Serenade after Plato's Symposium

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Serenade after Plato’s Symposium

Leonard Bernstein​
Born on August 25, 1918 in Lawrence, Massachusetts
Died on October 14, 1990 in New York, New York

By Marianne Williams Tobias
The Marianne Williams Tobias Program Note Annotator Chair


 “I feel, love, need, and respect people above all else … I believe in man’s unconscious, the deep spring from which comes his power to communicate and to love … all art’s a combination of these powers.” 

          —Leonard Bernstein

In 1972, Leonard Bernstein returned to his alma mater, when he was invited by Harvard University to teach as the Charles Eliot Norton professor of Poetry for the academic year, which in his case extended in the fall semester of 1973. In that time, he delivered a series of six lectures on music (compiled in The Unanswered Question, published in 1976). He tackled the topic with zeal, extended musical examples, and scholarship:.The lectures were titled:

Musical Phonology

Musical Syntax

Musical Semantics

The Delights and Dangers of Ambiguity

The Twentieth Century Crisis

The Poetry of the Earth

His lectures were received with acclaim and controversy, but undeniably launched the composer into academic prominence. YouTube offers the entire series should you wish to listen. They vary in length, from one to three hours. 

Although the lectures stretched over many weeks, the examination of a single topic was similar to Plato’s investigations of various topics in symposia…a meeting(s) to discuss a particular subject. The Greek symposium literally meant “drinking together,” and they were attended by men only. 

Bernstein’s choice of the original title “Symposium” clearly added a classical pedigree and reference to his musical work, which was completed August 7, 1954. He conducted the first performance on September 12 of that year. Bernstein noted to his biographer Humphrey Burton; “I was dissuaded from that title because people said it sounded so academic. I now [1986] regret that. I wish I had retained the title so people would know what it is based on... it is seven after dinner speeches at a banquet… it is really a love piece.” Additionally, he noted “the music, like Plato’s dialogue, is a series of related statements in praise of love…the relatedness [of the movements] relies on a system whereby each movement evolves out of the elements of the preceding one…” Hence, a continuation and development of a single topic.

Plato’s Symposium (dated 385–370) is a text which describes a gathering (symposium) in which the matter of love is praised and examined in dramatic dialogue format through speeches given by the participants. It was a stunning group; the seven men were: Aristophanes (comic playwright), Agathon (the host and poet), Phaedrus (Athenian aristocrat), Pausanias (legal expert), Eryximachus (physician), Socrates (Plato’s mentor and philosopher, who provides the final summation), and Alcibiades (orator and general). Bernstein explained; “[My] 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 a banquet.” 

On August 8, 1954, the day after completing his score, Bernstein wrote the following descriptions for each movement as a suggested series of “guideposts” for the listener: 

I. Phaedrus; Pausanias (Lento; Allegro marcato): Phaedrus opens the symposium with a lyrical oration in praise of Eros, the god of love. 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. Eryximachus the doctor (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. 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.

Special Bernstein relationships to Indiana University:

In 2009, Indiana University’s Jacobs Schools of Music received the contents of the Composer’s Fairfield Connecticut composing studio. At that time, his son stated: “My father’s artistic and educational connection with Indiana University was very strong. He adored the institution (he first visited IU in 1970) and became close to the Dean {Charles Webb}, its faculty and, of course, its students. My sisters, Jamie and Nina, join me in celebrating the continuation of this relationship by literally bringing together two of the places in which he was happiest working. We cannot imagine a more fitting home for this exciting new representation.” The current dean, Gwyn Richards noted; “It is thrilling to know that the link with Indiana continues and is strengthened through this remarkable gesture.” In 1987, the composer established the Leonard Bernstein Scholarship at the Jacobs School of Music, which is awarded to two music students every year.

© Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, 2017

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