“The fourth movement of [Bernstein’s] concerto, dedicated to Agathon, contains some of the most beautiful music of any 20th-century score.”
– Leonard Bernstein biographer Humphrey Burton
Our Video Of The Week celebrates both a great moment from our recent Heifetz history, and looks ahead to a couple of milestones we’ll mark this summer of 2020.
First, the world will observe the 100th anniversary of the birth of the legendary violinist and arts advocate Isaac Stern, born on July 21, 1920. As the commemorative website isaacsternlegacy.org notes: “As an instrumentalist, musician, teacher, cultural ambassador, social advocate, and civic leader, [Isaac Stern] left an indelible mark on the musical and cultural landscape around the world, and tirelessly adhered to his belief in young people, and in music as an agent of change and a force for good.”
Among the many notable highlights or Stern’s remarkable career was his giving the premiere of the Serenade (after Plato’s Symposium) for Violin, Strings, Harp, and Percussion by his good friend Leonard Bernstein. The night before the 1954 premiere in Venice, Bernstein wrote to his wife Felicja, “Isaac plays the Serenade like an angel. If it all goes well tomorrow, it should be a knockout.”
The piece itself IS a knockout – especially the fourth movement Agathon, as you’ll see and hear below in the 2018 Francis Auditorium performance featuring violin soloist Ilya Kaler and Isaac’s son David Stern conducting. But before we get to that, there’s a fascinating backstory to Bernstein’s hard-to-describe concerto with the head-scratching title.
Bernstein wrote that he was inspired to write the Serenade “after 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. “Symposium,” mind you, was in ancient Greece something of a cross between a Toastmasters convention and a frat party, as Plato’s text bears out.
So, following the “plot line” as it were of Plato’s classic tome, Bernstein laid the piece out in five moments, each bearing the names of the ancient Greek philosophers who are “speaking” in turn: Phaedrus and Pausanias in the first movement; Aristophanes in the second movement; Erixymachus in the third; Agathon in the fourth movement, and finally Socrates and Alciabiades in the raucous final movement.
Still with us? That’s actually only half the story! As it happened, the title Serenade was a vestige of an abandoned project that Bernstein had undertaken with James M. Cain, one of the most celebrated crime novelists of the 20th century, Cain, author of such classic thrillers as The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, had also penned the 1937 noir novel Serenade, which could be said to be a much darker exploration on the nature of love. Bernstein was hooked…and dreamed of turning the novel into a Broadway musical. The concept got far enough along that The New York Times reported on June 13, 1955 that Bernstein had signed on to write the music for a Broadway adaptation of Cain’s novel about the opera star with a shameful past set straight by the hooker with a heart of gold…though of course complications ensue.
Alas, it was not to be. As Bernstein biographer Humphrey Burton writes: “Only six days later, Serenade [the musical] was shelved, before it had even been started. It was being replaced, according to the Times, by East Side Story, a collaboration between Bernstein and [book author Arthur] Laurents with Jerome Robbins as choreographer and director.”
But for all of that, you may detect in this music some foreshadowing of the memorable melodies of the East-turned-West Side Story, which would debut on Broadway less than a year after the Serenade’s premiere.
Particularly in this fourth movement. In Plato’s Symposium, Agathon the poet argues that Love is sensitive. “Rather than settle in the hard parts of humans and gods, on the ground or in the skull, Love settles in our minds and characters. Further, Love will only settle in the minds and characters of those with soft natures, and will move on when he finds someone with a tough character.”
For the composer who would produce Maria, Somewhere, and One Hand, One Heart in less than a year’s time, Bernstein was more than up to the task of finding the softness in the human heart, as you’ll hear in this gripping performance.
PS: That other milestone for 2020? Look for the complete performance of Bernstein’s Serenade to be part of our brand-new Rubato: The Heifetz Virtual Concert Hall, in summer 2020. Click here to view.