Leonard Bernstein

Serenade (after Plato: Symposium), for violin, harp, percussion & strings; also for violin & piano

    Description by Robert Adelson

    Bernstein's own notes for the Serenade for violin and orchestra (1954) stress, a bit disingenuously, that the work has no "literal program," but was inspired by a re-reading of Symposium, Plato's celebrated dialogue on the nature of love. Still, the composer provides a detailed description of each movement "for the benefit of those interested in literary allusion." For the most part, Bernstein indeed eschews an obvious programmatic approach in his setting of the dialogue, resisting the temptation to translate into music Aristophanes' onset of hiccoughs or Apollodorus' delight in the rhythm of the syllables of Pausanias' name. (Or, for that matter, using a pausane -- a trombone -- to portray Pausanias.) As a result, some critics have argued that Bernstein's invocation of Plato's work constitutes little more than a sign of intellectual elitism, a remnant of the composer's years at Harvard. There is, however, more to the work's relationship to the Symposium: what the composer derives from Plato is a model for relating the parts of a large-scale work through a process of continuous variation.

    In the Symposium, as in other Platonic dialogues, each successive speaker takes as a starting point the virtues or deficiencies of the previous speaker's remarks. In this way, new ideas are introduced while at the same time serving to refine, delimit, or expand upon earlier ideas. In Bernstein's Serenade, similarly, the intervals and contours of the opening theme reappear and are examined from new angles and in new contexts throughout the remainder of the work. There is also a second, hidden program embedded in the Serenade. Woven into the fabric are three complete movements from Bernstein's Anniversaries, short piano pieces the composer wrote throughout his life as birthday gifts or memorial tributes to intimates -- a particularly appropriate "borrowing," perhaps, for a work about the power of love.

    The Serenade's first movement, "Phaedrus; Pausanius" (Lento; Allegro), is cast as a slow fugato introduction followed by a sonata-allegro. Bernstein compares the movement to a "lyrical oration in praise of Eros" and an expression of "the duality of lover and the beloved." The second movement, "Aristophanes" (Allegro), assumes, in Bernstein's words, the role of "bedtime storyteller, invoking the fairy-tale mythology of love." "Eryximachus" (Presto), a brief fugato, echoes the work's contrapuntal opening. "Agathon" (Adagio), in three-part song form (ABA), "embraces all aspects of love's powers, charms, and functions." The final movement, "Socrates; Alcibiades" (Molto tenuto; Allegro molto vivace), begins with a slow reflection based on a section of the previous movement, giving way to a rondo marked by the festive high spirits of a bacchanalian celebration.

    Serenade calls for an orchestra composed of strings, harp and percussion. The work was premiered at the 1954 Venice Festival with Isaac Stern as soloist and Bernstein as conductor, and was later choreographed, most notably as Jerome Robbins' ballet Serenade for Seven.


    1. Phaedrus. Pausanias. Lento - Allegro
    2. Aristophanes. Allegretto
    3. Erixymachus. Presto
    4. Agathon. Adagio
    5. Socrates. Alcibiades. Molto tenuto - Allegro molto vivace

    Appears On

    Year Title Label Catalog #
    2018 Orfeo C 932182A
    2018 Challenge Classics CC 72755
    2018 Decca / Deutsche Grammophon 4798418
    2017 Masterworks / Sony Classical 88985395202
    2017 Orange Mountain Music OMM0114
    2017 Orange Mountain Music
    2016 Deutsche Grammophon 4796220
    2016 Deutsche Grammophon 4796316
    2015 Warner Classics 552368
    2015 Sony Classical 88875126182
    2015 eOne EOMCD 7792
    2014 Mirare MIR 244
    2012 Warner Classics 657656
    2012 Warner Classics 2564657657
    2011 Deutsche Grammophon 002894779464
    2010 Sony Masterworks 8869771772
    2009 Sony Classical Essential Classics / Sony Classics 50529
    2009 BIS 1662
    2008 EMI Classics
    2008 EMI Classics 2081242
    2008 EMI Classics 08286
    2008 Sony Classical Essential Classics 88697306012
    2008 EMI Classics
    2008 EMI Classics / Warner Classics 5099920661
    2008 Sony Music Distribution 727988
    2006 Delos 3357
    2006 Deutsche Grammophon 000646102
    2006 Sony Music Distribution 77138
    2006 Sony Music Distribution 77136
    2005 Naxos 8559245
    2003 Deutsche Grammophon 000001402
    2003 EMI Classics 62600
    2003 Deutsche Grammophon 000131302
    2003 EMI Classics 85083
    2001 Sony Classical 89358
    2001 Sony Classical 89358
    2001 Deutsche Grammophon 469115
    2000 Deutsche Grammophon 447957
    1999 Sony Classical 60584
    1999 Sony Music Distribution 47162
    1999 Deutsche Grammophon 445185
    1998 Sony Music Distribution SMK-60559
    1998 Sony Music Distribution SMK-60558
    1995 Sony Music Distribution 67194
    1995 EMI Music Distribution 55360
    1995 Sony Classical 64508
    1994 Deutsche Grammophon 445245
    1992 Nimbus 5329
    1990 Sony Classical 45956
    EMI Music Distribution 49464
    New York Philharmonic