Leonard Bernstein, Symphony No. 2, “The Age of Anxiety”

By Carol J. Oja, Professor of Music, Harvard University

Written for the concert Making Music: Composer-Conductors, performed on Feb 9, 2007 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Leonard Bernstein delighted in juxtaposing the epic and the everyday, linking classics with the vernacular. Think of Candide (1956), which transported to Broadway Voltaire’s now-classic eighteenth-century novel about the folly of reaching for utopias. Think of West Side Story (1957), which turned Shakespeare’s tragedy into a vehicle for exploring the plight of Puerto Rican immigrants in the urban jungle.

Such was also the case with Symphony No. 2, “The Age of Anxiety” (1949). For it, Bernstein found inspiration in an extended poem by W. H. Auden, which was subtitled “A Baroque Eclogue,” achieving its own modern-classic blend. A reflection on youth and hedonism, with the very recent war as an ominous backdrop, Auden reshaped the classical poetic tradition of the “eclogue”—or a dialogue among shepherds—as a discussion among four people who are drinking heavily in a New York bar. Auden’s protagonists (three men and one woman) are caught in the war’s web, and they’re also intensely narcissistic, navigating the balance between individual needs and greater social crises. The poem won the Pulitzer Prize in 1948, and its title came to symbolize the angst of the entire post-war period.

Bernstein wrote of having a “personal identification” with Auden’s poem, of finding it “fascinating and hair-raising,” of perceiving it as a “record of our difficult search for faith.” He had been savoring Auden’s writing since at least 1937, when he and Adolph Green counted it among their “shared joys” during a summer of working together as camp counselors in the Berkshires. (Green, of course, later joined Betty Comden to become lyricist for two of Bernstein’s shows.) That same summer, Bernstein also reconnected with the music of Gershwin, devising a little-known arrangement of Rhapsody in Blue for the camp kids. Perhaps these fragments of earlier experience fused in Symphony No. 2. This “symphony with piano solo,” as Bernstein termed it, follows the broad structural outline of Auden’s poem. But its episodic form smacks more of the free-range concept behind Gershwin’s Rhapsody than of any conventional symphony or concerto.

Bernstein’s narrative for the Symphony was psychoanalytic and unfolds as follows. It too adheres to Auden’s poem, at the same time as Bernstein claimed not to have intended such a closely related narrative.

Part I

In “The Prologue,” “four lonely characters” sit in a bar, beginning “a kind of symposium on the state of man,” and in “The Seven Ages” they review “the life of man from four personal points of view.” The latter is constructed of unusual variations, in which each builds on a feature (rather than a common theme) of the previous one. Variations continue to animate “The Seven Stages” in which the characters drift into a “dream-odyssey” and emerge “closely united through a common experience (and through alcohol).”

Part II

In “The Dirge,” the four are in a cab, mourning the loss of a collective father figure, “the great leader who can always . . . shoulder the mass responsibility” and also “give the right orders.” Their “lamentation,” Bernstein wrote, is “strangely pompous.” They are in the girl’s apartment for “The Masque,” where they overcome their “guilt” about simply wanting to have a party, despite the surrounding devastation of war. In “The Epilogue,” they discover “what is left is faith.”

The initial performance history of Bernstein’s Symphony darts across the core points on his personal map, from Israel to Boston and Tanglewood, then New York. The Symphony’s “Dirge” had its premiere in Tel Aviv in 1948 by the Israel Philharmonic, the orchestra with which Bernstein forged such a close alliance after the war. Bernstein’s hometown mentor Serge Koussevitzky conducted the premiere of the entire Symphony in April 1949 (the work was also dedicated to him), and it was repeated at Tanglewood that August. For all these, Bernstein was at the piano. He seized the baton for the New York Philharmonic’s first performance of the work in February 1950, with Lukas Foss as pianist. Three days later the New York City Ballet unveiled a staging of it with choreography by Jerome Robbins. Bernstein revised Symphony No. 2 in 1965, bringing the piano more prominently into the final movement; that is the version heard on this program.