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About this Piece

Serenade, after Plato’s Symposium

for Violin, Strings, Harp, and Percussion

Leonard Bernstein was the ultimate musical hyphenate of our century, a true Renaissance man in his activities as composer, conductor, pianist, lecturer, writer, teacher, communicator par excellence to young people and, on another level of human endeavor, socio-political agitator.

His creative achievements run a wide gamut within a relatively small catalog. A writer of symphonies, operas, choral music, and chamber works, in virtually all of which the element of jazz is exploited, Bernstein reached his largest audience through the Broadway theater. Yet, although West Side Story represents a high watermark in his compositional output, such a piece as the Serenade confirms Bernstein’s authority and distinction as a composer of concert music.

It always seemed surprising that Bernstein, excellent pianist that he was, did not produce a piano concerto as such. His Second Symphony, “The Age of Anxiety,” does indeed have a virtuoso piano part, but it is still not a drop-dead piano concerto of the Rachmaninoff or Prokofiev type. Apparently the composer shied away from the time-honored designation, for the present work, with its seriously athletic and expressive violinistics, and notwithstanding its literary context, could easily have been called a concerto rather than a serenade.

The composition was written on a commission from the Koussevitzky Musical Foundation and is dedicated “to the beloved memory of Serge and Natalie Koussevitzky.” (Bernstein had studied conducting with Koussevitzky at the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood in the summers of 1940 and 1941, and he became the Boston Symphony Orchestra conductor’s protégé.) Bernstein completed the score of the Serenade in August 1954 and wrote the following description of it:

“There is no literal program for this Serenade. The music, like Plato’s dialogue, is a series of related statements in praise of love. 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, a form I initiated in my Second Symphony.

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 the lover as compared with the 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 clown in this dialogue, but instead that of the bedtime storyteller, invoking the fairy-tale mythology of love. The atmosphere is one of quiet charm.

III. Erixymathus (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 (and famous) speech of the dialogue, Agathon’s panegyric embraces all aspects of love’s powers, charms, and functions. This movement is simply a 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. Love as a demon is Socrates’ image for the profundity of love, and his seniority adds to the feeling of didactic soberness in an otherwise pleasant and convivial after-dinner discussion. 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 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 [there is more than a hint], 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.”

-- Orrin Howard annotated programs for the Los Angeles Philharmonic for more than 20 years while serving as Director of Publications and Archives. He continues to contribute regularly to the program book.


30 minutes

Orchestration: strings, harp, timpani, percussion (bass drum, chimes, Chinese blocks, glockenspiel, snare drum, suspended cymbals, tambourine, tenor drum, triangle, and xylophone), and solo violin

First Los Angeles Philharmonic: August 16, 1955, with soloist Isaac Stern, Leonard Bernstein conducting.