Auden’s “The Age of Anxiety” isn’t even the best work of art called “The Age of Anxiety”: if I’m a junior minister in Auden’s world, I’m barely a tea-boy in that of Leonard Bernstein, but I’d accord that honour to his Symphony No 2. Bernstein found the poem “fascinating and hair-raising”. From the time he read “The Age of Anxiety” in 1948 “the composition of a symphony based on [it] acquired an almost compulsive quality”, he wrote, describing an “extreme personal identification of myself with the poem, the essential line [of which] is the record of our difficult and problematic search for faith.” Three years after the Holocaust, in the year of the founding of Israel, one can scarcely imagine how “difficult and problematic” faith had become for Bernstein. Like the poem, the symphony is divided into six movements, each movement itself sub-divided, but many of the movements fade or blur into each other. By his own admission, Bernstein followed the poem very closely, with the piano representing the self in quest of meaning and faith, struggling to be understood, to be loved, against a backdrop of jazzily detached and distracted woodwinds, horns, celesta and wild percussion. For the quest section, the piano descends a tentative, untrustworthy scale, like the onset of dream, while “The Masque” – the bit in Rosetta’s apartment – is a scintillating piano solo, a real dance for dear life. Bernstein’s daughter Jaime called it “ridiculously difficult . . . one of the hardest parts ever written”, and it does magnificently what the poem can’t do – spins the characters out beyond reason in their desire to blot out the dismal world.
more from Glyn Maxwell at The Guardian here.