Symphony No. 2 The Age of Anxiety
solo piano, 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, celesta, 2 harps, pianino, strings
notes by Katherine Baber
The Seven Ages: Variations 1-7
The Seven Stages: Variations 8-14
Composed 1948-49. First performance: April 8, 1949, Symphony Hall, Boston. Leonard Bernstein, piano. Boston Symphony Orchestra. Serge Koussevitzky, conductor.
During the summer of 1947 Bernstein had read Auden’s long poem The Age of Anxiety, which depicts an encounter between four individuals in New York City during wartime. Rosetta, Quant, Emble, and Malin represented, for Auden, Carl Jung’s four-fold division of the psyche (Feeling, Intuition, Sensation, and Thought). The four individuals meet in a bar on All Soul’s Night in the “Prologue,” converse in a series of metaphysical wanderings through the “The Seven Ages” and “The Seven Stages” of man, before departing in a taxi in the “Dirge,” heading to a party at Rosetta’s apartment in the “Masque,” and then dispersing during the “Epilogue.” Auden’s poem vacillates between English pastoral settings and urban American ones and draws on numerous literary and musical points of reference, so the dizzying array of styles in Bernstein’s music works in counterpoint to the poetic text. Bernstein also saw himself in the poem and thought of the piano soloist as an “autobiographical protagonist,” not so much a concerto soloist, but a personality we can track on the psychological journey through the work.
Although he attributed it to his “unconscious hand,” Bernstein traced the outline of Auden’s story into his own music. The brief “Prologue” introduces the two halves of the theme that will permeate the whole first half of the symphony. A “lonely improvisation” by two clarinets casts an aura of quiet meditation, sounding similar to the flute stops on an organ. Their melody also carries what Bernstein called the “Hebraic trace,” which he found in Aaron Copland’s music. Here, it manifests in the inflections that pull the somber minor key closer to a Jewish prayer mode called Ahava rabah. Near the end of this brief prelude, the solo flute states the second part of the theme: a slowly descending scale, potent in its simplicity. Bernstein heard this descent as a “bridge into the realm of the unconscious” in which the rest of Part I takes place.
What follows is a series of seven variations on the theme of the “Prologue,” which represent the “Seven Ages” of man. In the earlier variations, one can hear the energy of youth and in the later ones, greater complexity and reminiscence on variations past. In the seventh variation, we hear oboe and English horn reprise the clarinet duet with a more aged timbre, closing the circle of memory and reminding us that life is a cycle. The “Seven Stages” continue to follow this theme as it gradually evolves from one variation to another in a melodic concatenation, rather than a series of contrasts. In this way, all fourteen variations link each age and stage to the others. By the end of the last variation, the theme is almost unrecognizable, but then each of us are always marked indelibly by our journey.
Part II of the symphony begins with the “Dirge” and what is a striking gesture for Bernstein: the pianist piles all twelve possible tones on top of one another in a thick sonority. Bernstein was not generally interested in the modernist innovations of Arnold Schoenberg and his “Second Viennese School,” but here the twelve-tone row actually provides the material for the theme that emerges from the pianist’s opening statement. What follows is “Brahmsian” in its lyricism while mourning “the colossal Dad,” a revered leader and father figure that, for Bernstein, mostly likely meant Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had died in 1945. As the four characters of Auden’s story find themselves in Rosetta’s apartment, “determined to have a party,” Bernstein introduces what he calls “fantastic piano jazz.” The solo pianist, accompanied by a stripped-down orchestra and an imitation of a trap set in the percussion, alternates between two stylistic poles. One is a blues-based melody, originally “Ain’t Got No Tears,” an unused number from On the Town. On the other hand, there are more raucous improvisations in the spirit of bebop, the modern jazz style of the late 1940s. Eventually, the tension between these styles spirals out of control, and the orchestra breaks in with “four bars of hectic jazz.”
In the sonic wake of the “Masque,” the pianist fades away, and the “Epilogue” begins with a solo trumpet calling out “something pure”—a pattern of descending, wide-open intervals that Bernstein used in several pieces. In his preface to this symphony, he confirms the symbol’s meaning: Rosetta and her companions have looked beneath the mess of modern life, and once it is peeled away, “what is left, it turns out, is faith.” As the “Epilogue” continues, the piano soloist gradually returns for a series of cadenzas and, after a stirring chorale version of the “faith” melody, punctuates the final chord and rejoins the orchestra. To some, this ending may seem perfunctory, causing us to ask whether or not Bernstein really meant the ending to be hopeful or triumphant. What seems certain, though, is that across his various works, Bernstein was drawn toward narratives that affirmed the individual’s membership in a communal identity. In this case, we might understand his balancing of Jewish prayer modes and symbols of faith, American popular music, and classical repertoire as a statement of his own identity as a Jewish American musician—distinct but bound up with a shared culture.