Leonard Bernstein (1918–1990) is probably best known as one of the greatest American conductors and musical scholars of the 20th century, but he was also an influential composer. Among his many works are pieces such as the wildly popular musical West Side Story, the operetta Candide, and three symphonies. His Serenade (after Plato’s “Symposium”), which is generally categorized as a violin concerto, is perhaps his most famous non-theatrical work, and has been performed by many great violinists, including Joshua Bell, Gidon Kremer, and Isaac Stern. The piece, scored solo violin with strings, harp, and percussion is based on the Plato’s Symposium, the text in which he introduced the concept of Platonic love. Plato’s work takes the form of a set of speeches by seven different men, each praising a different aspect of love. Bernstein condensed some of the speakers, resulting in a five movement structure.

Bernstein did not intend to literally follow the text of Symposium, saying, “There is no literal program for this serenade.” Instead he followed the general form of the dialogue, with each movement derived from the preceding movement’s material, like a speaker addressing what the previous speaker has said. Rather than a summary of Plato’s work, the Serenade can be seen as Bernstein’s personal reaction to it. The Serenade is one of Bernstein’s more experimental and dissonant works, integrating some aspects of twelve-tone compositional techniques. In some ways, its orchestration even foreshadows Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 14. In its last movement it also includes elements of jazz, much like many other prominent American works.

The Serenade seems to be an expression of Bernstein’s own moral and political views, although it is slightly cryptic, and it is hard to derive the true meaning. Bernstein was a pacifist and an advocate for international peace, and during the 1950s, there was a constant threat of war with the Soviet Union and its allies. Bernstein devoted a number of his major compositions, including as his MASS (yes, it’s actually capitalized like that), to spreading his ideals about peace. For much of his career, Bernstein was even under surveillance by the FBI, because they feared that he was a communist sympathizer.

At the time that Bernstein wrote his Serenade, he was struggling with his sexuality. Bernstein was homosexual, at a time long before this was considered acceptable by the general population. Hoping to dispel rumors about his homosexuality, he eventually married a woman only a few years before he wrote his Serenade. It is worth noting that Plato’s Symposium contains passages that argue that homosexuality should not be considered morally wrong.

Overall, Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade is a prime specimen of American 20th century music, and it is a shame that it is not more popular than it is.

Sources/Further Exploration: