Bernstein’s Serenade (after Plato’s Symposium)

Notes by TŌN timpanist Keith Hammer III

The Background
Completed during the summer of 1954, Bernstein wrote this piece alongside his musical Candide. Similar to Candide, West Side Story, and The Age of Anxiety, Serenade relates directly to literature. This work (as stated in the subtitle) is based on Plato’s dialogue The Symposium. Plato’s work is a musical reflection of the impassioned, yet rancorous, speeches on the subject of love made by philosophers such as Aristophanes, Agathon, Phaedrus, and Socrates. Bernstein describes his thoughts on each movement and the philosophers’ speeches they represent.

I. Phaedrus; Pausanias
“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.”
Composed in sonata form, the second theme utilizes disjunct grace-note figures and dissonant intervals in an otherwise elegant solo violin part.

II. Aristophanes
“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.”
Much of the material derives from the grace-note theme of the first movement. The middle section incorporates a melody for the lower strings played in close canon.

III. Eryximachus
“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.”
This section contains music that corresponds thematically to the canon of the previous movement.

IV. Agathon
“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
“Socrates describes his visit to the seer Diotima, quoting her speech on the demonology of love. Love as a daemon 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, 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.”
Speaking through the voice of Diotima, Socrates proposes the notion that the most virtuous form of love is the love for wisdom (philosophy).