Symphony No. 2 (Bernstein)

Leonard Bernstein's Symphony No. 2 The Age of Anxiety is a piece for orchestra and solo piano. The piece was composed from 1948 to 1949 in the US and Israel, and was revised in 1965. It is titled after W. H. Auden's poem of the same name, and dedicated to Serge Koussevitzky.

Symphony No. 2, "The Age of Anxiety" score


A friend is claimed to have given Bernstein the idea to write music based on The Age of Anxiety in a letter:

What do you think of the 'Anxiety' idea? There is so much musical-subtlety in it, and those various metres brought about by the different roads the couples take and their differing means of transportation, to say nothing of the moods, and the separateness that becomes Oneness under alcohol and/or libidinal urges. You mentioned it being good ballet material, yes, but I think, first, it should be composed as music by itself and therefore protect it from being too obvious program music, and then if some clever choreographer can put the musical composition to work, with what added quality good music may give to the themes and material, well and good. I would rather have 'it' in the concert hall, where it can be less 'handled' than in the ballet school where many different talents brush it up. It's too good a thing for many hands.[1]

When beginning to write the piece, Bernstein stated that Auden's poem was "one of the most shattering examples of pure virtuosity in the history of English poetry" and that a "composition of a symphony based on The Age of Anxiety acquired an almost compulsive quality."[2] Having won the Pulitzer Prize in 1948, "The Age of Anxiety" Bernstein lauded the piece, saying "When I first read the book I was breathless." Bernstein worked on the composition "in Taos, Philadelphia, Richmond, Mass., in Tel-Aviv, in planes, in hotel lobbies..."[3] 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.[4] He completed the piece on March 20, 1949 in New York City. Unsatisfied with the ending of the composition, Bernstein revised it in 1965 to firmly establish his idea for the true ending. The work was dedicated to and commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky who was preparing to end his 25-year career conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra.


The symphony is two parts, One and Two, each of them comprising 3 sections A, B and C. Each movement is named after the six sections of Auden's poem, trying to mirror the moods and events in the poem.[5]

Part One

In accordance with Auden’s “Prologue,” the poem begins with 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.[6] It is here that the characters begin discussing life in each of their own point of views, moving onto the “The Seven Ages.” Here, Bernstein composed a set of variations that are unique in the fact that, rather than all sharing the same melody or thematic material like a traditional theme and variations would, each variation plays on the material from the variation immediately before it. This gives the work a constantly shifting landscape that is reminiscent of the past but progressing for the future. It then proceeds to “The Seven Stages,” that tells the tale of the same “group [embarking] on a collective dream, one of even more heightened awareness, attempting to rediscover the deeper meaning of their own humanity.”[7] Emulating the characters conflicting ideals and desires, Bernstein weaves a frantic and confused musical tapestry that shows the characters trying desperately to find what they are searching for, but falling short, though becoming closer because of their experience. This brings the first half of the piece to a dramatic and abrupt close.

Part Two

The second half of the piece opens with “The Dirge”, a theme, first introduced by the solo piano, based on a 12-tone row that gives way to a contrasting middle section, reminiscent of Brahms’ romanticism.[8] In the poem, the four travel to the women’s apartment by cab, mourning the loss of their fallen “Dad” figure. Once they arrive at the apartment, the four are determined to have a party, but refuse to take the attention away from any of the others, and all opt to turn in for the night.[9] “The Masque” is a speedy piano solo that is accompanied by syncopated rhythms in various percussion instruments. It is joined by the rest of the orchestra for a time before the piano drops out entirely, becoming “traumatized” as it tries to come to terms with its “escapist living.”[10] The energy from “The Masque” fades and the entire orchestra comes into repeat the bars it has been playing before, now joined by the strings and starting “The Epilogue.” Here, echoes of the “Prologue” resound while the new 4 note theme is contemplated by the reminiscent piano soloist. 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.”[11]


The work was premiered on April 8, 1949, with Serge Koussevitzky conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the composer at the piano. It was met with good reviews and received a repeat performance in Tanglewood that same summer.[12] It was recorded for the first time by Columbia Records in 1950 with Bernstein himself conducting the New York Philharmonic with pianist Lukas Foss as the soloist. A typical performance of the work lasts approximately 35–40 minutes.


The symphony was choreographed in 1950 by Jerome Robbins. This version was not well liked by W.H. Auden upon its premiere, as was the symphony, but the original choreography for the piece has been lost since.


  1. Leonard
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