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5 things you should know about Bernstein and His World

November 16 and 17 the San Diego Symphony will perform Bernstein and His World – a celebration of Berstein@100 with works inspired by him and written by close colleagues and contemporaries and his own symphony The Age of Anxiety with guest pianist Orli Shaham. Here are five things we found interesting about this rarely performed work.


1. W.H. Auden’s The Age of Anxiety is the author’s longest and most controversial piece he ever wrote. At 80 pages and in six parts, the long poem won the Pulitzer Prize in 1948 and Bernstein found it to be "fascinating and hair-raising." The poem focuses on four characters who meet in a New York City bar, and spend the evening trying find substance and identity in an increasingly industrialized world. Auden's poem became the inspiration for Bernstein's composition of the same name.

2. Bernstein finished the piece in 1949, amidst struggles of his own anxiety related to balancing his life as a composer, performer and public figure. Bernstein, under pressure to dispel rumors about being a gay man, married actress Felicia Cohn Montealegre two years later in 1951. Some believe that his mentor Dimitri Mitropoulos encouraged the marriage to avoid conflict from conversative board members of symphony orchestras.

3. Bernstein scored The Age of Anxiety for solo piano and orchestra, and divided the work into six uninterrupted movements to mirror the structure of Auden’s poem. While not a piano concerto, Bernstein wrote the piano solo as a depiction of man himself, anxiously living in the world around him – the “world” meaning the orchestra. Bernstein premiered the work in 1949 with himself at the piano, under the baton of Serge Koussevitzky (of whom the work was dedicated).

4. The work was revised in 1965 to include the piano in the last movement of the piece. Bernstein conducted the 1965 revision and it remains to be the final version of the piece we hear performed today.

5. Masters of Bernstein’s work, solo pianist Orli Shaham and conductor Steven Sloan have performed The Age of Anxiety with professional orchestras across the United States and will be featured on the Symphony's program. Shaham’s favorite movement of the piece is “The Masque” because it “ feels like you’re in a jazz club ... and is so tuneful." "The Masque" is scored for piano, percussion, harp and double bass.

Join us for two performances of Bernstein and His World at 8 p.m. on November 16 and 17. For more information, check out Nuvi Mehta’s latest podcast – all about Leonard Bernstein and his Second Symphony: The Age of Anxiety.

This post was written by Angel Mannion for the San Diego Symphony.

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