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.