No Song is Safe From Us

No Song Is Safe From Us - The NYFOS Blog
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Widely unknown but celebrated by NYFOS, Marc Blitzstein just might be my all-time favorite 20th century song composer. Yes—you read that correctly. I like Blitzstein more than Bernstein, the Beatles, Britten, Barber, and any other 20th century composer that starts with a Bravo or an Alpha, Charlie, or Delta for that matter. My “Songs in the Key of Steven Blier” binder is filled with Blitzstein songs—seven, in fact, as of my last count.

I love Blitzstein’s music for so many reasons but paramount among these is this human-like, real world quality that I find in almost all of his songs. Listening to his music feels like an extended respite from everyday life, an opportunity to laugh or a chance to consider a new perspective. I often turn to Blitzstein’s songs when I need a piece for a recital that feels approachable. As an example, I immediately turned to Blitzstein when asked to return to my old high school in Tennessee for a performance during assembly. Of course, I found room for some Schubert too, but I knew that while they might oooh and ahhh over the virtuosic music and totally foreign language being sung at them, there was no way I was going to get a group of two hundred, teenage guys to sit up and listen without offering them a line or two of Blitzstein. 

While I consider so much of what Blitzstein composed to be so effective in its simplicity, he was quite the prodigious musician. By the time he was seven he had played almost all of the Mozart piano concertos. As a student at Curtis, he studied with Alexander Siloti (a renowned pedagogue and student of Franz Liszt) and at twenty-one, made his professional concerto debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra playing Liszt’s E flat piano concerto. From what I have read about Blitzstein’s life, those who knew him well saw someone that was consistently unsatisfied with being good at just one thing —he had to excel at everything. In fact, many of his professors at Curtis believed him to be far more naturally gifted than fellow classmates Samuel Barber and Aaron Copland. Kind of a shocking thing to take in on a first read! 

Unfortunately, Blitzstein’s obsessive, perfectionistic attributes led him much further down a path of frustrations and failures more than it did a path of success. There were many times that he would write a show, only to see it get two or three performances due to his obsessive re-writing all the way through the tech process and up into opening night. And sometimes he just had terrible luck—such as the time a set piece fell and killed one of the actors at the start of one one of his newest shows. Many called him a failure, but I just see him as so utterly human—a lifelong artist that had his fair share of bad luck and detrimental habits but never stopped trying to get his music and ideas out into the world. 

I first started singing Blitzstein songs the summer after my freshman year of college. Steve had emailed me a bunch of possibilities after a coaching one day and I proceeded to learn them all ahead of a summer at the Seagle Music Colony in the Adirondack Mountains of New York. None of the staff at Seagle had heard of Blitzstein or his songs but I began to get frequent requests to return to them again and again for audition classes or donor functions.


Today’s song of the day features the Blitzstein song I hold most dear—”Stay in my Arms“. The song is a beautiful love ballad which Blitzstein, although gay, wrote for his wife Eva Goldbeck who at the time was suffering from an illness that would eventually take her life. In it, he pleads for her to get better, to stay with him. What I love most about this song is the timelessness of its message. In our world that is far from peaceful, that struggles with achieving justice and building understanding across differences—we need a song like “Stay in my Arms” to remind us to stick close to those we love most. To cling tightly. To keep fighting for what is important. To carry on. 

Today’s recording? Steven Blier and William Sharp, of course.

And as you listen, you must read the beautiful lyrics by Mr. Blitzstein himself. They are really quite special. 

In this great city where will I find one peaceful, pretty spot where noise is not?
A bit of quiet, untouched by all the hectic riot would help things a lot.
Our temples automatic – science reveals.
Our pace is acrobatic – life moves on wheels.
Here’s my admission –
I haven’t very much ambition for the mad existence of our time.

Let’s just be old fashioned.
Let’s just be lazy.
The world’s gone crazy
so stay in my arms.

My most dear; come close dear.
Don’t be afraid to.
My hands were made to shield you from alarm.

What’s all the shooting for?
Where are they rushing?
Whom are they rooting for?
Whom are they crushing?
Forget them or let them grow dim and hazy.
The world’s gone crazy
so stay in my arms.

Let’s lie here
year by year midfield and daisy.
The world’s gone crazy
so stay in my arms.

While millions of millions go wildly prancing.
I’ll be romancing a song of your charms.
They dance a dance that kills – mad and defenseless.
Such jumping Jacks and Jills.
It’s all so senseless.

I love you.
You love me.
That much is plain, dear.
The world’s insane, dear:
So stay in my Arms!

Thomas West

Named by President Obama as a Presidential Scholar in the Arts, Thomas West is a creative artist and entrepreneur making waves for his dual career as a renowned baritone and nonprofit executive. Performance highlights have included a Tanglewood Music Center fellowship, covering Silvio in Pagliacci with Opera San Jose, Morales in Carmen with the Chattanooga Symphony and Opera, Brahms’ Ein Deutsches Requiem with the Mississippi Symphony, the world premiere of Wayne Oquin’s Meditation in Alice Tully Hall and multiple performances with Cantori New York and the Chautauqua Institution. As a producer, he has led over forty artists on tours to Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, New Hampshire and most recently Kigali, Rwanda. He is currently the Executive Director of The Peace Studio – a NY-based nonprofit dedicated to advancing the work of world-class young artists, journalists and storytellers as peace builders. Thomas appeared with NYFOS earlier this season for its NYFOS@Orient residency and can be seen on March 17 at Merkin Hall for this year’s Caramoor Vocal Rising Stars Program.

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