Symphony No. 2 "The Age of Anxiety"
Leonard Bernstein (1918 - 1990)
Leonard Bernstein earned his initial fame as a conductor. In 1943 he stepped in to conduct the New York Philharmonic when Bruno Walter was ill, and he so impressed the music director, Artur Rodzinski that he was appointed assistant conductor. He went on to a distinguished career as a conductor, but also became an active composer, with some of his best work coming out of that decade. He wrote, among other works, his first symphony, and then his second, before going on to write musicals for the broadway stage in the 50s. His second symphony, subtitled "The Age of Anxiety" was composed in 1949 and was inspired by a book-length poem by W. H. Auden. Auden's The Age of Anxiety was written in 1947 and focused on the spiritual angst and cultural condition of the mid-twentieth century. It got terrible reviews. The Times Literary Supplement called it "his one dull book, his one failure." T. S. Elliot, however, called it "Auden's best work to date", and it won a Pulitzer Prize in 1948. Bernstein called it "one of the most shattering examples of pure virtuosity in the history of English poetry." He became obsessed with the idea of writing a symphony based on it.
The work was commissioned by Bernstein's long-time mentor Serge Koussevitsky and it premiered on April 8, 1949, with Koussevitsky conducting and Bernstein playing the piano solo. The story depicts an encounter between four individuals in New York City during wartime. They meet in a bar in the "Prologue," converse about the metaphysical world and the human condition in "The Seven Ages" and "The Seven Stages" of man, lament the loss of a guiding father figure (apparently FDR who had died in 1945) in the "Dirge", head to a party in "Masque" and then take leave of each other in the "Epilogue," each returning to their everyday lives. The music sounds at times like English pastoral themes and at other times like American urban music - jazz, be-bop, and blues. Bernstein apparently saw himself in the poem and described himself as an "autobiographical protagonist" while he presented Auden's story.
In his own program note, Bernstein says, "I was merely writing a symphony inspired by a poem and following the general form of that poem. Yet, when each section was finished I discovered, upon re-reading, detail after detail of programmatic relation to the poem - details that had ‘written themselves', wholly unplanned and unconscious…" He later said that, apart from the poem, "the Symphony has acquired a life of its own." and declared himself satisfied with the work in its final form.
Pictures at an Exhibition
Modest Mussorgsky (1839 - 1881)
Mussorgsky composed Pictures at an Exhibition in 1874 to commemorate a very close friend, Victor Hartmann, who died at age 39, causing Mussorgsky profound grief. He struggled with a way to honor his friend, and when he attended an exhibition of 400 pieces of Hartmann's work, he was deeply moved. In a few weeks he had written a suite of ten piano pieces dedicated to Hartmann and to the organizers of the exhibit.
The ten pictures Mussorgsky chose for his suite included a gnome-shaped nutcracker, a bard singing near an ancient castle, children playing and quarreling in the park, a lumbering wooden oxcart, peeping chicks emerging from their shells, two Polish Jews arguing, the women and vendors in a marketplace, the gloom of the catacombs beneath Paris, the grotesque witch Baba Yaga of Russian Folklore, and an architectural design for the gate of Kiev, never actually built. The pictures are interspersed with a "promenade" theme suggesting the walking gait of a viewer strolling through a museum, stopping to study the details of each picture. Mussorgsky appears to have chosen the works because of the variety of moods suggested and the opportunity to make use of a variety of musical styles.
Mussorgsky died at age 42, his life shortened by alcoholism and depression, and his suite was not published until 1886, five years after his death. His original suite did not generate much interest among pianists of the day, but several attempts were made to orchestrate it. In 1922 Maurice Ravel took the suite to Serge Koussevitsky, music director of the Boston Symphony, who commissioned him to orchestrate it. The world premiere of Ravel's orchestration, with Koussevitsky conducting, took place in Paris in October of 1922. Ravel's orchestration seems to bring the piano works to life, underscoring the mood of each section by using appropriate instruments. For example, the chirping chicks are well represented by the woodwinds. The dark mood of the catacombs is evoked by reverent brass, and percussion brings out the nastiness of the witch. The finale, featuring the great gate of Kiev, is presented with full brass and pealing carillons.
The work has subsequently been arranged for many kinds of ensemble, and many attempts have been made to recapture the mood of the original keyboard work. Each version serves to remind the listener that the work was always a masterpiece in its own right, lending itself to a world of possibilities for individual interpretation.