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In "Airborne Symphony," Marc Blitzstein composed a vivid picture of air power in World War II
EVERYTHING ABOUT WORLD WAR II was writ large—thousand-plane raids, battle fleets with hundreds of steel warships, nations and peoples mobilized for a single purpose. Not surprisingly, monuments to the conflict are often supersized. Indeed, the National World War II Memorial covers more than seven acres of the Mall in Washington and features enormous columns and arches that critics say are overbearing and pompous.
One of the earliest tributes to the World War II experience was equally epic. It came before the American public—on stage—with a large performing cast in a music composition as ambitious as any massive stone monument: Airborne Symphony, by the American composer and U.S. serviceman Marc Blitzstein.
Born in Philadelphia in 1905, Blitzstein started his composing career studying at Philadelphia’s prestigious Curtis Institute and with such leading instructors as Nadia Boulanger in Paris and Arnold Schönberg in Berlin. Back in America he was on his way to becoming an acknowledged concert hall modernist when the Great Depression and his growing social consciousness rerouted him. Instead, he took the path of a generation of young American composers who believed they should employ their skills to create pieces for the masses. For Blitzstein this meant stage works, film scores, and popular songs.
While his politics were decidedly to the left, his patriotism was dead center. In 1942, Blitzstein—then 37—enlisted as a private in the U.S. Army Air Forces and was shipped to London to use his composing skills for the Eighth Air Force. There he wrote or arranged pieces for morale-raising efforts, scored U.S. Office of War Information propaganda documentaries, and even completed a concert piece titled Freedom Morning.
Though he was sheltered from combat, he met many working airmen—the flyers who took the war to the enemy and paid the price with traumatic stress and sometimes their lives. Blitzstein decided to give voice to this experience in what he called “a big symphony.”
He quickly gained the support of his section commander, Colonel Beirne Lay Jr. (later the coauthor of the novel Twelve O’Clock High and its screenplay), who helped quash the resistance of officers unhappy at the prospect of an enlisted man writing a large-scale concert piece while working on the clock.
Reflecting on the international success of Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich’s 1941 hour-long symphonic tribute to Leningrad’s defense, Blitzstein enthused in a memo that classical music “was on the map as a positive weapon in winning the war.” In February 1943, Blitzstein was given permission to create his vision. He was relieved from routine military duties and promoted to corporal.
“It’s a terrific assignment,” he told an American reporter, “and I’ve poured my heart into it….The air force boys like it. I’ve played them its themes at air bases with the thunder of the bombers warming up outside.”
Blitzstein dubbed the work a symphony, though his conception added elements of Broadway, classical choruses, and even radio drama. With the composition essentially finished by November, he tried it out for the army brass in a solo performance, playing the notes on a piano, singing the vocal parts, and explaining the story line.
The musicale finished when Blitzstein announced: “Well, gentlemen, that’s the opus.” Everyone looked to the senior officer present, who solemnly pronounced: “Carry on, Corporal.”
The war ended before a military performance could be organized, but Blitzstein (who finished his enlistment as a sergeant) found a stateside champion in Leonard Bernstein, who led the world premiere on April 1, 1946, in New York City’s City Center. It wouldn’t be heard in Europe until 1986.
MARC BLITZSTEIN’S Airborne Symphony is about an hour long and scored for orchestra, chorus, vocal soloists, and a narrator (referred to as “the monitor”). Blitzstein wrote the words as well as the music.
The first of Airborne’s three movements sets the historic stage with excursions into the early saga and mythology of flight. There are stops in the ancient Middle East and the Wright Brothers’ Kitty Hawk proving that mankind always had “wings on the brain.” The second movement takes us to war, where fascist air power rains down devastation on helpless cities in a roll call of terror: “Leningrad—Malta—London—Rotterdam—Manila—Warsaw—Guernica.”
The third movement is the story of the Eighth Air Force, its fight against Nazi Germany, and the mixed promise and threat of modern air power. It opens on the grim humor of life in the military with “Ballad of Hurry-Up.” In the air force, the chorus sings, “It’s hurry up, hurry, hurry up—and wait.”
The song follows an aircrew’s elaborate dressing ritual for a bombing mission that is ultimately scrubbed, provoking a litany of acronym expletives: snafu, tarfu, fubar.
The third movement concludes the work with a strident choral cry for aircraft to “open up that second front” and bring retribution to the enemy: “We will reduce his nerves to dust. / We will bomb him, bomb him, / Bomb him from the earth.”
But there’s also a warning that while air power can win wars, it can encourage tyrants to launch wars. Blitzstein said: “Most symphonies…end on a single note, maybe triumph, maybe tragedy. But a symphony about our times cannot have that luxury….so the Airborne ends in conflict.”
ENTERTAINMENT CRITICS greeted Blitzstein’s Airborne Symphony as “an inspired composition” and “program music which is always impressive and often exciting.” The mélange of styles and at times in-your-face directness bothered some classical reviewers, one of whom decried it as “more of a musical poster” that “seemed a little callous.”
The work quickly traveled around the United States and even into Canada, usually tapping local civilian forces to perform. But on at least one occasion—in San Antonio in 1953—it featured a cadet chorus from nearby Lackland Air Force Base. A number of celebrities took the monitor role, including Orson Welles, Zachary Scott, Tyrone Power, and Sarah Churchill.
By the late 1950s, with the classical music community favoring more astringent styles and the public turning cool to World War II memorials, the work got only an occasional public airing. At a rare New York performance, in 1995, one critic wrote that it was “hokum to delight and be savored.”
It took Blitzstein biographer Eric A. Gordon to provide a more balanced estimation: “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.”
MHQ contributing editor Noah Andre Trudeau is a former executive producer for NPR Cultural Programming.