We are completing our series on the life and music of Leonard Bernstein with one of his most under-appreciated compositions, the Symphony #2. This symphony is known as the “Age of Anxiety” symphony. The video you will see was made in 1986. The composer himself conducts the London Symphony Orchestra with Krystian Zimmerman on the piano. In the introductory interview, Bernstein says, “At least one of the characters [in the story of the piece] does find the core of faith, which is what . . . I am after in every work I ever write.”
The symphony was modeled after W. H. Auden’s poem “The Age of Anxiety.” After reading it, Bernstein wrote the following:
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 . . . . 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 symphony proceeds in two parts, each of which contain three sub-parts. This echoes the six sections in Auden’s poem. Part 1 includes the following:
- Prologue – four lonely people sit alone in a bar, trying to drink themselves away from their problems. Listen for the clarinets here, who use a long descending scale to give an impression of despair and loneliness.
- Seven Ages – this movement is a set of variations that look at a man’s lifespan from four different points of view. As you listen, try to figure out how the variations are related. Bernstein intentionally made each one an addition to the previous ones.
- Seven Stages – This variation follows the struggle of the man’s attempted journey from pain and insecurity to comfort and security. The four characters in the Prologue dream of this journey together, and when they awake, they are closely united through this shared dream.
Part II contains the following three parts:
- Dirge – the four people sing this mournful song as they take a cab through the city. They mourn the loss of the “colossal Dad,” a figure who has all the answers and can resolve all of their problems.
- Masque – the four people struggle to find energy to enjoy their evening and eventually disperse. Listen for the sudden outburst of hectic jazz music in this movement, symbolizing the inability of today’s weary people to fully enjoy life.
- Epilogue – all that is left is faith. The trumpet solo carries this theme to the end with purity and radiance.
Bernstein wanted to highlight the emptiness and anxiety that were left in the wake of WWII despite all the technological progress of his time. I believe his critique is doubly relevant today. We are more powerful and connected than ever, yet we are also more lonely and unfulfilled than ever. We work our lives away, sucked into screens and devices that alienate and control us, caught in the business of getting here and there. Just as Auden’s poem highlighted the emptiness and the search for faith that darkened the world after WWII, Bernstein’s “Age of Anxiety” Symphony reminds us of the emptiness that can burden even the most powerful society in history.