Less than two years after reading it in manuscript, Leonard Bernstein’s “symphony” of W.H. Auden’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Age of Anxiety was premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Serge Koussevitzky, with the composer as piano soloist, on April 8, 1949.
Given that Auden’s book-length narrative poem has sharply divided critics, it is not surprising that Bernstein’s version has, too. They have noticed that, despite calling this “Symphony No. 2,” Bernstein dispensed with the four movements traditionally associated with the musical form. In fact, it was more like a tone poem, with its six subsections mirroring Auden’s text.
Bernstein was drawn to the poet’s work because of a parallel religious yearning. The radicalism of Auden’s young manhood had, by the end of his first decade in America, been supplanted by a preoccupation with Christianity. Throughout his career, Bernstein’s spiritual instincts would also find expression in his work, from his first large-scale orchestral work, Jeremiah (1944) to his piece inaugurating the John F. Kennedy Center for the performing arts, Mass (1971). At the same time, few of his other works depicted so openly “the separateness that becomes Oneness under alcohol and/or libidinal urges” that he shared with the alienated Auden quartet of three men and one woman who come together in a New York dive. Courting actress-pianist Felicia Montealegre, he believed it still possible he could forsake same-sex attraction; three decades later, no longer able to do so, he would leave his wife for another man and descend into guilt over the marriage's breakup.
Koussevitzky, Bernstein’s mentor, commissioned The Age of Anxiety, and Bernstein dedicated the work to him. It appears, however, that yet another, unidentified friend championed the potential of the Auden poem to the composer, who, over the course of two years, worked on it in places as diverse as Taos, Philadelphia, Richmond, Mass., and Tel-Aviv, before completing it in New York City, only three weeks before its premiere. It was all in service to, in his words, "one of the most shattering examples of pure virtuosity in the history of English poetry."
It was also one of the most difficult poems that Auden ever wrote. No lines vibrated with the kind of memorable emotion expressed in In Memory of WB Yeats," "September 1st, 1939,” or the longer For the Time Being. The four speakers of the poem are not only indistinguishable from each other; more important, their voices are indistinguishable from Auden’s.
The latter proved a detriment to a work that, because of its dialogue form, aspires to theater. Auden had already collaborated with friend Christopher Isherwood on several plays in the 1930s (The Dog Beneath the Skin, The Ascent of F6), and, with his lover, Chester Kallman, he would go on to write the libretto for The Rake’s Progress in 1953. But the passion that seemed to arise naturally from his shorter poems became muted and confused when he wrote more self-consciously for the theater.
Few such problems afflicted Bernstein. The supreme triumph of his long, varied career was, many would say, West Side Story, but it was not his only foray into musical theater. Candide, as well as On the Town and Wonderful Town have become staples of the form, and even the late, troubled opera A Quiet Place has received more respectful attention in recent years. Even in an orchestral work such as this, that quality emerges. “If the charge of ‘theatricality’ in a symphonic work is a valid one, I am willing to plead guilty,” he wrote in a subsequent program note on this composition. “I have a deep suspicion that every work I write, for whatever medium, is really theatre music in some way.”
Jerome Robbins created a ballet version of The Age of Anxiety, but Auden abominated it. In fact, Bernstein’s piece, in all its passion and varied tones, is a more successful work not only than the ballet piece but also than Auden’s original, some critics have said.
Sadly, affinities existed between Auden and Bernstein in other ways. Auden was notorious for going back and revising much of his earlier work, frequently not to his advantage. Bernstein suffered from the same creative affliction, and one work he unfortunately decided to tinker with was The Age of Anxiety. His revision in the 1960s added little if any value to this work.
Many critics saw in the poet and composer another failing: a late-career falloff from the extraordinary promise of their youths. In each case, the charge was a bit exaggerated, even unfair. It is particularly so in the case of Bernstein, who was not only a brilliant composer but, in his later decades, a conductor, soloist, and music educator. (See, for instance, my prior post on his inspiring work as “master music teacher for the television age,” on the CBS arts-and-entertainment show Omnibus.)