Bernstein's 1949 Symphony About 4 Strangers Who Meet In a Bar and Question Life's Meaning

May 24, 2018

Intrigued by a Pulitzer-winning 1947 poem by W.H. Auden, 30-year-old Leonard Bernstein wrote his second symphony for piano and orchestra based on the story of four people who meet in a New York City bar and hash out the meaning of life. WRTI’s Susan Lewis has more on Bernstein's The Age of Anxiety


The Philadelphia Orchestra on Tour in Europe and Israel performs Bernstein’s Second Symphony with soloist Jean-Yves Thibaudet in concerts broadcast LIVE on WRTI. Details here.

Two clarinets converse at the start of the symphony; the music then mirrors the narrative poem, but not in an explicit way. Pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet says it's more about the atmosphere, and the meaning of the story. It’s a very spiritual piece.

And the innovative use of a piano soloist in a symphony? “Actually, he said the piano was him, the one telling the story. “

In that story, three men and one woman share their perspectives on life. Bernstein writes variations on the seven stages of life from infancy to death; and seven more variations reflecting the characters’ increasingly inebriated search for meaning. Finally, they head to the woman’s apartment, where although exhausted, they party!  

“It's genius,” says Thibaudet  “You have the entire orchestra. They all stop playing.  Suddenly it's like a jazz piano trio.  Piano double bass and then a bunch of percussionists and we have fun for 10 minutes. It’s written fun; it’s not improvised, but it sounds like we’re improvising or jamming. It’s so cool!

The party eventually winds down. “And at the end  after all of that,  ... the faith is what wins.”  Thibaudet says he never fails to be moved:  “Every time I have goosebumps,  it’s so beautiful."

Auden’s poem won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1948. The next year, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, led by Serge Koussevitzky, premiered the symphony with Bernstein at the piano.