The Artist’s Struggle

Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990): Serenade (after Plato’s Symposium) for Solo Violin, String Orchestra, Harp and Percussion

Commissioned by the Koussevitzky Foundation, the Serenade was completed in August, 1954 and first performed by Isaac Stern and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, under Bernstein’s direction, on September 12, 1954 in Venice.

For one of the early performances of the work Bernstein provided the following program note: “There is no literal program for this 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. 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. Aristophanes does not play the role of clown in this dialogue, but, instead, that of the bedtime story-teller, invoking the fairy-tale mythology of love.

“III. Eryximachus. 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. 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. 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 as the natural expression of a contemporary American composer imbued with the spirit of that timeless dinner party.”

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893): Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74 (Pathetique)
I. Adagio–Allegro non troppo
II. Allegro con grazia
III. Allegro molto vivace
IV. Adagio lamentoso–Andante

“I love it as I never loved any of my musical children,” wrote Tchaikovsky about his Sixth Symphony. He had sketched a new symphony in the fall of 1892, but was dissatisfied with it. “I had completed a symphony which suddenly displeased me,” he wrote to his brother Anatol, “and I tore it up. Now I have composed a new symphony which I certainly shall not tear up.”

By February, 1893, Tchaikovsky described to his nephew Vladimir Davidov “a symphony with a program, but a program that will remain an enigma to all. Let them guess for themselves; the symphony will be called merely ‘Programmatic Symphony.’ But the program is indeed permeated with subjectiveness, so much so that not once but often, while composing it in my mind, I wept.”

However, between the two World Wars, a penciled note in Tchaikovsky’s handwriting was discovered: “The ultimate essence of the plan of the Symphony is LIFE. First part–all impulsive passion, confidence, thirst for activity. Must be short. (Finale DEATH–result of collapse.) Second part love; third disappointments; fourth ends dying away (also short).”

Work on the symphony was interrupted by a trip to England to receive an honorary doctorate from Cambridge University. By August, he was back home, writing to his publisher: “On my word of honor, never in my life have I been so satisfied with myself, so proud, so happy to know that I have made, in truest fact, a good thing.”

The first performance of the Sixth Symphony took place in St. Petersburg on October 28, 1893, with Tchaikovsky conducting. The reception was lukewarm, one reviewer complaining that “as far as inspiration is concerned, this music stands far below Tchaikovsky’s other symphonies.” Even Tchaikovsky noticed that “something strange is happening to this symphony. It is not exactly disliked, but it seems to puzzle people. As for me, I am prouder of it than of any of my other compositions.”

The day after the première, Tchaikovsky’s brother Modeste suggested “Pathetique” as a subtitle for the work and Tchaikovsky agreed. The new title acquired fresh irony when, on November 6, 1893, just nine days of the first performance, Tchaikovsky died. Whether his death was the result of cholera from drinking unboiled water or suicide by arsenic is still being debated.

Sir Donald Francis Tovey wrote: “It is not for merely sentimental or biographical reasons that Tchaikovsky’s Sixth has become the most famous of all his works. Nowhere else has he concentrated so great a variety of music within so effective a scheme; and the slow finale, with its complete simplicity of despair, is a stroke of genius which solves all the artistic problems that have proved most baffling to symphonic writers since Beethoven. The whole work carries conviction without the slightest sense of effort; and its most celebrated features…are thrown into their right relief by developments far more powerful, terse, and highly organized than Tchaikovsky has achieved in any other work…. All Tchaikovsky’s music is dramatic; and the Pathetic Symphony is the most dramatic of all his works.”

~ Program Notes by Charley Samson, copyright 2018.