Mourning and Melancholia,” mourning is defined as a form of psychic work successfully completed when the mourner is able to separate from the object of loss. Melancholy, on the other hand, is a psychic disorder that comes from the inability to work through to this act of leave-taking. What mourning allows, and what melancholy blocks, is the reemergence of a viable and coherent subjectivity. It is this sense of subjectivity which is ultimately missing in the Metamorphosen. Sound, we might say, does not transform itself into subject. In the work’s compositional context, as Subotnik correctly points out, the object of mourning is not historically or morally adequate. This context becomes musically manifest in the sound of the work. For that reason, we are more accurate and more sensitive listeners if we do not claim to find peace, resolution, or spiritual recovery in this work. Strauss’ work of mourning is so limited in its scope that we cannot say that the work of mourning has been accomplished through the music in any meaningful way. As for the musical work itself in its unimpeachable beauty, it remains caught in melancholy as it remains imprisoned in history.