Classical II: Musical Heroes

Leonard Bernstein was the greatest hero of American music, and we celebrate his 100th birthday with his Serenade (After Plato’s “Symposium”), featuring concertmaster Denise Dillenbeck. Brahms’ first symphony established the composer as Beethoven’s successor—a very heroic feat!

Leonard Bernstein
(August 25, 1918 – October 14, 1990)
Serenade (After Plato’s “Symposium”), for solo violin and orchestra

The 1950s were extraordinarily productive for Bernstein, the composer, including Wonderful Town (1953), Candide (1956), West Side Story (1957), Trouble in Tahiti (1952), and On the Waterfront (1954).  During the summer of 1954, he focused on two major compositions: Candide, and a violin concerto that would become the five-movement Serenade, composed for Isaac Stern, and supported by a commission from the Serge Koussevitzky Foundation.  He composed the piece in less than a year and dedicated it to the memory of Koussevitzky and Koussevitzky’s first wife, Natalie. Inspired by Plato’s Symposium,

According to the composer, ‘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.’ That is, each successive speaker takes as a starting point the virtues or deficiencies of the previous speaker’s remarks. Analogously, the music introduces new ideas through expansion or refinement of earlier elements from previous movements… (

Seven speakers inspired the work’s five movements: Phaedrus and Pausanias, Aristophanes, Eryximachus (the doctor), Agathon, and Socrates and Alcibiades.  There is no literal program, however Bernstein included written text in the score to guide how the music should be perceived and interpreted.  Excerpts for each follow:

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 the lover as compared with the beloved. This is expressed in a classical sonata-allegro, based on the material of the opening fugato… 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…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… 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… 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 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.

The premiere was conducted by Bernstein himself on September 12, 1954, in Venice, with Isaac Stern and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.  The overall effect of this concerto is evocative of its literary inspirations.  Its general lyricism and dramatic contrasts speak directly to the various expressions in praise of love, and the different musical personalities of the speakers are poignant, yet enjoyable.

Johannes Brahms
(May 7, 1833-April 3, 1897)
Symphony no. 1 in C minor, op. 68

Brahms approached orchestral music cautiously.  Perhaps it was his self-critical nature which caused him to destroy many early works, but it could also have been the daunting image of what a symphony represented, particularly in the huge shadow cast by Beethoven, made doubly daunting because of expectations placed on the young composer by friends and the public.  Brahms himself declared that his first symphony, from sketches to finishing touches, took 21 years to complete, from 1855 to 1876. He had begun composing a D minor symphony in 1854, but this work was eventually recast as his first Piano Concerto.  It wasn’t until 1868 that the structure of the first Symphony would be realized. In September of that year, he sent a card to his lifelong friend Clara Schumann sketching the alphorn tune which would be featured in the last movement, along with the famous message “Thus blew the shepherd’s horn today!” The symphony would still not be premiered for eight more years, on November 4, 1876, in Karlsruhe, Germany.

The symphony begins with a loud dramatic introduction that features three primary musical materials: the constant tympani beat, a rising line in the strings, and a descending line in the winds. The Allegro section of the movement begins in an earnest and forthright mood, with all three musical materials in play.  After a more subdued contrasting section, all three materials participate in the development which covers a full range of emotions, from flashing brass fanfares to lush string melodies.  A final buildup to the recapitulation brings the loud tympani back into the mix, and then all materials are revisited with slight adjustments.  After all of this, the ending is surprisingly subdued, but sets the stage beautifully for the second movement.

The second movement has a breathtakingly beautiful melody, launched right from the beginning, and culminating in an oboe solo.  A contrasting melody in the strings is no less captivating, with new urgency that slowly unfolds and is sustained for the majority of the movement.  Eventually, the first melody returns in a unique duet between the first violin and horn, and the movement closes gently.

The third movement begins easily, like a pleasant summer morning.  All of a sudden, we find ourselves in a bit of a folk dance, which quickly subsides, and then re-gathers itself into a more vigorous mood, as if the sun has come out fully.  The initial mood returns and the movement ends comfortably.

The fourth movement begins with a slow introduction that is serious and dark.  Two different pizzicato sections in the strings try to push the movement into motion; the second one succeeds. The darkness is lifted with the alpine horn melody mentioned above, bridging to a lush melody in the low strings that announces the official beginning of the fourth movement.  There is no real development section per se—the whole movement is essentially a melting pot, where melodic materials from the introduction, bridge, and the main movement are presented and immediately developed, and then returned to later for even more exploration.  The result is a feeling of familiarity yet a sense of progress and growth.  A final outburst brings this masterpiece to a resounding close.

As early as 1877, people began comparing this symphony with Beethoven’s works, even specific themes and motives. Brahms did not take these comparisons well; he did not want to be seen as derivative or as a plagiarist.  Fortunately, he continued to develop his symphonic voice and eventually received the recognition he so richly deserved, as Beethoven’s successor, the next hero of symphonic music.

© Yakima Symphony Orchestra 2018