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Serenade after Plato's "Symposium" for solo violin, strings, harp, and percussion

About the Work

Leonard Bernstein
Quick Look Composer: Leonard Bernstein
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Michael Christie, conductor/Jennifer Koh, violin, plays Bernstein Nov. 13 - 15, 2008
© Paul Horsley

Leonard Bernstein hit the 1950s running, tossing off Broadway musicals like Wonderful Town and West Side Story and operas like Trouble in Tahiti and Candide as if he were born to redefine the American stage. During the same period he was also building his international reputation as conductor and pianist, serving as music director of the Berkshire Music Center (Tanglewood) and ultimately becoming the first American-born music director of the New York Philharmonic. The dynamism of his interpretations of the central repertory with that orchestra grew partly from his synthesis of the Old-World traditions he learned from the legendary conductor Serge Koussevitzky - one of his teachers at Tanglewood - with the verve and energy he assimilated from jazz and Tin Pan Alley tunes.

Even as a student he had asserted his intellectual independence, by attending Harvard instead of seeking the usual conservatory training. Among his teachers was the old-school contrapuntalist Walter Piston, whose rigorous methods left an indelible mark upon Bernstein's musical outlook and permeate even his works for the vernacular stage. Later he did study at the Curtis Institute and with Koussevitzky at Tanglewood.

In addition to musicals, Bernstein composed serious works throughout his career, including symphonies, incidental music and chamber music. (In fact, many fans of his conducting felt a tad betrayed in the 1960s when he gave up the Philharmonic post to devote more time to composing.) Today many of these works have become repertoire standards, including one that Bernstein himself valued highly, the Serenade for solo violin and orchestra. Composed in 1954 on commission from the Koussevitzky Foundation, it was dedicated "to the beloved memory of Serge and Natalie Koussevitzky." Bernstein's mentor had died in June 1951, and the Serenade - a reflection in dialogue form on various aspects of love, as expressed in Plato's Symposium - clearly pays homage to his great teacher.

Since its first performance by Isaac Stern in Venice in September 1954, with the composer conducting the Israel Philharmonic, the Serenade has become one of the most frequently performed American works for solo violin and orchestra. Though Bernstein denied that a literal program for the Serenade was necessary, he allowed the following literary framework to be reproduced at the front of the printed score:

"There is no literal program for the 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:

"I. Phaedrus - Pausanias (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.

"II. Aristophanes (Allegretto) Aristophanes does not play the role of the clown in this dialogue, but instead that of the bedtime story-teller, invoking the fairy-tale mythology of love.

"III. 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.

"IV. 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.

"V. 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 by Alcibiades and his band of drunken revellers 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."

In the end, programmatic aspects are indeed evident in the Serenade as well - such as the use of fugue to represent "bodily harmony," or the classical (bipartite) sonata form to reflect the "duality of lover and beloved."