THE BOOK SHELF: New Biographies of "Marc Blitzstein" and "Thornton Wilder"

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04 Nov 2012

This is a meticulous look at things, yes, which at times seems overwhelmed by detail. (Pollack not only tells us everything he can learn about Blitzstein's many music teachers, from boyhood on; he tells us that the 19-year-old Blitzstein studied with a fellow who studied with a good friend of Brahms. Which doesn't really tell us much about Blitzstein, does it?) We seem to go through the creation of every piece of music Blitzstein wrote — music which, in the case of the early half of his career, none of us are likely ever to hear. Woven among this is the increasingly complicated saga of his life, his politics, and his exceedingly odd marriage to Eva Goldbeck (who died in 1936).

The biographer's layers of detail — which can approach the overwhelming level in sections about Blitzstein's European studies — suddenly pay off. The jumble of teachers and studies, experiments and failures, social activism and economic struggle combine to lead to the moment when suddenly out comes The Cradle Will Rock, full-grown. The 32-year-old Blitzstein — thus far an all-but-unknown new-music composer, perennially in the shadow of his friend Copland and his competitor Weill — is suddenly, albeit briefly, in the spotlight.

Pollack takes us on through the war years, the elusive struggle to write another enduring theatre-opera, the close relationship with Bernstein, the strained relationship with Weill (which even so resulted in the phenomenally successful Threepenny, following the latter's death in 1950), and finally Blitzstein's brutal murder in a deserted alley on the island of Martinique.

Pollack turns out to be an expert guide to Blitzstein. His jacket blurb tells us that he wrote a Gershwin biography, which I have never seen, in 2007. If "Marc Blitzstein: His Life, His Work, His World," is any indication, I think I must search out a copy of "George Gershwin: His Life and Work."

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