The Airborne Symphony

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The Airborne Symphony (also known as Symphony: The Airborne) is a work by American composer Marc Blitzstein for narrator, vocal soloists, male chorus, and large orchestra that premiered on 1946. The symphony uses music that the United States Army Air Forces, in which Blitzstein served during the World War II, originally commissioned for use in film.


Blitzstein began the war as a member of the U.S. Eighth Army Air Force's film division in London, England, working as a composer, scriptwriter, and translator. He was chosen to score a film on the history of aviation through his promotion to corporal in January 1943. Blitzstein also began work on the orchestral poem Freedom Morning that summer for eventual performance in Royal Albert Hall.

Work on the Airborne score continued into 1944, with Blitzstein providing other services to the U.S. Army. By mid-1944, he had been promoted to sergeant and became music director of the American Broadcasting Service. The original film project did not come to fruition and Blitzstein, who composed his score for a large orchestra and male chorus, did not have the needed manpower for a wartime concert.

Blitzstein returned to the United States in May 1945. His score of The Airborne had been lost en route from England, but he was able to play sections of the work on piano for conductor Leonard Bernstein. Bernstein enthusiastically arranged its premiere for April 1946 and Blitzstein rewrote the score from memory. The original score was recovered, but Blitzstein preferred the newer version.

The symphony was first performed by the New York City Symphony Orchestra under Bernstein on April 1, 1946. Renowned filmmaker Orson Welles served as narrator; Charles Holland was tenor soloist and Walter Scheff was baritone soloist with men from the Robert Shaw Collegiate Chorale.


The Airborne Symphony, while having symphonic elements, models itself largely after the choral cantata. The symphony is divided into three parts, with each part divided into subtitled sections. The Airborne is a highly dramatic work that connects the birth of flight with the role of airplanes in modern warfare:

  • Part One
    • The Theory of Flight
    • Ballad of History and Mythology
    • Kittyhawk
    • The Airborne
  • Part Two
    • The Enemy
    • Threat and Approach
    • Ballad of the Cities
    • Morning Poem
  • Part Three
    • Air Force: Ballad of Hurry-Up
    • Night Music: Ballad of the Bombardier
    • Recitative: Chorus of the Rendezvous
    • The Open Sky (Finale)

As expected, the narrator holds a primary role in advancing the symphony's plot. The soloists and chorus provide commentary on the action. The symphony is comparable to works by Dmitri Shostakovich, American counterpart Samuel Barber, and the earlier works of Igor Stravinsky. Blitzstein, who subscribed to the artistic principles of socialist realism, wrote in a conservative style that was understandable on first hearing.


The Airborne Symphony was fairly successful in its premiere, despite expressing wartime concerns that began subsiding after 1945. Since then, the work has been rarely performed, owing to its massive orchestral forces, topicality, and lack of standing with musicologists. The Airborne Symphony has passages of stunning musicality, but is also judged as a work of brazen propaganda with limited performing value in modern times.

Leonard Bernstein has been the symphony's best-known disciple, performing and recording the work on two different occasions (1946 and 1966).

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