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Leonard Bernstein's second symphony is unusual in its instrumentation as it is written for symphony orchestra and solo piano. Bernstein comments on this, saying, "Auden’s fascinating and hair-raising Eclogue had already begun 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...I imagine that the conception of a symphony with piano solo emerges from the extreme personal identification of myself with the poem. In this sense, the pianist provides an almost autobiographical mirror in which he sees himself, analytically in the modern ambiance. The work is therefore no concerto, in the virtuosic sense...The essential line of the poem (and the music) is the record of our difficult and problematic search for faith." (Leonard Bernstein, Essay on Age of Anxiety, March 1949.)

Based on W. H. Auden’s poem, "The Age of Anxiety: A Baroque Eclogue", the symphony was commissioned by, and dedicated to, Bernstein’s beloved mentor, Serge Koussevitzky, and was composed between the years 1948 and 1949, with a major revision effected in 1965. The world premiere took place on April 8, 1949, with Koussevitsky conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the composer himself at the unwieldy piano solo, which, according to pianist Misha Dichter and Bernstein’s daughter, Jaime, is “ridiculously difficult” and “one of the hardest parts ever written." (Eric Harrison, “Dichter Tries Hand at Tough Bernstein Piece,” Arkansas Online: In Association with the Arkansas Democrat Gazette, 14 September 2007, sec. Weekend, p. 67.) While the kernels of inspiration for the work appeared as early as 1944 as a rough thematic sketch for Koussevitzky's birthday, with a whirlwind of activity sweeping Bernstein into performing engagement after performing engagement it is no wonder that it can be said that a “repeating pattern of procrastination followed by feverish activity...characterized the composition of...The Age of Anxiety". (Humphrey Burton, Leonard Bernstein, 336.)

In his Prefatory Note of the score, Bernstein says: “No one could be more astonished than I at the extent to which the programmaticism of this work has been carried...I was merely writing a symphony inspired by a poem and following the general form of that poem. Yet, when each section was finished I discovered, upon re-reading, detail after detail of programmatic relation to the poem – details that had ‘written themselves’." It should be noted that Bernstein was well-versed in the literary arts, which inherently deeply inspired his musical work. In the poem The Age of Anxiety, Auden “attempted to make [the] human problem [of ‘man’s anxiety in time’] manifest in the form of a dramatic allegory." (Edward Callan, "Allegory in Auden’s The Age of Anxiety" (Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 10, No. 4 [Jan., 1965]), 155.)

The poem is divided into six Parts:

  • “Prologue,” which introduces the four main characters: Malin, Rosetta, Quant, and Emble. The reader comes to understand each of their backgrounds and personal views on life as they sit in a New York City bar during World War II.
  • “The Seven Ages,” during which our characters gather in a booth and talk, dividing man’s existence into seven ages – infancy, youth, adolescence, the “clown’s cosmos”, the acceptance of the bleakness of life, man’s aging, and finally death.
  • “The Seven Stages,” a symbolic dream-odyssey in which the characters find themselves, under the influence of “semi-intoxication,” traveling, searching for “that state of prehistoric happiness."
  • “The Dirge,” a lament on the loss of the “colossal Dad,” the father figure who guides and in whom one can place their trust.
  • “The Masque,” a party at Rosetta’s apartment; love is kindled between Rosetta and Emble, the two youngest characters, only for Rosetta to realize later that their love was born of a drunken stupor and will more than likely not last.
  • And “Epilogue,” during which the sun rises and all return to their normal duties. “Facing another long day of servitude to wilful [sic] authority and blind accident, creation lay in pain and earnest, once more reprieved from self-destruction, its adoption, as usual, postponed."

The most obvious connection between the poem and Bernstein’s score is, of course, the broader form. Symphony No. 2 is divided into two large Parts, which are each divded into three sections or episodes, adding up to the six original Parts of Auden’s poem. In Part I, Bernstein opens with the brief “Prologue” that leads without pause into “The Seven Ages,” which consist of seven variations. These, too, flow attacca into “The Seven Stages,” which are labeled Variations VIII to XIV – seven more variations. The sections of Part II – “The Dirge,” “The Masque,” and “The Epilogue” – also flow one into the other without pause, and each exhibits a very distinct character.

The most astonishing aspect of this symphonic work is discovered when one can come to grips with the poem in all its intricacies and subtle allegory, and then notice the tremendous allegorical effect Bernstein has created in his score, masterfully mirroring the events, moods, character, landscapes, and underlying message found in the poem with his attention to musical detail by use of his structure, themes, dynamics, and even the pattern of certain notes themselves. Interwoven throughout are the blatant reuse of Bernsteinian themes from earlier works and the wild eclecticism that are trademarks of Bernstein's style and methodology. Based on the myriad of lackluster reviews since its premiere, few have been able to truly appreciate this work in the sense of its deep poetic artistry, but it is evident by the final notes of this work that, like the characters in the poem, at least by the end of this intricate Symphony, Bernstein had found faith. --Sarah Wallin 09:02, 13 May 2008 (UTC)

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