Marc Blitzstein makes a significant impression from first contact, whether through his songs, the Airborne Symphony, his theatrical work The Cradle Will Rock, or the opera Regina; a composer who is "in the American grain" -- to borrow a phrase from William Carlos Williams -- yet who is not of the hay bales, prairie lands, and rodeos of Aaron Copland, but of cities, sophistication, and late nights spent in conversation, cigarettes, and a glass or two of whiskey on the rocks. The Cradle Will Rock -- the earliest Blitzstein piece longer than a song that has previously circulated -- comes to us so complete and fully formed that one might wonder if the back story is genuinely necessary. But if one is as passionate about Blitzstein as other trailblazing American composers of his generation, who wouldn't be curious as to what went before; after all, Blitzstein never suppressed his early works, he just couldn't find a publisher for them, and ultimately fell out of sympathy with their style and baggage. San Francisco's Other Minds has worked with Blitzstein's estate to raise First Life: Marc Blitzstein, the first substantial peek into Blitzstein's pre-1937 output that recordings have provided to the general public. For someone like Blitzstein, generally regarded as a pretty cool customer, it's a surprisingly wild ride.
Pianist Sarah Cahill performs the solo pieces that constitute the first half of the disc. The works from the 1920s -- the single-movement Piano Sonata (1927) and Piano-Percussion Music (1929) -- are easily comparable with the contemporaneous piano music of Blitzstein's colleagues Aaron Copland and George Antheil. Blitzstein's early modernist, and highly dissonant though jazzy piano pieces are additionally informed with Henry Cowell's experimental approach to the keyboard and form a nice, historic bridge between the compressed, essential language of Copland and the futurist, mechanical language of Antheil. The "percussion" in the latter piece -- pulled off with enthusiasm, aplomb, and requisite violence by Cahill -- is provided by the pianist in the form of special kinds of slaps and slams from the keyboard cover, requiring quite a bit of coordination from the player. The latter work would seem like a shoo-in for publication in Cowell's periodical New Music, but it never appeared there ; since Blitzstein's long-forgotten performance of the piece in New York in 1929, this piece hasn't been heard at all. The Scherzo "Bourgeois at Play" (1930) is a careening, half-humorous bit of neo-classicism that could have served well as the soundtrack to a film like Man Ray's Les Mystères du Château du Dé, satirically depicting the wealthy; this demonstrates some inkling of the political concerns that would ultimately dominate Blitzstein's work as a whole.
The Del Sol String Quartet pick up the ball for the remainder of the disc, and these two string quartets, the "Italian" (1930) and Serenade (1932), represent an entirely different artistic pursuit from the piano pieces. The "Italian" string quartet is very attractive to the ear, superficially neo-classical but hardly coherent with Stravinsky or Les Six, with an elegant and even aristocratic sound but also somewhat tongue-in-cheek; without the obvious modernism of its language, one would almost say that it is nearly in the tradition of Mendelssohn. The Serenade was once described by Oscar Levant as "one of the greatest presumptions toward an audience that I had encountered in any composer" as it consists of three slow movements with nothing to relieve the subtly alternating moods of tension, regret, reflection, and anguish encountered in its 16-minute span. Certainly to a twenty first century audience, accustomed through the chamber works of Philip Glass and others that carry similar tempi over multiple movements, this requirement is no challenge at all, and one becomes involved in the expressive wealth of the piece, its emotional power and deeply post-romantic idiom carved out within the language of modernism.
Other Minds' First Life: Marc Blitzstein doesn't just provide exposure to neglected literature -- and there is a lot of it from pre-World War II American modernists, where going one's own way was a valued aspect and reliance on European methods were discouraged -- it fills in an essential, and heretofore missing, piece of that puzzle. Blitzstein was disappointed by the reception of these pieces, and his sense of devotion to trends in Europe may have prevented his being embraced by those American mavericks that could have helped him, but it also sets Blitzstein apart from his colleagues. His subsequent shift to populism laced with social rhetoric, in this context, makes perfect sense and would provide Blitzstein with an arena in which to shine. Copland once appraised Blitzstein's key contribution as being "the first American composer to invent a vernacular musical idiom that sounded convincing when heard from the lips of the man-in-the-street." Other Minds' First Life: Marc Blitzstein provides the missing perspective on the cultured, carefully adjudged, and ever-so-slightly and surprisingly "elitist" steps that he took to get there. The standard observed by Other Minds in packaging, presentation, recording, and the performances is exemplary, and no one with interest in modern American music of this era will want to be without this disc.