A guide to Bernstein’s ‘The Age of Anxiety’ Symphony

A brief history of Bernstein’s Second Symphony


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 lifeIn the five movements that follow – called The Seven AgesThe Seven StagesThe DirgeThe 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.