The pairing of Bernstein and R. Strauss’s tone poems is an interesting one. Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben is evocative of a war hero going into battle, who ultimately retires and finds peace. It’s a striking contrast to Bernstein’s Age of Anxiety, which was written in the wake of World War II and depicts a protagonist that has lost faith in society and struggles to find meaningful relationships. On the surface, one might read this as an anti-versus pro-war work. But in reality, both composers were gun shy and both works seek love, humanity, and peace.
The Age of Anxiety, Symphony No. 2 1949 | 35 mins
Throughout his career, American Leonard Bernstein struggled to balance the competing demands of his multifarious gifts as composer, conductor, pianist, media personality, and all-round celebrity. British-born poet Wystan Hugh Auden’s (1907-73) Pulitzer prize-winning poem, The Age of Anxiety (1947), deals with issues that occupied Bernstein throughout his life—alienation, friendship, family, faith—and it seems likely that Bernstein was particularly attuned to its gay overtones, grappling as he was at that time with his bisexuality. PICTURE THIS: Part 1—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 features a lonely improvisation by two clarinets whose melody descends like a bridge into the realm of the unconscious, where most of the poem takes place. . . .
Ein Heldenleben 1898 | 46 mins
Who is the hero of Ein Heldenleben, or A Hero’s Life? Many believe it is Richard Strauss himself, who wrote, “The only way I could express works of peace was through themes of my own.” LISTEN FOR: The first section of this six-part work—swaggering, sweet, impassioned, grandiloquent, sumptuously scored—depicts The Hero in his changing aspects and moods. Then we hear drastically different music: sharp, prickly, disjunct, dissonant. The directions to the musicians say things like “snarling” (for the oboe) and “hissing” (for the cymbals). Underneath all this nastiness, the tubas make a stubborn pronouncement. This is the scene of The Hero’s Adversaries, the grudgers and the faultfinders. A single violin detaches itself from the others and here unfolds a portrait of Strauss’ wife, Pauline. The violinist is directed to be flippant, tender, a little sentimental, exuberantly playful, gracious, emotional, angry, nagging, loving in this scene called The Hero’s Companion. Next we hear love music, as lush as only Strauss could make it. Adversaries disturb the idyll and The Hero must go into battle. Trumpets summon him, introducing the immense The Hero’s Battlefield. The music quiets down for the remarkable The Hero’s Works of Peace. Here Strauss combines music from some of his earlier pieces. This episode is an orchestral miracle—richly blended, yet a constantly astonishing, shifting kaleidoscopic play of luminescent textures and colors. But the adversaries are still not silenced. The Hero rages, but his passion gives way to renunciation in The Hero’s Escape from the World and Completion. The Hero retires and the music subsides in profound serenity.
Matthew Spivey is Director of Artistic Planning and Jeanette Yu is Director of Publications at the San Francisco Symphony.