||I: Moderato molto - allegro
|II: Largo assai
Adagio ma non troppo - Allegro non troppo
|New York, April 1935;
Norman Cazden (Soloist) with Marc Blitzstein (Piano reduction of score)
|First Complete Performance
||New York, January 1987,
Michael Barrett (Piano) The Brooklyn Philharmonic conducted by Lukas Foss
Blitzstein's Piano Concerto represents the summation of what might be described as his "early period" . A serious and striking work, the 26 year old composer handles the large canvas with confidence and invention. And, at nearly 30 minutes duration, it is Blitzstein's most extended instrumental composition.
He began work on the piece in March of 1931. With the Piano Sonata of 1927 already under his belt, the Concerto was the next logical step for the pianist-composer to display his wares. His confidence in the work was apparent from the outset, describing it in a letter to Eva as "monstrous, it is so beautiful". Working sporadically on the piece through the summer, it was completed in November of that year, and dedicated to Arlene Erlanger, a patron.
Yet despite Blitzstein's confidence in the piece and the concerto's readily apparent merits, the opportunity for a premiere proved impossible to come by. Despite interest in the piece from Reiner (who described it as "one of the best and most expertly done works by an American" ), Goossens (who found it "stimulating . . . refreshing" ), and Stokowski (a rather dubious promise to play it through at a rehearsal), nobody wanted to take up the Concerto.
It was not until 1935 that a performance did take place, and then only in a two-piano version. With the composer playing the orchestral part, and Norman Cazden as soloist, it formed part of an all-Blitzstein Composer's Forum-Laboratory concert in New York on April 15th of that year. Also on the programme was the Piano Sonata (played by Blitzstein), the String Quartet and a movement from the Serenade for String Quartet (played by the Modern Art Quartet), and three songs, sung by Mordecai Bauman. Despite a favourable reception, the Concerto was then returned to the drawer where it was to languish for some fifty years.
Of course, by 1935, Blitzstein's political and musical allegiance was changing, and clearly the Concerto, seeming to be both "modernist" and "elitist" , no longer had any relevance to the path that Blitzstein was now forging for himself. It is, therefore, not surprising that the Concerto, along with other works from the late 20's and early 30's, held little interest for the composer, and fell into neglect.
Indeed, for the rest of his life, his attitude toward the Concerto remained ambivalent. When, in 1956, he was asked to select a programme of his works for a recorded compilation, his list of suggested works included the Concerto alongside the far better known REGINA and THE CRADLE WILL ROCK. Yet, an inquiry from his friend David Diamond only three years later in 1959 regarding a possible performance of the Concerto was met with a strongly negative reaction, and the assertion that he didn't want it done.
And it remained undone until, almost exactly twenty two years after his death, it was finally performed in its full orchestral guise in New York in January 1986, with Michael Barratt as soloist accompanied by Lukas Foss and the Brooklyn Philharmonic (These same forces went on to record the work, follow this link for details). The warm critical reaction accorded to what is undoubtedly the finest work of his early period, justified Blitzstein's pride in his composition, even if it was fifty-five years late.
A standard symphony orchestra is used, from which Blitzstein omits all percussion instruments. Given the propensity for his music of that time to have a strongly percussive nature, this omission may seem surprising, yet the dry pungent textures and the music's angularity drive the Concerto with a surging rhythmic vitality.
Blitzstein himself described the concerto as following "the Nineteenth century model", but this is a concerto entirely born out of a Twentieth century sensibility. Like Britten and Copland, pianist-composers who also wrote their only piano concerto at the age of 26, and with whom Blitzstein shares many musical, political and personal characteristics, one senses a questioning of the role of the virtuoso concerto, and a struggle to find a new manner for the expression of virtuosity by the avoidance of vacuous display.
Thus, Blitzstein's "Nineteenth century model" is clad in music of the age of steel, and in it a humanity seeking to come to terms with the impersonal brutality of the mechanical age. For the music, freely dissonant and written without key signature, is strongly tonal, with the outer movements being centred on F, and the central movement in the key of C. If the harmonic language is typical of American "modernist" works of the period, one finds in Blitzstein's writing a vocal grace and tenderness that ameliorates the harsher percussive moments.
It is ironic that the most mechanical instrument in his concerto should have the most delicate, heartfelt - and human - music, for the piano's role in this piece is more commentator than combatant. The piano writing is highly virtuosic, but it neither engages in mere display, nor attempts battle with the orchestra. Indeed, many of the work's key moments are given to the piano in isolation.
And it is in this isolation that the Concerto begins. One might almost say desolation, as the solo piano attempts to create coherence from its fragments of melody and rhythm (ex. 1).
Imperceptibly the strands come together to form the pulse of the main allegro, which commences with the horns barking out a strutting first subject (ex. 2) of a modified sonata form into which the slow introduction reappears on two further occasions.
Its first reappearance follows a powerful climax at the halfway point of the movement, and again it is the solo piano that takes control of the mood, seeming to encourage the music of the prelude from the orchestra, now presented with greater assurance and warmth than at first. The introduction makes its final reappearance just before the coda, following a passage in which the energy and violence of the music seems to have dashed itself to pieces. Now the calm of this music seems to be the only option, a touch of warmth and humanity.
But as the music begins to turn in on itself, a resolution seems to have moved even further away. So, for the first time in the piece, the piano violently interrupts to launch a furious coda, forcing a powerful resolution in F major, which concludes the movement.
But the questions of humanity and brutality have not been resolved, and it is only through the music of the second movement that a journey from darkness to light is made. And dark it is at the beginning, with the deep melancholy of the music heightened by Blitzstein's orchestration of Bassoon, Clarinet, Horn and lower strings. These suitably Tchaikovskian colours open the way for a bleak stuttering piano solo, seeming to trip over its own dissonance (ex. 3).
A quiet dialogue ensues, yet it is only when a gentle arpeggio figure, recalling the very beginning of the concerto, is uttered by the piano, that the way toward light and warmth is found.
In one of the most lyrical passages he was ever to write (ex. 4), Blitzstein conjures a magical feeling of humanity and strength, rising to a climax of great affirmation at which the piano's rapturous soliliquy is joined by a solo trumpet.
For the Twentieth century composer writing a concerto, it is the finale that poses the most problems. A spectacular display of pianistic pyrotechnics is what is demanded by the "Nineteenth century model"; and yet that would be entirely inappropriate to the guiding aesthetic of Blitzstein's concerto. So fireworks physical are discarded in favour of fireworks intellectual in the rigour of a double passacaglia, in which two themes are developed and combined in numerous constantly evolving sets of variations.
These smaller units combine to form the four larger sections that comprise the finale. The first being suitably tense and stern, the constraints of the form being a strong restraint on the music. This subsides into a softer muted section, that finally gives way to an extended piano cadenza.
The final strongly rhythmic section rises to a powerful climax, (ex. 5) which would appear to be the end, but the last word is given to the piano, where, all the passion and anger having been spent, a final cadence, pianissimo, brings this marvellous work to a softly glowing conclusion. (ex. 6)