You can peruse Blitzstein's manuscript of the full score at the New York Philharmonic's Digital Archive. Click here to view the score.
At the beginning of October 1942, Private Marc Blitzstein, serial no. 13082206, arrived in Glasgow on a posting to England with the United States Army Eighth Air Force, having spent most of a particularly unpleasant Atlantic crossing in the hospital ward of a troop ship with an unpleasant stomach bug. Eventually billeted in London, he spent the first few months of his posting attached to the film unit engaged in relatively minor tasks, providing music, translations and scripts.
It soon became apparent to Blitzstein's superiors that his was a talent capable of undertaking much bigger projects. In January 1943, along with his promotion to Corporal, came the green light for the project envisaged as a "big symphony" by the composer, on the theme of "the sacred struggle of the airborne free men of the world . . . to crush the monstrous fascist obstructionist in their path."
Work on the symphony proceeded fitfully through 1943, with Blitzstein's responsibilities in other areas interrupting work, and the commission, in the summer of that year, of his symphonic poem, Freedom Morning, for concerts at the Royal Albert Hall in London the following September.
By November, however, Blitzstein felt able to present a preview of the work to an audience comprising an unlikely mixture of Hollywood acquaintances and army staff. In the time-honoured fashion of backers' audition, which he had done so many times, Blitzstein powered through the score at the piano, singing, talking, explaining, persuading and gradually becoming immersed in a pile of manuscript paper hurled from the piano.
"Carry on Corporal", was the dry but encouraging response from his stunned audience. "Now I must work full steam ahead;" wrote the composer, "it is about time this one was off my chest."
But getting the Airborne off his chest was not so easy. By now promoted to Sergeant, the completion of the score was interrupted by Blitzstein's role as music director at the American Broadcasting Service (ABSIE) and work progressed slowly. With the D-Day landings having commenced in June 1944, it soon became apparent that the GIs that Blitzstein had envisaged to form the chorus were more urgently needed elsewhere. By August 1944, it was clear that the premiere would have to be put back until after the end of war.
Blitzstein left England and returned to New York in May 1945. That autumn, he played parts of the score to Leonard Bernstein, who enthusiastically set the premiere for the following April. There was, however, one problem. The trunk containing Blitzstein's manuscripts, and his score for the Airborne had been lost in transit from England, and Blitzstein would have to completely recompose the score.
Staying with friends in Stamford, Connecticut, Blitzstein was able to concentrate on the reworking of the symphony. Ironically, by the time he had nearly finished the recomposition, the missing trunk turned up in Boston. His new version turned out to be some ten minutes shorter than the original, and, according to the composer, "a heck of a lot better piece."
Scoring the work for a speaker (known as the Monitor), tenor, baritone, male chorus and symphony orchestra, Blitzstein, again to his own texts, cast the work in three sections:
The first performance took place at the City Center, New York on April 1st, 1946. The male voices of the Robert Shaw Collegiate Chorale and the New York City Symphony were conducted by Leonard Bernstein. Orson Welles took the part of the Monitor, with Charles Holland and Walter Scheff respectively as the tenor and baritone soloists.
Although the critics gave the work a mixed reception, the audience at the premiere were very enthusiastic, particularly in view of the fact that the Symphony was dealing with asubject that a population seeking to put the wartime experience behind them were unlikely to want to hear. Yet the work received considerable attention, and Blitzstein was subsequently presented with the 1946 Music Critics Circle Award, and the Page One Award of the Newspaper Guild of New York. Bernstein again programmed the symphony in October of that year, and it was these performances that led to the Airborne being recorded for RCA. It was released the following May on seven 78s.
Perhaps more than any other of Blitzstein's major works, the Airborne is bound by language that is so much of its time. Nothing dates faster than the present. In particular, the narrating role of the Monitor, combined with the manner of Blitzstein's texts, can seem rather arch to modern ears. It is, of course, true that the use of narration in concert music has not had a great history of success, and even some of the best known examples - Schoenberg's "Survivor from Warsaw", Copland's "Lincoln Portrait", Debussy's "Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian", or even Walton's "Façade" - are little more than occasional visitors to mainstream concert programmes. Clearly the spoken word has not established a place for itself in the concert hall.
Although the delayed premiere can not have helped smooth the future path of the Symphony, it is, nevertheless, the immediacy that Blitzstein sought in using a narrator that has probably, more than any other factor, conspired against the work's success. For there is much beautiful and exciting music in the symphony, from its stirring prelude (ex.1) to its compelling finale.
Although Blitzstein had conceived the work as a celebration of the American Airmen's fight against fascism, the first movement deals with man's aeronautical aspirations, through the failures of mythology (Etana, Icarus) to the failures of history (Leonardo da Vinci, amongst others), all of them bound by their awakening desire to be "airborne":
"Wings on the brain, wings on the brain,
Mad for to fly, and walk the sky"
If the First Movement deals with the triumph of man's achievement of flight, the Second Movement deals with the horrors of aerial attack, and the mindless violence of Nazi fascism, described by the composer as; "idiot music, very martial, very bare, rather Teutonic in orchestration, lots of brass". Blitzstein evokes the desolation of cities wrecked by bombing, which, of course, he had witnessed first hand during his wartime years in London.(ex.2)
Wounded cities, hold out.
Your face is covered with dust and rubble.
Your brow is dust.
Your eyes are dust.
Your mouth dust.
All dust and rubble.
Wounded cities, hold out.
In the desolate quiet of this bleak music, the monitor lists cities razed by the terror from the skies.
The movement concludes with the monitor, unaccompanied, reciting the "Morning Poem", which acknowledges the contribution of British Pilots to the war effort. But here we have no heroics. Instead an image is presented of a pilot taking a plane out for a flight on his own, untroubled by enemy action, enjoying the thrill of flying a fast agile plane around the empty skies of a crisp clear morning.
Those clothy clouds,
Unlit by the early sun, are pavement now.
Move out to the early sun.
A falling leaf. A full half-minute
Happily upside-down. A next two minutes
All improvisation; The craft upon its belly, on its side;
And mounting almost vertical, and stopping
To change its mind and float.
The third movement begins with a description of the daily life of an airman. Not for Blitzstein the glories of battle, but rather the tedium of waiting for action, the unspoken tension, and the expectation that the equipment will go wrong (SNAFU), described in a down-to-earth colloquial manner.
In the Air Force,
In the Air Force,
It's hurry up, hurry up, hurry up - and wait.
Hurry up, hurry up, hurry up - and wait.
In the midst of the furious bustle of inactivity, Blitzstein touchingly describes, with music of great stillness, simplicity and beauty, a home-sick bombardier, writing a letter home.
For the final section of the movement, Blitzstein returns to the fray, celebrating the triumph of good over evil, of right over fascism. But characteristically, he will not allow the triumph to be celebrated without acknowledging the cost, or the threat for the future. It is not an easy decision for the composer to make, for a symphony of this kind would seem to demand an unqualified celebration for its final pages, but he knew what he wanted to do. It is typical of Blitzstein that he would not allow himself to conclude the piece in any other way.
"I have taken a risk in the ending of the Airborne. Most symphonies, you know, end on a single note, maybe triumph, maybe tragedy. But a symphony about our times cannot have that luxury - you cannot do that and be honest with yourself. No victory is unqualified victory, no glory is unqualified glory. So the Airborne ends in conflict. There is a great paean of triumph over the enemy, sung by the chorus, but a single voice - the narrator - begins to jab in the note of warning! Warning!" (ex.4)
The Airborne Symphony falls into that dubious category of flawed masterpiece. At its best it is splendidly moving and powerful. But it has moments that are very difficult for a contemporary audience to accept, and Blitzstein's poetry sometimes falls short of the targets he sets for himself. It is unlikely that the work will ever be more than a very rare visitor to the concert hall. Yet its qualities are such that it deserves to be considered as more than just an interesting document of its time. With committed vocalists, a sympathetic conductor, and a charismatic Monitor, a performance would indeed be a thrilling experience.