Unalike. Undervalued.

The organisation — or whatever it happens to be! — that is responsible for the stream of musical birthday and other anniversary information that pops up on my screen every day is obviously able to access some terrific photographic as well as biographical archives. Just this afternoon, I saw two excellent photos that I’d never encountered before — of two composers whose birthdays I’d never realised were on the same day…

The first thing I saw was this image of the American composer Marc Blitzstein (1905-64)…

blitzstein

Now, I don’t know how many dozen times it is that I’ve mentioned Blitzstein’s name in conversation, down the years; but I stress that I’m not exaggerating when I say that in all but a couple of cases the exchange has proceeded along more or less the following lines…

“I’m very curious about some of those vanished American figures — like Marc Blitzstein, for example…”

“Wasn’t he the guy who was murdered by three sailors in a homophobic assault…?”

“Yes, apparently. But I’m wondering what his music is like…”

“Didn’t he write The Cradle Will Rock…?”

“Yes. Have you heard it?”

“No.”

To me, there’s a particular sadness that attaches to a situation in which everyone knows all about how and why you died, but has no more than the vaguest notion about how and why you lived. So let’s spend a little time on this — for Blitzstein’s sake…

First, here is a video that tells the story of Blitzstein’s most-heard-about work: the Depression-era ‘labor musical’ The Cradle Will Rock — described, here and there, as ‘the only musical ever shut down by the US government for subversive content’…

There are two musical extracts from the work in this next recording — along with Blitzstein’s own recollections…

And if all of that whets your appetite for a more extended introduction to the show and the age into which it was born, it turns out that the impressive 1999 historical drama film — written, produced and directed by Tim Robbins — is currently on YouTube. And for readers who think they aren’t all that interested in the topic, let me shyly point out that each and every one of you who happens not to be a multi-millionaire still needs to watch it all the way through: since the post-1945 social-democratic settlement is now dead and gone, and the gloves of neo-feudalism are well and truly off, every single thing that concentrated private capital did to those people and their society, it’s going to do to you

But having ‘held open the door’, as it were, for this musical, I must retire from the scene and leave you to evaluate it for yourselves: the sad fact is that I have a powerful allergy to ‘the musical stage’ — its sound and its conventions — and as a result, I have to recuse myself from any discussion that touches upon a musical’s musical value. No, I’m not kidding: I only need to hear 30 seconds of Les Miserables before I break out in lumps — and even though I did once orchestrate a Sondheim song so that a girlfriend could have a proper accompaniment to sing to, the experience left me a broken man. So when it comes to something like The Cradle Will Rock I know perfectly well that I’m in no position whatsoever to pass an opinion — all the less so since I’ve never encountered a recording of the whole thing in the proper orchestration.

So, is it a work whose interest is more historical than artistic, whose significance is more sociological than musical (if you’ll allow me to make these distinctions)…? I really have no idea — and no way of getting one, some future ‘musical theatre epiphany’ aside. Ordinarily, I might view the seemingly universal neglect of pretty well everything else in Blitzstein’s output as offering at least a possible hint that his stuff isn’t musically very interesting; but in his specific case, I refuse to do so.

And the reason for my refusal is connected with my awareness of an aspect of US history and culture that we are not ‘officially’ supposed to know about, and which most people therefore don’t.

These days, the normal ‘educated’ Westerner is familiar with at least some elements of the US’s unending history of race war. (Founded in genocide and enriched by slavery, the nation now just about holds off complete social fragmentation and collapse by means of a precarious balancing-act between notional equality and naked discrimination.) What is far less widely known is the US’s unending history of class war: some of my most highly educated friends, reading these lines, will find their eyebrows going up when I now point out that serious analyses are not unknown which present the US as having had the bloodiest and most violent labour history of any nation in the industrialised world.

Awareness of this aspect of US history — involving, in the early twentieth century, decades of both state and private violence against workers demanding basic rights, entitlements and protections — has been completely erased from the ‘social consciousness’ as represented in anglophone news media and the normal run of corporate-owned mass-entertainment products; the resulting historical and conceptual vacuum has been filled with refracted images of ‘the American dream’ (so named, in the opinion of the late George Carlin, because ‘you have to be asleep to believe it‘). In the fewest possible words: not only does the business class that owns and controls almost every aspect of life in the US have no interest at all in reminding people of anything connected with a time and context in which appalling conditions led ordinary people to agigate for ‘sit-down strikes’ and ‘worker ownership’; but the elite project to toxify the very notion of ‘organised labour’ has been so successful that many millions of Americans now regard the idea of a ‘labour union’ as something malign and pernicious. (“Unions? They’re unnecessary. They’re anti-American. They never really mattered. They’re always crooked, anyway. Hell, did you never see On the Waterfront…?”)

So don’t be expecting to see a corporate-dominated society with a corporate-dominated psychology giving Blitzstein a fair crack of the music-cultural whip any time soon. And for those very same reasons, don’t expect his mature work — whatever its quality! — to start showing up on YouTube in meaningful quantities: it just isn’t going to be done. This ‘Serenade for String Quartet’ from 1932 — when he was just 27 —  is literally the best and latest I could come up with. Personally, I think it’s pretty intriguing. If only someone would record and upload his incidental music to King Lear from 1950…

Blitzstein was, for a time, a member of the Communist Party — and, as a result, eventually attracted the attention of the twisted totalitarian excrescence that was the ‘House Un-American Activities Committee’. So far as I know, the British composer Robert Simpson (1921-97) was never an official communist; in the early 1990s (when I was able to get to know him a little, as a result of working for his publisher), he was more of an ‘old-Labour’/CND socialist-pacifist: I may be wrong, but if he was around today, I can’t imagine that he would disagree much with Jeremy Corbyn, or indeed with me. Here’s his photo, as circulated online this afternoon as the second of the two ‘birthday images’ that I saw…

robertsimpson

If anyone were to ask me what was the most lastingly influential thing I took away from the dozens of hours I spent talking to Simpson in the early 1990s, I would actually have to say that there were two.

First, the fact that a man so passionately and actively committed to supposedly ‘political’ ideals (socialism and pacifism are only defined as ‘political’ because greed and violence write the dictionaries) was someone who mostly kept this side of himself separate from his compositional work: his Tenth String Quartet (1983) has the title ‘For Peace’, but that’s about as far as it goes. The contrast with Blitzstein here will be obvious.

The second thing would be the following story — for a proper understanding of which you need to remember the women’s peace camp that, for nearly two decades (1981-2000), existed on the perimeter of the Greenham Common airbase in Berkshire, home (for around eight years) to 96 nuclear-armed cruise missiles belonging to the neo-imperial gangster-state that was and is the USA.

As a dedicated campaigner for peace, Simpson had made Sunday visits to the Greenham camp more than once (I think the distance between Greenham and his old house in Chearsley was about 45 miles) — but, as this was very stressedly a women’s protest, he had pondered the fact that his male presence would not be at all welcome. (I hope I am remembering these details correctly: someone please tell me if I’m wrong about anything!) Since he was not a very tall composer, however, he would simply put a wide scarf or shawl over his head and, confident that everyone would now assume he was a woman (as long as he didn’t speak in that famously gravelly voice…), could join his wife Angela in handing out hot soup and other comforts from the back of their VW camper van.

Now here comes the occasion that provides the point of the story. In connection with one visit, Simpson told me that, before leaving the camp, he and others had gone around the area with bin-bags, making sure that all the day’s litter and other leavings had been picked up. When they was sure that the place was clean, they put all the bags in the van, and he drove home — where, that very night, on the TV news, he saw a report from a guy standing by the fence … who was shown to be ankle-deep in all sorts of garbage and filth, some of which he took the trouble to describe in suitably revolting detail. In other words, after the Simpsons’ departure, someone or other had brought a van-load of horrible muck to the clean site and dumped it there specially so that people from the media would have something disgusting to stand in while they talked about what the women were doing…

Yes, dear reader, it was Robert Simpson — composer of 11 symphonies, 5 concertos (yes, 5: one of them was withdrawn) and 15 string quartets — who gave me my very first lesson in why no-one should ever take ‘the news’ at face value 

If you want to observe Simpson in his ‘day job’ as BBC radio producer and broadcaster, here is a recording of him talking about his childhood discovery of Anton Bruckner:

But what of his own music? Well, as in the case of Blitzstein, there isn’t a great amount of Simpson currently being performed, recorded, or broadcast, and there doesn’t seem to be a huge amount on YouTube. What’s worse, the commercial Simpson recordings do not always do justice to the music (and the live performances have often been pitifully inadequate: Simpson must be one of the unluckiest of all composers). But I can use one of the online uploads to show Simpson’s ability to produce — when the need arose! — ideas of powerful, even Beethovenian terseness. Here are five very short examples of what I mean, all from the same work — the Fifth Symphony, completed in 1972 — and all concerned with the same idea…

From the exposition section: the idea first crystallises from shapes and contours boiling in a cauldron of chaotic energy…

The shape reappears in the development. First once…

… and then a second time…

And then, of course, there is its reappearance within the recapitulation…

And then there is its ‘cyclic’ role within the finale. The first of its two developed reappearances you can hear here…

… and the second you can hear by actually listening to the whole piece: it plays a pivotal role, and I’m not going to ‘give the game away’ by playing it here.

So here is the whole piece… You know, many years ago, Bayan Northcott (remember when a British newspaper could employ a serious, thoughtful music critic who had actually studied composition with an important teacher and produced performable works…?) called this Simpson symphony ‘a blockbuster’. He wasn’t kidding — and he wasn’t wrong

If only Bob were still here — for us all to wish him a ‘happy birthday’…

MD

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