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.