LEONARD BERNSTEIN (1918-1990)
Serenade (after Plato's "Symposium") (1954)
According to Leonard Bernstein: "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." Still, for those who haven't ever read Plato — or haven't read it since their English 101 class in college, here's a quick refresher on the logistics of Plato's most famous symposium. It is a retelling of a philosophical dialogue on the subject of love that occurred in 416 BCE, related by Appolorodus, a friend of Socrates. Greek symposia began with an evening meal, followed by a discussion of a given topic. Alcohol was an essential part of the festivities, with wine flowing freely. Symposia were all-male events (women held an inferior place in Greek society), with female slaves serving the meal and being available as sexual partners if called upon. During dinner, guests would recline on couches arranged in a U-shape, with each couch accommodating two or three men. There would also be music, entertainment, and party games. After the meal, libations were poured to the gods, and the drinking and speeches would begin. The topic for that night: an encomium to the god of Love. Phaedrus, Aristophanes, Erixymathus, Agathon, Socrates, and Alcibiades all weigh in on the topic, and Bernstein's musical translation of what they have to say varies from classical sonata-allegro form, to charming or humorous, and, in the final section, to joyful celebration. About the last movement, Bernstein wrote: "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." The music of Serenade is as close as Bernstein ever got to a violin concerto, and we are the richer for it.