Marc Blitzstein "CAIN" (1930)

“…Wild, dissonant, percussive”

This performance of CAIN, by Marc Blitzstein, constitutes a world premiere event of a work not fully heard since it was completed in 1930. The composer performed individual movements of this piano version of the ballet at various WPA venues and on the radio in the 1930s, but this is the first time all twelve movements, with singer, have been realized in a live performance.

The manuscript score languishes in the Blitzstein Collection at the Wisconsin Historical Society—a raw gem that has somehow fallen through the cracks. How could there be a major work by Blitzstein that has never been studied, performed, or recorded in its entirety?

There are many such works lost in the stacks of archives around the world, and yet, this one, by such a well-known composer, which centers on the universal theme of the biblical brothers, Cain and Abel, seems especially potent. There is a full score, orchestrated by the composer for the largest of orchestra forces, with lengthy descriptive notes, a piano reduction you will hear at this concert, and a partially completed “theatre” orchestration for a small ensemble. With all of this work completed, it seems that CAIN was a work dear to Blitzstein. Blitzstein biographer Eric Gordon has written that Blitzstein felt that CAIN was one of his “best” works overall.

Notes by the composer, taken directly from the manuscript score:

CAIN is a tragic ballet. Its philosophy is that we are all killers, and that murder is our heritage; its action depicts the killing of Abel by Cain, and the subsequent killing of Cain by his own descendant, Lamech. The first scene is in Eden. Then comes an interlude showing Cain wandering “over the face of the earth” as punishment for his crime. The second scene shows the sons of Cain, a murderous tribe, in their city Henoch; a riotous and drunken festival culminates in the slaying of Cain. Thus murder, begun in our world by Cain, is perpetuated through the ages: we are all the sons of Cain.

The ballet is divided into two scenes and an interlude; music is continuous throughout. Scene changes take place within the audience’s view; there is no curtain until the final one. The performers are a group of solo and ensemble dancers, and one singer, Jehovah, whose voice (baritone) is heard from an amplifier placed at the top-center of the auditorium, above the audience.


I. Eden. Pastoral calm, a suggestion of the evil to come. There is a primitive altar.

Interlude. Space—and endless road.

II. Henoch. City of wantonness, blood and lust.


Abel Adam Eve Cain Cain’s Wife


Henoch Irad Maviael Methusael Lamech

Noema The Stripling People of Henoch (ensemble)

Synopsis of Numbers.

I. Eden.

1. The Young Son. (Abel, then Adam and Eve) A few measures after the opening the curtain rises, disclosing Abel, who fondles a lamb he is about to sacrifice to Jehovah. He is a young wistful innocent and does not want to kill the lamb; he dances mournfully around, holding it in his arms. Adam and Eve appear. They urge Abel on and finally prepare to watch the ceremony.

2. Abel Offers the Lamb. (Abel) The fervent adolescent; he performs the rite simply, with great devotion. A “sign” from Jehovah indicates that the offering has been accepted. Exit Abel, Adam and Eve, right.

3. a. Cain and His Wife. (Pas de deux) They enter, left; Cain first, bearing the “fruits of the field,” arrogant, with passion in his eyes; his wife follows him, carrying a basket; she is a humble, shrill creature. They set down the baskets; he prepares to make his offering to Jehovah.

b. Cain’s Offering. (Cain.) It is a haughty, proud, yet earnest ritual; finished, he sinks upon his knees to await the result.

c. The Response. (Cain’s Wife.) She discovers that the offering has been rejected; her terror; she finally informs Cain, and flees.

4. The Two Brothers. (Cain, Abel.) Cain calls out Abel and kills him. This is to be a trance-like, hypnotic murder; we never know precisely at which point Abel dies. Cain goes into a blind rage, having been by turns sly and furious, and begins to beat Abel with his fists. He never stops beating him until the voice of Jehovah calls down.

5. Dialogue. (Jehovah, the voice; the answers are danced back by Cain, the mime.) Jehovah: “where is thy brother Abel?” Cain looks up: his eyes grow crafty: he mimes: “I know not; Am I my brother’s keeper?” He stands in front of Abel’s body, hiding it. Jehovah: “What hast thou done? The voice of thy brother’s blood crieth to me from the earth.” Cain now lets the body be exposed; Cain mimes defiantly: “Yes, I killed him.” Jehovah: “Now therefore, cursed shalt thou be upon the earth, which has opened her mouth and received the blood of thy brother at thy hand. When thou shalt till it, it shall not yield to thee its fruit.” Cain sneeringly indicates that the fruit he offered has already been rejected by Jehovah; to what purpose, then, further imprecations? Jehovah: “A fugitive and vagabond shalt thou be upon the earth.”

Now Cain becomes frightened; he visualizes (in mime form) his solitary wanderings over the earth, and the revenge sought upon him by other people for his crime. Jehovah: “But whosoever shalt kill Cain shall be punished sevenfold.” At this point the mark symbol of Jehovah’s wrath is put upon Cain, to distinguish him from all others. (This is the most important effect in the ballet, and must be carefully thought out by regisseur and choreographer. It is repeated in multiple form at the final curtain; it must be instantly understood but a shock.)

6. Imprecations and Sorrowing. (Adam, Eve, Cain’s Wife, Cain.) After the fury of Jehovah, the minute, insect-like fury of man, Eve wails; Adam storms; Cain’s wife waits, in an agony of apprehension; Cain himself is beaten. At length Adam and Even drive Cain and his wife out of Eden, and remain mourning their dead son.

7. Interlude. (Cain, Cain’s wife.) Cain wanders “over the face of the earth.” A slow, unvarying tread, at once collapse and resignation. (The lights grow gradually dimmer, so that at the finish there is practically no light. Scene in one.)

II. Henoch. City of Cain.

8. Building of the City. (Cain, then Henoch, then Irad, then Maviael, then Mathusael, then Lamech.) This is the scene of the generations: “Cain begot Henoch, Henoch begot Irad,” etc., etc. Cain pulls his son Henoch from the wings, he in turn pulls his son Irad out, and so on. They all do a grotesque dance, each in his own character, of the tribe of Cain. (This scene starts quite dark—spotlights for the soloists?—and grows lighter as the dance progresses. Behind the dancers the city is being built; huge blocks are placed one upon another; people emerge, more and more of them; until at the end of the dance, the stage is crowded and the light is dazzling. Cain should disappear during this scene.

9. Festival. (Ensemble.) The crowd in a drunken orgy celebrates the building of the city. (A stylized, not a realistic scene)

10. Dance of Noema. (Pas seul) The young daughter of Lamech dances for the crowd. She is an adolescent, the feminine counterpart of Abel (in the first half), but a bit more voluptuous and knowing. She plays small cymbals as she dances.

11. Slaying of Cain. (Cain, the Stripling, Lamech) Cain rushes out on the stage, in rags. He is pursued by a stripling, who, while hunting, has mistaken him for a wild beast. The youth motions to the people on the stage to kill Cain. Lamech, who has been watching Noema dance, turns, and kills Cain, who falls. They turn the body over, and discover by the “mark” that it is Cain who has been killed.

12. a. Lamech and the Stripling. (Pas de deux) The crowd, in fury because Cain has been murdered, turns upon Lamech, who rushes for the youth. The people stand by: Lamech flogs the youth who dies.

b. Finale. (Jehovah, Lamech, ensemble) Suddenly the voice of Jehovah again cries down: “What hast thou done?” Consternation: everybody tries to escape the voice, which goes on relentlessly: “Sevenfold vengeance shall be taken for Cain; but for Lamech seventy times sevenfold.” Lamech now receives the mark of Cain; the people sink to the ground, burying their faces in fear, Jehovah’s voice again: “Now therefore cursed shalt thou be:” The people slowly raise their heads (one group, then another group). On the brows of all is seen the mark of Cain. The curtain slowly falls, as new heads are raised, showing the awful mark, with Jehovah bellowing until the very end: “Now therefore cursed shalt thou be upon the earth!”

The End

To purchase the music score to CAIN, by Marc Blitzstein, for piano and baritone, please contact the American Composers Alliance, distributor, at info[at]composers.com

Marc Blitzstein (1905-1964) was born in Philadelphia, the son of affluent parents. His musical gifts were apparent at an early age, and he had performed a Mozart Piano Concerto by the time he was seven. He went on to study piano with Alexander Siloti, (a pupil of Liszt and Tchaikovsky), and made his professional concerto debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra in Liszt’s E flat Piano Concerto when he was 21.

After studying composition at the Curtis Institute of Music, he continued his studies in Europe with Arnold Schoenberg in Berlin (with whom he did not get on), and Nadia Boulanger in Paris (with whom he did).

Despite his later political beliefs, he was, in the early years of his career, a self-proclaimed and unrepentant artistic snob who firmly believed that true art was only for the intellectual elite. He was vociferous in denouncing composers - in particular Kurt Weill - whom he felt debased their standards to reach a wider public.

His works of this period, mostly pianistic vehicles such as the PIANO SONATA (1927), CAIN (1930), and the PIANO CONCERTO (1931) are typical of the Boulanger-influenced products of American modernism - strongly rhythmic (although in Blitzstein's case, not influenced by Jazz), and described by himself as "wild, dissonant, and percussive."

Yet, a new aesthetic was taking shape in the early thirties, one that sought to make art useful and communicative to all audiences, and not just the "anointed in Carnegie Hall". Along with contemporaries such as Steinbeck and Copland, Blitzstein came to believe that “art for art’s sake” was creating a vast gulf between artist and audience.

Fundamental to the formation of these beliefs was the critic and novelist Eva Goldbeck (born in Berlin in 1901).

They had met in 1928, and travelled together throughout Europe. She was the dedicatee of his CAIN, his ROMANTIC PIECE FOR ORCHESTRA, and his STRING QUARTET. They married in Philadelphia on March 2nd, 1933, Blitzstein's twenty-eighth birthday.

The political opera was THE CRADLE WILL ROCK, and the sensational premiere, under Orson Welles' direction, made Blitzstein a famous man. Finding inspiration from his newly discovered political consciousness, THE CRADLE WILL ROCK was followed by further political works, most notably the radio play I’VE GOT THE TUNE (1937), dedicated to Welles, and the musical play/opera NO FOR AN ANSWER, first performed in 1941.It was during this period that the endeavors of a brilliant young student came to his notice through a production at Harvard of THE CRADLE WILL ROCK. It was in 1939 that Blitzstein first met Leonard Bernstein, and the two formed a musical and personal bond of immense importance to both.

During World War Two, Blitzstein joined the US Army Eighth Air Force. He had no reservation about joining in the fight against fascism, and his abilities were used as music director of the American broadcasting station in London.

In 1958, Blitzstein received a subpoena to appear before the HUAC, the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Appearing first in a closed session, Blitzstein admitted his membership of the Communist Party (which had ceased in 1949), and, challenging the right of HUAC to question him at all, refused either to name names, or co-operate any further. He was recalled for a further public session, but after a day anxiously sitting in a waiting-room, he was not called to testify.

Blitzstein's last projects were two one act operas, IDIOTS FIRST, and THE MAGIC BARREL, both adaptations of short stories by Bernard Malamud, and SACCO AND VANZETTI, a commission from the Metropolitan Opera, New York.

Blitzstein was beset by thugs while on a long holiday in Martinique, and died, tragically, on January 22nd, 1964.

Leonard Bernstein, learning of Blitzstein's death as he was in his dressing-room preparing for a concert, dedicated the performance of the Eroica he was about to conduct to Blitzstein's memory, and wrote the following of his friend; "(He) was so close a personal friend that I cannot even begin to measure our loss of him as a composer. I can only think that I have lost a part of me, but I know also that music has lost an invaluable servant. His special position in musical theatre is irreplaceable."

Excerpted from author John Jansson, www.marcblitzstein.com, with permission.

Aaron Copland on Marc Blitzstein:

Marc Blitzstein once described himself as "addicted to the theatre." But he was much more than a theatre composer in the Broadway sense. He was an intellectual-complicated and difficult at times-and a greatly gifted musician. A piano prodigy in his teens, he also composed remarkably well at an early age. After studies with Scalero at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, and later with Boulanger and Schoenberg in Europe, he was well on the way to being a leader of his generation as a concert composer.

Gradually, for reasons best known to himself, he turned his attention to that most resistant of all musical media - the musical stage. His purpose was not merely to write the words and music of effective theatre pieces; he wanted to shape each piece for his own ends, to shape it for human ends. He took a certain pleasure in needling his audiences, in telling unpleasant truths straight to their faces. To sing these truths only gave them greater poignancy. The moral fervor that fired his work in the depression-haunted ‘Thirties resulted in the writing of The Cradle Will Rock. The opening night of The Cradle made history; none of us who were there will ever forget it.

His later operas, No for an Answer and Regina, were musically more ambitious, with a broader dramatic range. They gave full play to his brilliant gift for musical characterization. He could be sarcastic, parodistic and even derisive at times; but he could also be gentle, tender and tragic. Most important of all, he was the first American composer to invent a vernacular musical idiom that sounded convincing when heard from the lips of the man-in-the-street. The taxi driver, the pan-handler, the corner druggist were given voice for the first time in the context of serious musical drama. This is no small accomplishment, for without it no truly indigenous opera is conceivable. Blitzstein would have been the first to acknowledge his debt to Brecht and Weill, but the fact remains that he gave their theatre an American imprint, an American "tone."

Blitzstein’s life exemplified a truism that needs to be re-emphasized today, namely, that "every artist has the right to make his art out of an emotion that really moves him." Those of our composers who are attracted by the immense terrain of new techniques now available to them would do well to consider that humanity’s struggle for a fuller life may be equally valid as a moving force in the future history of our music. It was the basic motivation for Marc Blitzstein’s art, and resulted in a contribution to American music that is yet to be fully evaluated.

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