The Five Ages of Man was commissioned by the Norfolk and Norwich Triennial Music Festival in 1964, where it was first performed by the Festival Choir and Orchestra, conducted by Charles Mackerras.
The text, taken from Hesiod’s Works and Ways, is a Greek version of the story of the decline and fall of man. In the original legend (probably from Iran) man was destined to pass through four ages, each symbolised by a metal - gold, silver, copper and iron. But in Hesiod a fifth age interpolated before the final iron age, which breaks this sequence of metals. For Hesiod did not surrender the idea of a brief time of honour and glory in the history of man - the Homeric age of heroes.
The slow orchestral introduction represents the paradise of justice and morality where man was originally placed, and some of the music extends through into the section describing this golden age where men lived as if they were Gods. The section starts with a passage which is used through the work to herald each of the different ‘ages’; the words are nearly the same each time ‘and Zeus, son of Kronos created/established the first/next generation’. The passage is slightly varies each time so as to give a hint of the prevailing orchestral colour in the following part.
In contrast with the smooth flowing lines of the golden age, the ‘silly silver age’ when man never fully became adult, is frustrated by the staccato writing in wind, strings and piano. This texture is interrupted by the more ominous sounds of the brass accompanying the works ‘and therefore Zeus in anger engulfed them’.
The brass plays a more prominent part in the third section describing the warlike bronze age, ‘terrible, string and violent’ - though there is a quiet ending - ‘and they had to forsake the shining sunlight’.
As a complete contrast the fourth section ‘the wonderful generation of hero-men is accompanied virtually by strings alone, though there is an important trumpet theme. But at the end, there is a brief reference to the opening orchestral introduction at the point where the poet describes how this generation of ‘half-gods’ were granted a carefree and prosperous afterlife.
Finally, comes the age of iron with its terrible anxieties, when ’Right will be in the arm’ and when ‘There shall be no defence against evil’. Here a brass band of seven players joins in. This has two functions: in some places to reinforce the big climaxes, in others to play antiphonally with the orchestral brass; for this reason it is intended that the two brass groups should be seated at opposite ends of the platform.
Hesiod is the first great Greek poet emphasising the justice which forms an important subsequent part of his poem. A short excerpt from this passage is used here at the end, where the music from the orchestral introduction now accompanies the softly-sung words ‘Listen to justice’. This is juxtaposed against the loud, strident and despairing theme ‘Now is the age of iron’ which interrupts several times.
The whole work thus ends with an unresolved question; one which was posed by Hesiod nearly three thousand years ago; will justice prevail or will we succumb to the catastrophe of the age of iron?