Leonard Bernstein's Unconventional 'Anxiety'

Originally published on November 22, 2013 5:30 pm

Like Leonard Bernstein himself, there is absolutely nothing predictable about the music he wrote. None of the three amazing works Bernstein labeled as "symphonies" in any way resemble a conventional orchestral symphony.

His second symphony, The Age of Anxiety, draws its inspiration from W.H. Auden's epic poem of the same name. Like so much of Bernstein's music, this piece is an amalgam, a hybrid of tone poem and piano concerto with a highly dramatic and compelling narrative. Bernstein himself said, "If the charge of 'theatricality' in a symphonic work is a valid one, I am willing to plead guilty. I have a deep suspicion that every work I write, for whatever medium, is really theater music in some way."

Bernstein was the best storyteller ever. I watched hundreds of world-class professional musicians suddenly revert to their 8-year-old selves when Lenny began telling them a story. He loved words almost as much as he loved music. When I traveled with him to Japan in 1990, in the days before the Internet, he brought several suitcases filled with books, including a complete set of Shakespeare and the Oxford English Dictionary. I could always tell when he had discovered an error in the dictionary because he would be in a great mood — and, by the way, he found a lot of them!

For me, every Bernstein piece is a complete story and, besides being wonderful, every Bernstein story has a moral.

He spent his life connecting the dots between his beloved worlds of sound and words. He used them to constantly explore those existential questions that challenged him. The question of faith — religious, spiritual or simply faith in humanity — was never far from his mind. And we hear this faith in the voice of the trumpet in the epilogue of the symphony.

The Age of Anxiety is the story of strangers connecting on a fundamental and very human level. Through shared experience, shared archetypes, shared loneliness and a shared search for meaning in life, the four characters explore their respective and collective lives.

After ruminating on "The Seven Ages" in life (the second section in the symphony) and finding no answers, they set off on a series of seven allegorical journeys together. And when that proves fruitless, they confront the ultimate question: Is there really any meaning in life at all?

For Bernstein this is a moment of atonality, portrayed musically by a 12-tone row of pitches on the piano. And then comes his answer. He takes that 12-tone row and transforms it into a hip, grooving, bebop jazz that is not to be believed.

When in doubt, or when things started to get too heavy, Bernstein always opted for a party.

(Marin Alsop leads performances of Bernstein's Age of Anxiety symphony Sept. 26-28 with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.)

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This coming weekend, the pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra will perform Leonard Bernstein's second symphony, "The Age of Anxiety." And here to talk about the work is our friend Marin Alsop, music director of the BSO. Maestra, thanks very much for being with us.

MARIN ALSOP: Great to be here, Scott.

SIMON: This is a great British poet, W.H. Auden - wrote the poem "Age of Anxiety," and the music piece begins with - let's listen - a couple of lonely clarinets.


SIMON: What's the piece capturing by beginning this way?

ALSOP: Well, the poem and the piece of music opens with four characters - three men and a woman, all strangers. They're sitting in a bar, and each one is lost in his or her own thoughts, but each one is acutely aware of that sense of universal loneliness. And they're each ruminating about their own, individual lives; and gradually, the poem begins to fall into their unconscious mind. And every time the poem starts sinking into this state of mind, Bernstein represents that by a descending scale. The first time we hear it, it's represented by the flute.


SIMON: Now, this is a recording of the piece by Leonard Bernstein, conducting the New York Philharmonic. The soloist we're going to hear is Philippe Entremont, and his solo will come in just after that descending scale. Kind of melds into this next section, called "The Seven Ages."


SIMON: Marin, what's the piano bring in here?

ALSOP: Well, in the poem, Auden - W.H. Auden begins with birth and innocence. And I think this opening piano solo, which is so simple and so beautiful, represents that state of existence. And this is followed then - he's exploring the seven ages of life. And Bernstein musically portrays this by having a set of variations. Each emerges seamlessly from the other, and we go through the different stages of life. Adolescence is represented by a variation which is in 5-8 time.


ALSOP: Five-eight is a - it's a really awkward - if you had to dance to 5-8, you'd need two legs of different lengths; and you know, in adolescence, where we're all trying to fit in, and you just can never fit in. And from that variation, it goes to, you know, early adulthood where suddenly, you fit in too well and you don't want to fit in anymore; and the monotony and kind of robotic existence can be overwhelming. Eventually, he goes through all of the ages of life but toward the end of these first seven variations, that theme of loneliness returns.

SIMON: So there's this tense, forbidding section. Then it turns a corner, and we hear some jazz.


SIMON: So is that there as kind of like - to be an instruction, to say between these profound period of aloneness, why not kick up our heels while we have the chance?

ALSOP: Well, you know, I think sometimes Bernstein just got fed up with all of this weighty, existential searching, and he just couldn't resist a party.


ALSOP: And ultimately, I think there is incredible meaning in that; that when in doubt, just have a party.


ALSOP: For Bernstein - I think very much like for Beethoven - it was a question of believing in humanity. Bernstein believed fundamentally in the goodness of human beings. And the idea of faith is a thread throughout his music. And in this piece, even though they grapple with all of these - sort of a sense of hopelessness throughout the piece, in the end we hear this beautiful trumpet melody, which represents faith. And we hear memories coming back from their entire journey through this epic poem.


ALSOP: Bernstein - he wrote three symphonies and each of them is - is nothing like a symphony is supposed to be. I mean, maybe that's why I think they're so fantastically wonderful. And Bernstein himself said that he felt that every single piece of music he wrote was a piece for the theater. He knows it has this dramatic component,. But it's a complex, it's a very deep work; and I think at first, people didn't understand the depth of the work. But I find it to be a piece that I experience differently every time I work on it, every time I hear it. So for me, it's really, truly one of the great 20th century pieces.

SIMON: This coming weekend, Maestra Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra - along with Jean-Yves Thibaudet - will perform Leonard Bernstein's second symphony, "The Age of Anxiety." Maestra, as always, wonderful to be back with you. Thanks so much.

ALSOP: Thanks for having me. Great to talk to you, Scott.


SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.