He took piano and organ lessons from an early age, then went on to study composition at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia and piano in New York. At fifteen he was a soloist with the Philadelphia Orchestra.
In 1926 he went to Europe to further his musical studies. He studied composition with Nadia Boulanger at the Boulangerie in Paris and with Arnold Schonberg in Berlin. After his return to the United States, he devoted himself almost entirely to composing works of “social consciousness” of the genre produced in German by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, whose Threepenny Opera he adapted and translated into English with enormous success.
Blitzstein adopted the structure of the commercial musical, complete with dialogue, set numbers, and various blends of drama and music. He even introduced certain cinematic techniques; in this he anticipated Gian Carlo Menotti, yet was subtler and more expressive.
Regina, a musical revue based on Lillian Heilman’s drama, "The Little Foxes", was expanded into a full-scale opera. First performed in Boston in 1949, it enjoyed great success.
Apart from numerous other musical plays, his oeuvre includes: a ballet suite; an opera-ballet; an oratorio, "The Condemned", Percussion Music for Piano and other piano pieces; numerous orchestral works, including Freedom, a symphonic poem; a string quartet; and compositions for various vocal and instrumental combinations, among them Cantata (This Is the Garden) for chorus and orchestra, which was performed by the Interracial Fellowship Chorus in New York in 1957.
He also wrote film music and incidental music for several Shakespearean and other plays.
Blitzstein was a stimulating teacher, lecturer, and critic. He sparkled as a satirist and was a talented and witty commentator on political and social issues. Through his music he would often give vent to his proletarian sympathies and democratic ideals. He disowned almost all his early works, which tended to be so “abstract” as to be discordant and violent. His operas, which he called “plays in music,” were conceived for small, cabaret-type theaters. The first of these was The Cradle Will Rock (1936), a satire with tragic undertones, followed by No for an Answer, a short satirical tragedy.
Quotes from others about the person
In the words of W. Mellers, he created “a kind of ‘American recitative’ in which ... he reveals the roots of some features of jazz in the American dialect... this vocal line provides a link between musically accompanied speech and song ... He combined Menotti’s stage sense with Gershwin’s instinctive musicianship.”
Married Eva Goldbeck, March 2, 1933.