Skip to page content

Composed: 1947-1949; revised 1965
Length: c. 30 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, drum set, glockenspiel, snare drum, tam-tam, temple blocks, tenor drum, triangle, xylophone), 2 harps, pianino (= celesta), strings, and solo piano
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: August 27, 1968, André Previn conducting, with pianist Philippe Entremont

In the summer of 1947, a young Bernstein first read W.H. Auden’s masterful narrative poem, The Age of Anxiety. Auden’s message – one of man desperately seeking faith in a seemingly faithless world – resonated with Bernstein, who resolved to compose a musical representation. At that time, he was in demand around the globe; composing the Symphony would take the next two years, in which any spare moments (there were precious few) were devoted to the piece. In Bernstein’s own words, “the composition of a symphony based on The Age of Anxiety acquired a compulsive quality; and I worked on it steadily in Taos, in Philadelphia, in Richmond, Mass., in Tel-Aviv, in planes, in hotel lobbies....”

He completed the Symphony on March 20, 1949, in New York City. Fewer than three weeks later, on April 8, the Symphony was premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Serge Koussevitzky, with the composer as piano soloist.

Though titled as such, “The Age of Anxiety” bucks the traditional form of a symphony. Instead of a conventional four-movement, exclusively orchestral work, Bernstein scored it for solo piano and orchestra, and divided the piece into six subsections – mirroring Auden’s text – split equally into two parts that are performed without pause.

Part I: The Prologue; The Seven Ages (Variations I-VII); The Seven Stages (Variations VIII-XIV)

Auden’s “Prologue” finds four lonely individuals (three men and one woman) in a bar, each reflecting on his or her own disquietude while acknowledging the presence of the others. Musically, a plaintive clarinet duet signals the beginning of the characters’ journey, with a long descending scale signaling their retreat to a shared unconscious.

The four proceed to discuss the “life of man” from each of their personal perspectives (“The Seven Ages”). These are the first seven variations, but rather than sharing one common theme, Bernstein’s “Seven Ages” are progressive in that each new variation takes its thematic material from the variation that it follows, reacting only to the most immediately preceding ideas while building new thoughts for the next. In the sixth variation, the solo piano alone has his say; at the end of the seventh variation, the descending scale returns in the piano, and the scene moves on.

The next set of variations represent “The Seven Stages,” during which the group embarks on a collective dream, one of even more heightened awareness, attempting to rediscover the deeper meaning of their own humanity. As Bernstein himself described the scene, the characters “try every means, going singly and in pairs, exchanging partners, and always missing the objective. When they awaken from this dream-odyssey, they are closely united through a common experience.... This set of variations begins to show activity and drive, and leads to a hectic, though indecisive, close.”

Part II: The Dirge; The Masque; Epilogue

“The Dirge” follows a cab ride to the woman’s apartment, where the group heads for a nightcap. Far from a lighthearted trip, they mourn the loss of the “colossal Dad,” a father figure who, as Bernstein wrote, “can always give the right orders, find the right solution, shoulder the mass responsibility...” The theme, first introduced by the solo piano, is based on a 12-tone row that gives way to a contrasting middle section, reminiscent of Brahms’ romanticism.

At the apartment, the group is determined to have a party, each stubbornly refusing to rain on the others’ parade by admitting he or she should be turning in for the night. “The Masque” is a blazing scherzo for solo piano, accompanied by a “rhythm section” (percussion, harp, celesta, and double bass) that punctuates the lines with syncopated rhythms.

As the energy of the scherzo wanes and the characters disperse, the full orchestra enters, shouting, for four bars, then departs, leaving only the pianino to continue the previous theme as “The Epilogue” begins. At this point, both the music and the poem beg the question: “what is left beyond this emptiness?” A slow, 4-note theme in the solo trumpet imposes, as Bernstein wrote, “ ‘something pure’ on the dying pianino,” to which the strings respond with lonely echoes of the Prologue, until the woodwinds reiterate the trumpet’s hopefulness. Answering the orchestra’s calls for clarity, a solo piano cadenza, added in 1965, revisits the journey of the characters, and is taken up by the full orchestra, which builds to a radiant close. The listener, as well as the reader, finds that “what is left, it turns out, is faith.”

Percussionist and writer Deanna Hudgins is Publications Coordinator for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.