Orli Shaham artist insights: Bernstein Symphony No.2 "Age of Anxiety"

Orli Shaham
Bernstein “Age of Anxiety” Insights

In the 2017/18 season Orli Shaham performs Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony No.2 “Age of Anxiety” with the Indianapolis Symphony, Orlando Philharmonic, and China NCPA Orchestra.

Bernstein's Age of Anxiety is a symphony, but it is also a piano concerto, which makes it quite interesting for me as the soloist. Some of the time I have a very soloistic part, and some of the time my part is very much inside the orchestra. In terms of collaboration, it's really the conductor's baby. Whatever he or she decides in terms of the overall arc of the piece is what I try to fit into. Of course, I come into it with ideas of my own, but it’s up to me to help make the conductor’s vision come to life.

The piece is based on W. H. Auden’s poem ‘Age of Anxiety’. To call it a poem is the understatement of the century - it is a giant tome. I've read ‘Age of Anxiety’ a number of times over the years, as I've performed the piece many times, and it's always so revealing. It was written near the end of World War II, and in one of my favorite lines in it, one of the characters says, “The world needs a wash and a week's rest.” which evokes this feeling that everything was just dirty and bad, and humanity itself needed cleansing. There's a recurring idea that comes back in many different places in the poem where Auden says, in effect, “many have perished, more will”. That becomes a kind of rhythmic charge that continues. On the surface, this is about the toll of deaths in World War II, but really, you can apply this to any age of anxiety regardless of the specifics at hand.

When Bernstein was writing about the piece, he said he didn't want it to be an exact copy of what the poem was, but in many ways he divides his piece up in the same way that the poem is divided up. And you can hear certain influences: for example in the second section, which is still part of the first movement, it goes from the Seven Ages of Man to the Seven Stages both in the poem and in the symphony. But, there is one place in the poem where it says ‘no entrance here without a subject’. Now Auden is referring to a literary subject, perhaps an idea. Bernstein takes that to mean what we in music would call a subject, which is a musical theme or motif. So there are little parallels.

The second movement is the dirge, and here Auden talks about the sobbing world following the calamity that was World War II. And, the mourning for our ‘colossal father’, which may be God, or may be some guiding force, but somehow it's a loss of our way. And interestingly, Bernstein opens that movement with a tone row - which at that time was the height of avant garde writing - using all 12 tones of the scale, not one after the next but in a different order. And that's where he's talking about the sobbing of the world and losing our way. The dirge is a quite powerful, it’s a very beautiful section, and it morphs almost without a clear direction into the haze of the Masque.

The Masque is my favorite part of the ‘Age of Anxiety’. It’s very jazzy, very “Bernstein”. He scored it this section lightly, so there’s only piano, some percussion, harp, and double bass - suddenly you feel like you're in a jazz club. In this part of the poem, the characters are all terribly, terribly drunk and trying out all sorts of things that they probably shouldn’t in a Manhattan apartment. This music was where Bernstein could let that side of him shine, even though this was for the concert stage. The rhythms are so satisfying and it's so, so tuneful.

The piece comes to an end in a way that is very sentimental, very Bernstein-esque. Here is where I feel the conductor really has the most to say. You can hear the symphonic gesture, where Bernstein uses a full orchestra to reflect on the world's problems.