I'm a sucker for aeronautics.
Over winter break, I spent some time at both the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., and the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. I looked up at the very X-1 that Chuck Yeager took across the sound barrier in 1947. I stood underneath a real Saturn V rocket — the same kind that propelled Neil Armstrong to the moon in 1969. And I thought about my favorite pilots, Joe and Brian Hackett.
Yeager, Armstrong, and the Hackett brothers all pushed the outside of the envelope, taking their craft(s) to the limit and just a bit beyond. With his Airborne Symphony (1943-6), the American composer Marc Blitzstein (1905-64) seems to have done something similar to the symphonic envelope.
Our first unsung symphony of the new year stands out not just because it's actually very sung (and spoken, with a prominent narrator). It also contains choral outbursts, scary instrumental interludes, bizarre marches, and love songs. And the Airborne is the only symphony we've dealt with so far that's specifically about flight — both the history (and future) of human flight and the experiences of war pilots. The composer of The Cradle Will Rock — already well-versed in writing politically-charged music — knew something about all this. He served with the Air Force in London during WWII and got time off to produce the Airborne, for which he wrote both the music and text. When the manuscript was lost, Blitzstein rewrote it on Leonard Bernstein's urging.1
The Airborne officially has three movements, but each movement is broken up into several discrete numbers — our first clue that this is as much a mini three-act-musical play as a symphony. (Howard Clurman used the apt adjective "Broadway" to describe this piece.2) The first movement covers humanity's long-held dreams of flying; the second reveals the dangers; and the third draws a middle ground (or airspace).
The symphony begins with a heroic horn gesture that hints at the majesty of reaching the sky and ushers in the "Theory of Flight." (That theory is delineated by the "monitor,"3 or narrator — here, Robert Shaw, in this recording with Leonard Bernstein and the New York City Symphony Orchestra from 1946, featuring tenor Charles Holland and baritone Walter Scheff). The rising major second on "airborne" in the chorus is based on that opening horn motif — just without the middle note. Here's how the symphony opens:
In the "Ballad of History and Mythology," Blitzstein then takes us from ancient Mesopotamia through the 19th century. It's a laundry list of air-travel misadventures that Blitzstein wrote, he said, "for a negro voice" — Charles Holland in this recording — "because of what it might lend to the quality of" the number.4 Blitzstein's casting choice, and the blues-tinged melody, creates some distance between the white pilots whom the symphony's narrative privileges (and indeed whom the whole mainstream history of aviation privileges) and the black "character" who here is used just to set the stage. (Later, in the third movement's "Ballad of the Bombardier, we learn about a "white-faced nineteen-year-old" — certainly not one of the Tuskegee Airmen.) Here's how the "Ballad of History and Mythology" starts, and at the end of the excerpt, note the return of the "Airborne" theme:
We then land at Kitty Hawk for the Wright Brothers 1903 flight. The big first movement concludes with a soaring, mostly triumphant choral outburst of "Men are airborne!", whose tune plays on the opening's major-second twist. But an ominous dissonance strikes before the final chord, signaling that what lies ahead in the sky isn't all fun and games:
The second movement jolts us to reality and to the German side during WWII, as a chorus shouts robotically and joylessly about the joys of supporting Hitler. This grotesque march may have gotten a laugh, but to me, it seems just terrifying enough not to be funny.
But what follows is truly terrifying — a three-minute instrumental bombing of allied cities. (We know this because of the list of towns that follows, in the moving "Ballad of the Cities.") The theory of flight is now a full-fledged theory of fight.
Things lighten up in the final movement, with the jocular "Ballad of Hurry-Up" and its catchy (though not as catchy as the Village People) refrain "In the Air Force." The song pokes fun at how missions apparently begin in a hurry and then get delayed or canceled as pilots wait to take off.
That song would fit perfectly on Broadway, as would the "Ballad of the Bombardier" that follows. Here, a baritone, over a light wind accompaniment, tells of that nineteen-year-old soldier writing home to his Emily. As the soldier's voice takes over, the switch from winds to piano accompaniment brings us painfully but sweetly into the realm of the intimately personal. It's a rare moment of introspection in this rather outgoing symphony.
(By the way, Emily is a great musical name, as these Zombies and Art Brut classics demonstrate.)
A frantic "Chorus of the Rendezvous" returns us abruptly to the world of planes and guns and bombs. And the final number, about an "Open Sky," offers a new theory of flight that can never really come true. The chorus calls for the world to "Free the air for the Airborne," but the narrator cautions, "Not without warning!" Which really means not at all.
Blitzstein chose his subject well — human beings love flying and they love war. All this symphony needs is a 21st-century update, or a sequel, to navigate it to the standard repertory. Meanwhile, I'll settle for Wings reruns on USA.
— Matthew Mugmon
1. From Steve Ledbetter's liner notes to the BMG Classics release of the recording on CD, as Leonard Bernstein—The Early Years III, 5-6.
2. Ledbetter, 6.
3. Blitzstein used this term because "nearly all his lines are couched in the imperative mood." From Leonard Lehrman, Marc Blitzstein: a Bio-Bibliography, 366.
4. Lehrman, 366.