Bernstein’s “The Age of Anxiety”


"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" (1) - Leonard  Bernstein

Bernstein’s Second Symphony

Out of Bernstein’s three symphonic works, his second symphony, entitled “The Age of Anxiety,” is most perplexing to me.  Although none of Bernstein’s symphonies could be considered at all orthodox, his second in particular seems to be a work in contradictions.  Critics debate endlessly concerning the symphony’s connection to W.H. Auden’s written work, and despite being based upon a narrative, Bernstein’s symphony seems to be lack one.  Some critics have lambasted the improvisatory nature of the work, while others ardently praise its incorporation of jazz elements.   With this in mind, I set out to answer the following question – does Bernstein’s “The Age of Anxiety” deserve to be called one of the great symphonies of the 20th century?

W.H. Auden’s Anxiety

Bernstein’s second symphony, was heavily inspired by W.H. Auden’s famous poem, The Age of Anxiety.  Created soon after WWII in the age of McCarthyism, Auden’s poem grapples with themes of human isolation and faith.  Into The Age of Anxiety, Auden incorporated elements of popular culture, current events, and common vernacular.  Auden was able to draw upon modern science to enhance his work as well.  Each one of the four protagonists represent one of Carl Jung’s archetypes – Thought, Feeling, Sensation and Intuition (2).   The poem itself is described as a Baroque Eclogue, an ornate tribute to the bucolic, and is written in alliterative verse. The material is definitely unwieldy and has been called nebulous by some.  In a New York Times Op-ed by Daniel Smith, the poem is described as being “a difficult work — allusive, allegorical, at times surreal” (3).

Below is a recording of Bernstein’s second symphony.  The London Symphony Orchestra is playing under Bernstein’s direction.


Bernstein’s second symphony is quite different from most symphonies.  Instead of a typical four-movement, work, Bernstein wrote his symphony for solo piano and orchestra, dividing the piece into six sections – mirroring Auden’s text.  Still, Bernstein’s unique style of composition can be heard clearly.

The symphony begins with a solemn clarinet duet.  The pure sounds of the two clarinets overlap one another while moving between consonance and dissonance.  In the next section of the symphony, Bernstein incorporates serialism – a compositional technique in which a fixed series of notes, especially the twelve notes of the chromatic scale, are used to generate the harmonic and melodic motifs.  A twelve-tone row, played by a single flute, serves as the audience’s introduction into the surreal.  Instrumentation remains sparse. The piano, which acts as the voice of the four main characters is introduced in an unaccompanied solo at the beginning of the section entitled “The Seven Ages.”  As more instruments are introduced in conjunction with the piano, the tone becomes more dissonant and at times frantic – reflecting the “anxiety” felt by the protagonists.  When the work proceeds into “The Seven Stages,” stylistic changes abound.  “The Seven Stages” are constantly in transit and seem to lack a central narrative.

The second half of the piece opens with “The Dirge,” a 12-tone theme, first introduced by the solo piano.  However, this grave moment does not last for long.  When in doubt, Bernstein always opted for a party.   Bernstein’s answer to “The Dirge” comes in the form of the upbeat “Masque.”  He takes the 12-tone row and transforms it into hip, grooving, bebop jazz (1).


“The Age of Anxiety” includes specific details that Bernstein claimed had “written themselves”; in “The Masque,” for example, the celesta clearly sounds the hour of 4 AM as in the Auden poem.  Because the symphony seems literally dependent on the events of the poem, critics found it to lack cohesion.

Critical reviewer, Virgil Thomson, after praising the work’s “lively” rhythms and “picturesque, expressive” textures, came down hard upon its technical construction: “the work does not hold inevitably the musical attention.  Its form is improvisatory. Its melodic content casual, its harmony stiff, its contrapuntal tension weak.” Robert Ward, another critic stated that “the total significance (of the symphony) impresses very little” (4).


Overall, I think the symphony can be considered one of the greatest of the 20th century.  Bernstein makes a profound statement in his second symphony about the state of the postwar world, and confronts the uncertainty facing many.  Bernstein’s incorporation of serialism, jazz and classical material sets his second symphony apart from others of the time.  On the whole, the symphony is musically compelling; it truly takes the listener on a journey.


(1)“Symphony No. 2: The Age of Anxiety (1949).” Leonard Bernstein,

(2)“Age of Anxiety Introduction.” Princeton University Press,

(3)Smith, Daniel. “It’s Still the ‘Age of Anxiety.’ Or Is It?” The New York Times, The New York Times, 14 Jan. 2012,

(4)Gentry, Philip. “Leonard Bernstein’s The Age of Anxiety: A Great American Symphony during McCarthyism.” American Music, vol. 29, no. 3, 2011, pp. 308–331. JSTOR, JSTOR,



Bernstein at Tanglewood: Conducting
Coming up more about Bernstein’s early years in Massachusetts and his final concert at Tanglewood which his brother described as, 'Lenny coming home to die.'

Bernstein and Tanglewood; the two names are quite nearly synonymous.  Throughout Bernstein’s great and varied life work, one of the few constants was his involvement with the Tanglewood Institute.  His operas, Broadway shows, symphonies, concerts and controversies seldom stopped him from spending time at Tanglewood during Berkshire summers.  The joy that Bernstein experienced while conducting and spending time in Tanglewood was unbounded. His daughter, Jamie Bernstein, was once quoted as saying “Every time he (Bernstein) went up there (to Tanglewood) it was like he would be rejuvenated. He would turn into a kid again”(1).  Bernstein’s connection to Tanglewood could nearly be described as spiritual; the very first time he led a orchestra as a symphonic conductor was at Tanglewood. He conducted the Berkshire Music Center Orchestra in Randall Thompson’s Symphony No. 2, with the composer himself in the audience (2).  From his very first summer spent in Berkshire, under the guidance the of Koussevitzky, he was “hooked.” He described his time spent in summer study there as “the happiest and most productive of my life.” At Tanglewood, Bernstein’s conducting was truly put to the test; his extensive Tanglewood discography can account for that.  Over the rapturous summers spent in the Berkshires, he conducted Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, Wagner’s Prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, the American premiere of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes & many more. He held audiences spellbound and captured student musicians at the flick of his baton. In my opinion, it was only fitting that he spent the last years of his life conducting and bringing joy at Tanglewood – the place that brought him such rapture .  His final concert at Tanglewood was fittingly described by Bernstein’s brother as, “Lenny coming home to die.”

Bernstein and Koussevitzky
“For your creative energy, your instinct for truth, your incredible incorporation of teacher and artist, I give humble thanks. Seeing in you my own concepts matured is a challenge to me which I hope to fulfill in your great spirit.” - Bernstein in a Letter to Koussevitzky (2)

Koussevitzky imparted great musical and conducting knowledge onto the impressionable, young Bernstein.  Not only did Koussevitzky teach Bernstein to study each piece with passion and a singularity of mind, but Koussevitzky also stressed the importance of central themes, or lines, to Bernstein.  Bernstein’s dedication to central lines would propel him as a conductor for years into the future. Koussevitzky taught his young assistant to become absorbed by each work: taking each and every individual part to heart – though not to the same extent as Fritz Reiner.  In the summer of 1942, Bernstein played the bass drum in the American premiere of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7, Leningrad during which Koussevitzky conducted the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra.  Along with knowledge of musical material, Bernstein gained invaluable experience conducting on the stand.  In these formative years, under Koussevitzky’s watchful eye, Bernstein began to funnel his passion towards conducting into a sort of performance art.  Bernstein also began to incorporate large, thematic, gestures into his conducting. From Koussevitzky, the young Bernstein learned to mark the inner beats and to bring out counter-melodies throughout the orchestra.  However, their relationship was not without creative conflict. Koussevitzky wished to tamper Bernstein’s ego and said he ought to be an “interpreter of great musical works,” discouraging Bernstein from playing his own works as a conductor.  Still, Koussevitzky predicted that Bernstein would become the greatest conductor of all time, and their time spent at Tanglewood was truly invaluable.

“It was a renaissance for me - a rehabilitation of the twisted and undefined weltanschauung with which I came to you.” -Bernstein

Conducting Analysis

For this section of the blogpost, I have chosen to observe Bernstein’s conducting in action.   After all, in the public mind, the conductor is the living embodiment of musical power – holding a dozens of musicians under perfect control and unleashing the force of the full orchestra with mere gesture. Bernstein’s conducting, at Tanglewood, is excellent enough that any number of pieces could suffice .  However, this recording of Bernstein conducting Tchaikovsky’s 5th, is something special. At the beginning of the movement, Bernstein motions with great sweeping gestures to the strings and at times drops the baton practically to his knees when low voices takes up melody.  The inner beats are alluded to; melodies and counterpoints are highlighted with the flick of a baton. The emotion Bernstein feels in concert is clearly wrought upon his face and choreographed by his body. A discourse between conductor and conducted remains constant as Bernstein encourages and cues the seated players; every player maintains eye contact with Bernstein.  The result is truly compelling. The strings and woodwinds unite as a single and smooth voice. The brass stings in the proper places, and even though Bernstein may have become more subdued in his later years, the orchestra and their conductor bring new vitality to the symphony. In this performance, the fruits of Bernstein’s long years of labor become evident. In his element at his beloved Tanglewood, he holds perfect control over the orchestra: harnessing the techniques learned from Koussevitzky many summers ago as an assistant conductor.

August 19th, 1990

Bernstein led the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood, in what would be his final concert. Carl St. Clair conducted the BSO first in Bright Sheng’s orchestral transcription of Bernstein’s “Arias and Barcarolles”, and Bernstein then conducted Britten’s “Four Sea Interludes” and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7.  He suffered a coughing fit during the third movement of the Beethoven symphony, but continued to conduct the piece until its conclusion, leaving the stage during a standing ovation



“Better still was the Beethoven. It was done in Mr. Bernstein's characteristic mature style, meaning slower and heavier than he used to perform the Viennese classics. That robbed the score, the last movement especially, of some excitement. But it lent the proceedings a real grandeur, and the flowing Allegretto second movement was particularly gorgeous, with touch after instrumental touch striking home with the force of revelation.” - NY TIMES August 21, 1990 (4)


To conclude… Bernstein Shared a Special Connection with Tanglewood, and his years there saw him grow into, reputedly, the best conductor of all time.

Work Cited

(1) “Alex and Jamie Bernstein | Here’s the Thing.” WNYC Studios, 24 Dec. 2012,
(2) “Tanglewood Background.” Tanglewood | Educator | About | Leonard Bernstein,
(3) Alsop, Marin. “Leonard Bernstein, the Conductor.” Conductor | About | Leonard Bernstein,
(4) JOHN ROCKWELL, Special to The New York Times. “Review/Music; Bernstein Leads His Annual Tanglewood Concert.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 21 Aug. 1990,
(5) Ross, Daniel. “Leonard Bernstein Explains Beautifully and Eloquently Exactly What a Conductor Does.” Classic FM, 17 May 2016,