Bernstein: The Age of Anxiety, Symphony No. 2

The Age of Anxiety, Symphony No. 2 for Piano and Orchestra, (after W.H. Auden)

Leonard Bernstein
BORN: August 25, 1918. Lawrence, Massachusetts
DIED: October 14, 1990. New York City, New York

COMPOSED: Begun the summer of 1947, completed March 20, 1948, on commission from the Koussevitzky Foundation, and dedicated it “For Serge Koussevitzky, in tribute”

WORLD PREMIERES: The Dirge section was premiered on November 28, 1948, in Tel Aviv, Israel. The composer was pianist, with Georg Singer and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. The entire symphony received its premiere on April 8, 1949, at Symphony Hall in Boston, with the composer as pianist, with Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony. The first performance of the revised version from 1965 took place on July 15, 1965, at Philharmonic Hall (now David Geffen Hall) in New York City. Philippe Entremont was pianist, with the composer and the New York Philharmonic

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—September 1999. SFS Principal Keyboards Robin Sutherland was pianist, Michael Tilson Thomas conducted. MOST RECENT—May 2015. Jean-Yves Thibaudet was pianist, MTT conducted

INSTRUMENTATION: Solo piano, with 2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes and English horn, 2 clarinets and bass clarinet, 2 bassoons and contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, tenor drum, bass drum, cymbals, suspended cymbals, tamtam, triangle, temple block, xylophone, glockenspiel, celesta, 2 harps (second optional), “pianino” (upright piano), and strings

DURATION: About 35 mins

THE BACKSTORY Throughout his career, Leonard Bernstein struggled to balance the competing demands of his multifarious gifts as composer, conductor, pianist, media personality, and all-round celebrity. Time for composition was potentially the most endangered, and he had to take special care to see that it didn’t get entirely crowded out by his day-to-day obligations as a performer. In this, as in so many other regards, Bernstein shared the burden that in a previous generation had been visited on his spiritual exemplar, Gustav Mahler; and, like Mahler, Bernstein often found that blocks of time for composing were most easily found in the summer. His Second Symphony began as a summertime inspiration, as the composer related in an essay he appended to the published score, one so extensive that we will quote from it only selectively:

W.H. Auden’s fascinating and hair-raising poem The Age of Anxiety: A Baroque Eclogue began immediately to affect me lyrically when I first read it in the summer of 1947. From that moment the composition of a symphony based on The Age of Anxiety acquired an almost compulsive quality; and I worked on it steadily in Taos, in Philadelphia, in Richmond, Mass., in Tel Aviv, in planes, in hotel lobbies, and finally (the week preceding the premiere) in Boston.

Wystan Hugh Auden (1907-73) was a British-born poet and man-about-the-arts who wielded formative influence over quite a few writers and musicians. During the 1940s, his poetry grew to ponder philosophical questions at considerable length, perhaps reaching a pinnacle in The Age of Anxiety (1947), which earned its author the Pulitzer Prize. It is a long poem—eighty pages!—and it marked Auden’s end as a writer of such pieces. After The Age of Anxiety he worked within the bounds of shorter poetic forms, wrote literary criticism and travel accounts, and, in the 1950s, often assisted by his lover Chester Kallman, produced a handful of opera librettos, most prominently The Rake’s Progress for Igor Stravinsky and Elegy for Young Lovers and The Bassarids for Hans Werner Henze.

The Age of Anxiety was hot off the press when Bernstein encountered it. Auden’s poem deals with issues that would occupy Bernstein throughout his life—alienation, friendship, family, faith—and it seems likely that Bernstein was particularly attuned to its sometimes gay overtones, grappling as he was at that time with fitting his attraction to the actress Felice Montealegre (not yet his wife) into the bisexual scheme of his life. “I imagine that the conception of a symphony with piano solo emerges from the extremely personal identification of myself with the poem,” wrote Bernstein. He continued:

In this sense, the pianist provides an almost autobiographical protagonist, set against an orchestral mirror in which he sees himself, analytically, in the modern ambience. The work is therefore no “concerto” in the virtuosic sense, although I regard Auden’s poem as one of the most shattering examples of pure virtuosity in the history of English poetry.

The essential line of the poem (and of the music) is the record of our difficult and problematical search for faith. In the end, two of the characters enunciate the recognition of this faith—even a passive submission to it—at the same time revealing an inability to relate to it personally in their daily lives, except through blind acceptance.

THE MUSIC  In creating his symphony, Bernstein did not aspire to work in the realm of program music, and he did not so much set out to translate episodes of Auden’s poem into music as to use the poem as a point of departure from which he might express his own thoughts—in musical terms, of course—on some of the same matters that Auden addressed. It was not by chance that he stated in his title that the symphony was “after” Auden. Still, the symphony turned out to parallel the poem more closely that Bernstein had intended. He explained:

No one could be more astonished than I at the extent to which the programmaticism of this work has been carried. . . . When each section was finished I discovered, upon rereading, detail after detail of programmatic relation to the poem—details that had “written themselves,” wholly unplanned and unconscious. Since I trust the unconscious implicitly, finding it a source of wisdom and the dictator of the condign in artistic matters, I am content to leave these details in the score.

For his part, Auden apparently cared little for Bernstein’s symphony. “It really has nothing to do with me,” he observed. “Any connections with my book are rather distant.” (He showed a similar lack of enthusiasm for the ballet Jerome Robbins crafted to Bernstein’s score in 1950.)

For a guide to Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2, let us dip into the composer’s essay:

I have divided Auden’s six sections into two large parts, each containing three sections played without pause. A brief outline follows:


(a) The Prologue finds four lonely characters, a girl and three men, in a Third Avenue bar, all of them insecure and trying, though drunk, to detach themselves from their conflicts, or, at best, to resolve them. They are drawn together by this common urge and begin a kind of symposium on the state of man. Musically the Prologue is a very short section consisting of a lonely improvisation by two clarinets, echo-tone, and followed by a long descending scale which acts as a bridge into the realm of the unconscious, where most of the poem takes place.

(b) The Seven Ages. The life of man is reviewed from the four personal points of view. This is a series of variations which differ from conventional variations in that they do not vary any one common theme. Each variation seizes upon some feature of the preceding one and develops it, introducing, in the course of the development, some counter-feature upon which the next variation seizes. . . .

(c) The Seven Stages. The variation form continues for another set of seven, in which the characters go on an inner and highly symbolic journey according to a geographical plan leading back to a point of comfort and security. . . . When [the four characters] awaken from this dream-odyssey, they are closely united through a common experience (and through alcohol), and begin to function as one organism. . . .


(a) The Dirge is sung by the four as they sit in a cab en route to the girl’s apartment for a nightcap. They mourn the loss of the “colossal Dad,” the great leader who can always give the right orders, find the right solution, shoulder the mass responsibility, and satisfy the universal need for a father-symbol. This section employs, in a harmonic way, a twelve-tone row out of which the main theme evolves. . . .

(b) The Masque finds the group in the girl’s apartment, weary, guilty, determined to have a party . . . . The party ends in anticlimax and the dispersal of the actors; in the music the piano-protagonist is traumatized by the intervention of the orchestra for four bars of hectic jazz. When the orchestra stops, as abruptly as it began, a pianino in the orchestra is continuing the Masque, repetitiously and with waning energy, as the Epilogue begins. . . .

(c) The Epilogue. What is left, it turns out, is faith. The trumpet intrudes its statement of “something pure” upon the dying pianino: the strings answer in a melancholy reminiscent of the Prologue . . . . All at once the strings accept the situation, in a sudden radiant pianissimo, and begin to build, with the rest of the orchestra, to a positive statement of the newly recognized faith.

Bernstein originally had the pianist observe the Epilogue without participating apart from a single chord near the end. He grew uncomfortable with this for both dramatic and philosophical reasons, and some years later he “revised the finale so as to include the solo pianist, even providing him with a final burst of cadenza before the coda.”

James M. Keller

Recordings: Marin Alsop conducting the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra with pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet (Naxos)  |  Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic with pianist Lukas Foss, recorded in 1950 (Sony), or with Bernstein and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, again with Foss, in 1977 (Deutsche Grammophon)  |  Leonard Slatkin conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra with pianist James Tocco (Chandos)

Reading: Leonard Bernstein, by Humphrey Burton (Doubleday)  |  Leonard Bernstein: A Life, by Merle Secrest (Bloomsbury)  |  Working with Bernstein, by Jack Gottlieb (Amadeus)  |  The Leonard Bernstein Letters, edited by Nigel Simeone (Yale University Press)

(October 2017)