Bernstein: Serenade

Serenade (after Plato’s Symposium)

LEONARD BERNSTEIN
BORN: August 25, 1918. Lawrence, Massachusetts
DIED: October 14, 1990. New York City

COMPOSED: Begun in autumn 1953, completed August 7, 1954. The work was written on commission from the Koussevitzky Music Foundation and dedicated “to the beloved memory of Serge and Natalie Koussevitzky”

WORLD PREMIERE: It received its first performance on September 12, 1954, at the Teatro La Fenice in Venice, Italy, with Isaac Stern as violin soloist and the composer conducting the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—March 1973. Seiji Ozawa conducted, with Stuart Canin as violin soloist. MOST RECENT—January 2002. Ingo Metzmacher conducted, Joshua Bell was violin soloist

INSTRUMENTATION: Solo violin, harp, timpani, snare drum, tenor drum, bass drum, triangle, suspended cymbal, xylophone, glockenspiel, chimes, Chinese blocks, tambourine, and strings

DURATION: About 30 mins

THE BACKSTORY  From this relatively late point in Bernstein’s career we move back to the summer of 1954, when he and his wife rented a home on Martha’s Vineyard, an island off the Massachusetts coast. He was seeking an off-season clearing-of-the-mind quite parallel to that which would lead to his 1980 sabbatical. During his Martha’s Vineyard summer, Bernstein concentrated on two major compositions. “My life is all Lillian Hellman and Candide,” he wrote to friends, “and the violin concerto for Isaac Stern to premiere at the Venice Festival in September. . . . I’ve cancelled all my conducting for the year. . . all of which means financial idiocy on my part.” Candide would go on for a long while; it was brought to provisional completion in 1956, but Bernstein kept rewriting it for the rest of his career. The “violin concerto,” however, was accomplished in less than a year once he set about working on it seriously in the fall of 1953, and people close to Bernstein reported that through the course of ensuing decades it remained one of his works of which he remained the fondest. The roots of the piece go back to the summer of 1951, when the Koussevitzky Music Foundation commissioned Bernstein to write a piece in memory of the recently departed Serge Koussevitzky, Bernstein’s early mentor.

THE MUSIC  Bernstein penned this program note the day after he signed off on the score: [Please note the below preserves Bernstein’s own punctuation.]

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:

I.         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.

II.       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.

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 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.

That Bernstein himself was a highly literate man is beyond question. The late composer-conductor-and-pianist Lukas Foss once said in an interview about Bernstein: “Probably the reason he had so much success with his collaborations in the music theater was that he was fired by the intrusion of the other arts, that they inspired his imagination. I would say that Lenny was the most well-read composer I have ever met. . . .”  A number of his works relate to literary sources of grand standing, including his early incidental music for The Birds and The Peace (two plays by Aristophanes), Candide (from Voltaire’s novella), West Side Story (ultimately from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet), and the Age of Anxiety Symphony (after poems by Auden). He is known to have been reading Plato in 1951, at about the time the Koussevitzky Foundation extended its commission, but there is no indication that he decided to attach Plato to the commission until later. The Bernstein biographer Humphrey Burton believes that the connection may have been forged “not long before the completion of the work, since a glance at Plato reveals obvious discrepancies between Bernstein’s adaptation and the original.” “Bernstein,” he continues, “names the individual movements of the concerto after the various speakers at the banquet but has changed the order of the speeches and modified their character. Thus in Bernstein’s version, Aristophanes, the comic playwright, becomes ‘a bedtime storyteller, invoking the fairy-tale mythology of love.’ Moreover, Bernstein shifts the emotional center of gravity from Socrates to Agathon. The fourth movement of the concerto, dedicated to Agathon, contains some of the most beautiful music of any twentieth-century score. But in Plato it is Socrates who has the longest and most important speech.” These are very cogent observations, and they lend credence to the idea that episodes from Plato’s Symposium may have been largely superimposed over a piece that had already found its own shape.

The decision to call this half-hour-long work a serenade, rather than a concerto, also seems to have come quite late in the process of composition, as is evident from Bernstein’s regularly referring to it as a concerto during the months preceding its completion. The designation Serenade connects the piece to the tradition of orchestral serenades cast in many movements (typically between five and eight) that was particularly popular in the eighteenth century. Early serenades tended to be on the light side, however, and Bernstein’s Serenade is not really a light piece. Burton imagines that Bernstein may have selected the name as an allusion to the fact that some early serenades were used for wooing—literally, serenades sung beneath a balcony.  “What Bernstein surely meant us to understand,” he writes, “was that his Serenade embodied all his loving feelings toward all his fellow human beings. Complete movements from Bernstein’s Anniversaries, short piano pieces dedicated to loving friends, are woven into the musical fabric of three of the Serenade’s five movements. But the work can also be perceived as a portrait of Bernstein himself: grand and noble in the first movement, childlike in the second, boisterous and playful in the third, serenely calm and tender in the fourth, a doom-laden prophet and then a jazzy iconoclast in the finale.”

James M. Keller

James M. Keller is Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and the New York Philharmonic. He is the author of Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford University Press).

MORE ABOUT THE MUSIC
Recordings: 
Vadim Gluzman with John Nechling conducting the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra (BIS)  |  Joshua Bell with David Zinman conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra (Sony Classical)  |  Gidon Kremer with Leonard Bernstein conducting the Israel Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon)  |  Both Divertimento and Serenade are coupled on a CD with violinist Philippe Quint and Marin Alsop conducting the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (Naxos)  

Reading: Leonard Bernstein, by Humphrey Burton (Doubleday)  |  Leonard Bernstein: A Life, by Merle Secrest (Bloomsbury)  |  Working with Bernstein, by Jack Gottlieb (Amadeus)  |  The Leonard Bernstein Letters, edited by Nigel Simeone (Yale)  |  Leonard Bernstein, by Paul Myers (Phaidon) 

(February 2018)