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Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990)

Serenade after Platos "Symposion"  (1954)

Bernstein 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.


Besides these explanations by Bernstein himself, I would like to dwell on some more personal points.

Platos text begins with Phaedrus explaining that Eros is the origin of everything else. In the Serenade the solo violin begins all alone, initiating a fugato. This could mean that indeed the violin here and elsewhere in the piece has to play the role of Eros.

As a female interpreter I also have to look for my role in this world dominated by homoerotic men. This role I find in Diotima: Diotima the wise seer is one of the very few women appearing in Platos works. And she is the key figure in this dialogue. The male orators present different views on love, Pausanias and Agathon being  idealistic, Aristophanes humoristic and the physician Eryximachos rather didactic. Sokrates demystifies some opinions of his predecessors and then goes on to talk about his visit to Diotima many years ago. Socrates, the most clever man in the circle describes how by questioning Diotima teached him that Eros is not necessarily beautiful, and that he is neither a god nor a mortal, but one of the demons. Demons mediate the dialogue between mortals and the infinite world of the gods: Eros in the form of heterosexual love renews the mortal existence to infinity by ever-evolving procreation. But homoerotic love is more apt to produce spiritual (platonic) love which refreshes and enlarges the spiritual existence taking it to ever new frontiers. In this way Eros produces all the arts, even the art of lawmaking and statebuilding. But they are only arts if they rejuvenate and evolve continually under the influence of Eros. Also the seer is empowered by the spell of Eros. If a human being feels and lives in these connexions it can be described as "demoniac".

In Bernsteins serenade this dialogue between Diotima and Socrates is translated into a canonic duet between violin (Diotima) and cello (Socrates). In the words of Bernstein this is "of greater weight than any of the preceding movements". As in Platos dialogue Socrates (the cello) follows the explanations of Diotima (the violin) but the peculiar key signatures - two flats in the violin and two sharps in the cello - create a tension between these different worlds. 

Diotimas views are deeper and more convincing than the rest of the lot. Playing Bernsteins Serenade I really want to be Diotima. Incidentally her views about perpetual spiritual innovation in art correspond to my own views on musical interpretation: Interpretation should be an ever evolving creative work in progress. According to Diotima a musician is only an artist if he connects to the divine by the demoniac spell of Eros. Otherwise he is limited to remain a mere technician and craftsman. One could not agree more to this 2500 years old wisdom... P.K.


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