Serenade after Plato's Symposium

Leonard Bernstein (1918 - 1990)

Program Notes by Dr. K. Dawn Grapes

Leonard Bernstein
Serenade after Plato’s Symposium
Date of Composition: 1954
Duration: 30 minutes

Have you ever imagined what it would be like to attend dinner with a carefully selected group of historical figures? What would the conversations be? How would guests respond to one another? After reading Plato’s Symposium, Leonard Bernstein (1918–1990) was inspired to musically depict just that scenario. Serenade after Plato’s Symposium shows Bernstein’s intellectual approach to creating music. This is demonstrated not only in terms of the subject matter—Plato envisions the commentary of seven disparate Greek philosophers, each with their own perspective on the manifestations of human love—but also in the construction of the composition itself. Bernstein wrote, “The music, like the dialogue is a series of related statements in praise of love, and generally follows the Platonic form through the succession of speakers at the banquet.” Each of five movements presents the viewpoint of one or two of the philosophers, and each successive movement builds upon what came before in a distinct musical style. Though Bernstein claimed the composition was not programmatic, he not only mostly follows the order of speakers originally penned by the 4th century B.C. scholar (only Eryximachus and Aristophanes are reversed), but he also wrote a detailed description of each movement’s story “for the benefit of those interested in literary allusion.”

Bernstein was one of the most acclaimed American musicians of the 20th century. Equally talented as a pianist, composer, conductor, author, and educator, he advocated for the arts throughout his life. During summers at Tanglewood in the 1940s, the young musician served as an assistant to Serge Koussevitsky, long-time artistic director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The renowned conductor became one of Bernstein’s most important mentors. It was in memory of Koussevitsky and his first wife Natalie that Bernstein composed his Serenade, fulfilling a commission from the Koussevitsky Foundation at the same time. Although called a serenade, the Plato-inspired chamber work functions more like a violin concerto. Bernstein wrote the composition to be played by well-known violinist Isaac Stern, another young musician taking the mid-20th century musical world by storm. Stern premiered Serenade in Venice with his friend, the composer, at the podium.

Program Notes by Dr. K. Dawn Grapes, ©2021

Program Notes by Dr. William E. Runyan

The world rarely enjoys the genius of someone who excels supremely in so many artistic endeavors as that of Leonard Bernstein.  Pianist, conductor, television personality, teacher, mentor, social gadfly, and composer of both popular musical theatre and “serious works,” Bernstein wore all hats with enthusiasm.  And he enjoyed stunning success in most.  He had a passion about everything that he essayed, whether conducting the Mahler that he loved so well, or helping audiences peel apart the mysteries of music in his many teaching roles.

The foundation of his far-ranging intellect was a superb education and a deep intellectual curiosity.  Only a cursory review of his oeuvre reveals the degree to which he was influenced as a composer by the world’s best literary works.  Indeed, to write a violin concerto—which is how he characterized it for most of its gestation—that reputedly stems from one of Plato’s most important dialogues says much about the composer.

Serenade was commissioned by the Koussevitzky Music Foundation and dedicated to Bernstein’s early champions, Serge and Natalie Koussevitzky.  Completed on August 7, 1954, it was given its première only about a month later by Isaac Stern in Venice.  It is known that Bernstein had been reading Plato about that time, and seems to have crafted some salient changes into what probably was originally intended to be a more or less conventional violin concerto.  But, obviously, the “concerto” turned out to be a rather different creature altogether.

During the twentieth century there was widespread interest in Classical models, with artists like Stravinsky, Picasso, Balanchine, and a host of others leading the way.  Serenade is Bernstein’s reaction to Plato’s dialogue, a series of speeches at a symposium (a drinking party) in praise of love that explore and reflect over the variety of meanings that the concept could take some two and half millennia ago.  Which, of course, may differ significantly from our understanding today.  It’s pretty clear that Bernstein had written much of the score before he transformed the details of Plato’s work onto his own, but no matter.  As the work grew into five movements, it was clear that the title, “concerto,” was no longer really applicable, so it became a “serenade.”  The latter was a popular multi-movement entertainment in the eighteenth century, often performed outdoors, of a light, flexible nature.

The opening measures establish the basic melodic material of the entire work. However, it is constantly varied and transformed in myriad guises throughout.  The initial lyricism admirably set the tone of the piece and is absolutely typical of Bernstein’s personal style in the 1950s.  Equally important is his mastery and dedication to the array of technical complexities of form and development that carry the whole.  While the composer is beloved for his triumphs in musical theatre, movie scores, and other light entertainment, he strove all his life for equal achievement as a serious composer.  With mixed results, it must be said.  Notwithstanding his efforts in large, serious symphonic compositions, Serenade may endure as perhaps one his most successful, disciplined, and well-crafted works.

Bernstein was a voluble, articulate, and insightful speaker on any musical idea.  His own detailed remarks on Serenadeare more than helpful:

“There is no literal program for this Serenade, despite the fact that it resulted from a re-reading of Plato’s charming dialogue, ‘The Symposium.’  The music, like the dialogue, is a series of related statements in praise of love, and generally follows the Platonic form through the succession of speakers at the banquet. The ‘relatedness’ of the movements does not depend on common thematic material, but rather on a system whereby each movement evolves out of elements in the preceding one.  For the benefit of those interested in literary allusion, I might suggest the following points as guideposts:

  1. Phaedrus: Pausanius (Lento; Allegro). Phaedrus opens the symposium with a lyrical oration in praise of Eros, the god of love. (Fugato, begun by the solo violin). Pausanias continues by describing the duality of lover and beloved. This is expressed in a classical sonata-allegro, based on the material of the opening fugato.
  2. Aristophanes (Allegretto). Aristophanes does not play the role of clown in this dialogue, but instead that of the bedtime story-teller, invoking the fairytale mythology of love.
  3. Eryximachus (Presto). The physician speaks of bodily harmony as a scientific model for the workings of love-patterns. This is an extremely short fugato scherzo, born of a blend of mystery and humor.
  4. Agathon (Adagio). Perhaps the most moving speech of the dialogue, Agathon’s panegyric embraces all aspects of love’s powers, charms and functions. This movement is a simple three-part song.
  5. Socrates: Alcibiades (Molto tenuto; Allegro molto vivace). Socrates describes his visit to the seer Diotima, quoting her speech on the demonology of love. This is a slow introduction of greater weight than any of the preceding movements; and serves as a highly developed reprise of the middle section of the Agathon movement, thus suggesting a hidden sonata-form. The famous interruption of Alcibiades and his band of drunken revelers ushers in the Allegro, which is an extended Rondo ranging in spirit from agitation through jig-like dance music to joyful celebration. If there is a hint of jazz in the celebration, I hope it will not be taken as anachronistic Greek party-music, but rather the natural expression of a contemporary American composer imbued with the spirit of that timeless dinner party.”

Program Notes by Dr. William E. Runyan, ©2021

Performed by the Fort Collins Symphony on the concert Fury, Contemplation, and Hope at the Lincoln Center, October 2021.