When Leonard Bernstein read WH Auden’s 1947 poem The Age of Anxiety, he found himself, to use his own words, ‘breathless’ in his excitement. Describing the Pulitzer Prize-winning work as ‘one of the most shattering examples of pure virtuosity in the history of English poetry’, the composer set himself the challenge of writing a symphony inspired by it.
He follows the course of Auden’s poem closely, beginning with a sombre Prologue in which four people – Malin, Quant, Rosetta and Emble– are depicted sitting in a NewYork bar, meditating on life. In the five movements that follow – called The Seven Ages, The Seven Stages, The Dirge, The Masque and The Epilogue – we join the characters as they get tipsy, take a cab back to Rosetta’s flat, party and then head off or fall asleep.
While Bernstein called the work his Second Symphony, the piano part gives it more of a feeling of a concerto. There is more than a hint of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G, with glimpses of Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Gershwin and even Brahms. Bernstein played the piano part at the premiere, on 8 April 1949, with its dedicatee Serge Koussevitzky conducting.