Leonard Bernstein’s work with the NBC Symphony 1946 testifies to his several, impressive musical gifts.

Bernstein in the 1940s, Volume I = BLITZSTEIN: Airborne Symphony; GILLIS: Motor Perpetuo; RAVEL: Piano Concerto in G Major – Charles Holland, tenor/ Walter Scheff, baritone/ Marc Blitzstein, The Monitor (Narrator)/ NBC Symphony and Chorus/ Leonard Bernstein, piano and conductor – Pristine Audio PASC 526, 74:20 [www.pristinbeclassical.com] ****: 

In the course of my extended “interview” with Leonard Bernstein (9 December 1977), he glibly called Lukas Foss and Marc Blitzstein (1905-1964) two of the “most self-destructive people I have known.” The pot and the kettle?  At any rate, on 1 April 1946, leading the New York City Symphony, Bernstein had premiered the Airborne Symphony of Blizstein, a kind of hybrid symphonic oratorio that celebrates the lure and power of flight, combined with the destructive capacity of air power.  Blitzstein had served in the Army Air Force in WW II, and the music combines a jingoistic tribute to those forces combating Nazism and the Axis powers while offering cautionary advice that aerial bombardment should serve only as a last resort for global conflict.

The narrator for this broadcast performance of 27 May 1946, (the Monitor), Blitzstein,  in the first movement surveys quickly the history of human flight–each of the three movements divides into four sections–then the work shifts to the present, and we hear of the evil Axis and its mournful catalogue of cities destroyed by bombs. The final movement introduces the Allied Air Force, with the droll “Ballad of Hurry-Up” and the poignant “Emily,” in which a corpsman writes a letter to his girlfriend back home. Blitzstein’s innate orphism resists the temptation to gloat over superior armaments. As the work ends with the Allied victory, the Monitor shouts a repeated warning to humanity, that aerial bombardment may be necessary at times, but it hardly represents Mankind at his best.

For Blitzstein, “the story” reigns as most important, the combination of myth and history, beginning with Icarus. When the wax tallow of his wings melted down, the audacious Icarus tumbled down into the sea. We hurry to the era of the balloon, the glider, anything that fulfilled our compulsion to fly, since we had “wings on the brain.” A windy day in 1903 North Carolina featured a contraption from two brothers, Wright, at Kitty Hawk.  The music becomes a potent, driven fanfare with high woodwinds. Now we are airborne.

But men come out of the sky to threaten, the Enemy. Pearl Harbor—“a name like a scourge.” Blitzstein invokes woodwinds discords akin to Bartok and Weill, while the chorus calls out “Hitler!” and sings in martial staccato while Blitzstein reads a series of “Aryan” directives. “The same spirit; the same blood! Sieg heil!”  In “Threat and Approach” Blitzstein manages to sound much like Shostakovich. “Ballad of the Cities” provides a litany of destruction, starting with Guernica. “The house is down and bleeding… are you coming?”

Part 3, “Air Force Ballad of Hurry-Up,” extols British and American pilots to be about their business in “perfect flying weather.” “Ballad of the Bombardier” provides a slow movement, a bluesy nocturne in a patented American style. The bombardier writes his beloved Emily of his duty the night before his mission. “You are my heart’s one cry.” The “Chorus of the Rendezvous’ delivers the action-scene, the precision of the Bombardier’s penmanship now transferred to Enemy targets. “Glory!” sounds the male chorus to announce “The Open Sky.”  The Monitor reminds us that victory and thankfulness are “not without grief.”

Don Gillis served as producer of the NBC Symphony 1944-1954. A prolific composer, he based his Motor Perpetuo on a popular tune, “In my merry Oldsmobile,” written by Gus Edwards in 1905. Bernstein’s debut performance (2 June 1946) occurs on the same program with the ensuing Ravel Piano Concerto. The jaunty, raucous piece celebrates our ongoing and eternal love of the automobile in brash and brassy style.  Ben Grauer introduces the gay and brilliant Ravel Concerto in G, a piece Bernstein would serve often in the dual role and pianist and conductor, even so far back as St. Louis.  Despite some snarls and slips in the clarinet part, the performance glides along, strolls, and strides in fine fettle, especially the NBC trumpet. Bernstein’s brisk pianism and crisp coordination with the NBC maintains the same athletic standard hi predecessor at the New York Philharmonic, Dimitri Mitropoulos, had established in his several recorded appearances. The sound reproduction from Andrew Rose and his XR process provides living, vital, musical documents.

—Gary Lemco