'The Prologue' finds four lonely characters together in a bar and in Bernstein's symphony it is a duet for two clarinets, one improvising and the other echoing. It ends with a long descending scale on the flute, acting, according to Bernstein, 'as a bridge into the realm of the subconscious, where most of the poem takes place.'
Part One continues with The Seven Ages, where the life of a man is reviewed from the four characters' points of view. It begins with a dissonant chorale like theme for solo piano. Labelled Variation One to conform to the Auden-derived framework, it is the first of a set of seven short pieces, played without a break and linked one to the other by fragments of melodies or rhythms which are planted at the end of one 'variation' and then developed in the next. Bernstein describes this movement as a 'four-fold discussion' which is 'reasonable and almost didactic in tone.' Bernstein's music is symphonic in its technique but it could have been more accurate to describe the work as a concerto.
In The Seven Stages, after Auden's description of a dreamlike state, deep in the unconscious, Bernstein continues with seven more variations of the same modest dimensions as The Seven Ages, beginning with a section that recalls his affection for Benjamin Britten. Later there are reminiscences of Hindemith and Shostakovich.
Bernstein wrote part of The Dirge, the slow movement that begins Part Two, while in Israel and it reflects the mood of the country at that time. We are being asked to mourn for the twentieth century's loss of faith. Bernstein responds with what he describes as 'almost Brahmsian romanticism.' The Masque follows without a break; Bernstein's musical transitions are managed with considerable style. Bernstein's scherzo is a five minute jazz frolic. The Boston critic Cyrus Durgin described The Masque as 'the finest single movement in the American idiom and feeling that I have ever heard . . . A triumph of rhythmic interplay, subtle and unexpected accents, a marvellous distillation of the movement of jazz.'
The Age of Anxiety was revised by Bernstein in 1965 mainly to revaluate his attempt to mirror Auden's literary images. He felt that with a revised finale the work was in its final form.
Humphrey Burton's Bernstein biography and Bernstein's original program notes are referenced.
Leonard Bernstein Home Page