An American Communist classical playlist: The Composers’ Collective on Spotify
C.J. Atkins / People's World

When reading through Aaron J. Leonard’s book, The Folk Singers and the Bureau, I was delighted to discover the single mention of a curious 1930s musical outfit: the Composers’ Collective of New York.

The collective consisted of a group of left-wing composers in the U.S. who, to varying degrees, wished to use their music to help the working class. “Members” of the collective, a term used loosely here, seeing as membership was not necessarily official, included famous and less-famous composers like Aaron Copland, Hans Eisler (who co-wrote Composing for the Films with Theodor Adorno), Earl Robinson, Elie Siegmeister, and Marc Blitzstein.

Grappling with what it meant to create “proletarian music” in the age of conflicting modernist and popular trends, they also debated how directly composers should be involved with politics.

Members of the collective produced a wide range of works, some reflecting the experimental modernist trends of the time, others blending jazz and folk, and a portion scoring popular plays and films.

Marc Blitzstein in 1938. | Public Domain

Their politics spanned from a more liberal-minded Aaron Copland, who, according to his HUAC testimony, didn’t consider himself to be a “political thinker,” to Earl Robinson and Marc Blitzstein, who were both card-carrying members of the Communist Party and referenced Communist classics in their works.

(Blitzstein translated the music for Brecht’s plays and contributed songs to the Lillian Hellman play Toys in the Attic while Robinson co-wrote “The House I Live in,” made famous by the Albert Maltz short film starring Frank Sinatra, and wrote “Ballad for Americans,” first performed by Paul Robeson.)

The collective itself was latter denounced as a “Communist Party front,” a label that is equally true and false—true in the sense that Communist Party members were spearheading it to a certain degree and untrue in the sense that a “front” implies a shallow opportunistic origin as opposed to a real desire for individuals to get together collectively and hash out issues they face (which those involved undoubtedly possessed).

I’ve compiled here a small Spotify playlist of some of my favorite songs from “members” of the curious Composers’ Collective—it’s telling that only a small collection even exists from each composer on Spotify. I hope artists will find some inspiration in their diverse attempts at taking on the political issues of their time.


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Taylor Dorrell
Taylor Dorrell

Taylor Dorrell is a freelance writer and photographer, contributing writer at the Cleveland Review of Books, reporter at the Columbus Free Press, columnist at Matter News, and organizer in the Freelance Solidarity Project union. Dorrell is based in Columbus, Ohio.