About this Recording
8.559245 - BERNSTEIN: Serenade / Facsimile / Divertimento
English  German 

Leonard Bernstein (1918–1990)
Serenade • Facsimile • Divertimento

Conductor, composer, educator, pianist, Leonard Bernstein is without question the greatest musician America has ever produced. Born in Lawrence, Massachusetts to a family of Russian Jewish origin, Bernstein began piano lessons at ten against his father’s wishes. His advanced training took place at Harvard and the Curtis Institute where he studied composition with Walter Piston and conducting with Fritz Reiner. During the summers of World War II at Tanglewood, he was the assistant to Serge Koussevitzky who became Bernstein’s mentor. In 1943 Artur Rodzinski appointed Bernstein assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic, and on 14th November of that year he substituted on short notice for the ailing Bruno Walter in a nation-wide radio broadcast. This sensational début launched his career, becoming the stuff of legend. The following year saw Bernstein’s early success as a composer with the premières of the “Jeremiah” Symphony, the ballet Fancy Free and the musical On the Town. In 1958 Bernstein was named music director of the Philharmonic, the first native-born and trained conductor of a major American orchestra. He became known to the general public as a tireless educator on behalf of classical music through his televised programmes and “Young Person’s Concerts”. His profound intellectual knowledge and curiosity, as well as emotional and spiritual generosity, continues to endear him and his work to all.

Bernstein’s amazing genius and versatility enabled him as a composer to bridge the chasm separating the “popular” idioms of jazz, Broadway and rock from classical music. His concert works still suffer from a lack of appreciation of their genius, and are not programmed as frequently as they should, which prevents their integration into the orchestral canon. No contemporary conductor has done more to correct this situation than the present conductor, Marin Alsop, one of Bernstein’s greatest protégés.

Most of Bernstein’s works spring from a programmatic impulse. A re-reading of Plato’s Symposium provided the germ for the Serenade. A work that Bernstein himself called his “most satisfying”, it was commissioned by the Koussevitzky Foundation and is dedicated to the memory of Serge and Natalie Koussevitzky. Free from his demanding conducting schedule, Bernstein worked on it exclusively in the summer of 1954 while vacationing with his wife and daughter in Europe. He conducted the première later that year in Venice with the Israel Philharmonic and Isaac Stern as soloist.

While there is no literal “programme” for the work, Bernstein saw his music, along with Plato’s work, as a “series of related statements in praise of love”. The Serenade is one of the best examples of Bernstein’s creative approach to composition, whereby unity is achieved not through recurring melody but a “system whereby each movement evolves out of elements in the preceding one”. Melodic motives build one after another upon previous ones and serve as accompaniment as the music appears spontaneously to generate itself. The title Serenade reflects an expansive approach to form (perhaps a subconscious reaction to the relaxing circumstances of its creation) typical of the classical serenade. In technical demands the work is definitely a concerto, the solo violin assuming the rhetorical rôle of the “speaker” in each movement.

Phaedrus, the hypochondriacal writer, gives the initial speech in praise of Eros, god of love. The soloist delivers a slow, lyrical melody containing the ascending tritone figure soon to be immortalised in “Maria” in West Side Story. Orchestra and soloist build this into an intense fugato texture. Pausanias’s description of the lover/beloved duality is perfectly captured by the following sonata-form allegro with its typical Bernsteinian energy and verve.

Aristophanes, “invoking the fairytale mythology of love”, develops themes from the opening Allegro. The middle section is a singing melody that explores motives from the opening of the movement in canonic fashion. Frequent parallel double stops in the solo violin add an aching, sonorous intensity to the lyricism.

Eryximachos, the physician who sees the harmonic workings of the body as a scientific model of the working of love patterns, is represented by a mercurial scherzo. Quicksilver contrasts of volume and texture (like heat lightning) become the “obstacle course” the soloist navigates in this mix of mystery and humour. The movement draws its material from the middle section of the previous movement led by the three-note “head motive” with which it begins and ends.

Agathon’s speech, one of the climaxes of the Symposium, “embraces all aspects of love’s powers, charms and functions”. It is represented in the great power and concentration throughout the movement. The opening of the first movement sets the tone for the soloist’s transformation of the scherzo motive into a noble statement - the muting of the violin until the cadenza making the expression even more intense. A chromatic theme in the middle section builds to a passionate explosion and the solo cadenza. The opening returns with the violin again muted, singing the threenote motive, floating in suspended animation.

A stern, slow orchestral introduction based on the chromatic theme of the fourth movement represents Socrates’s speech. The soloist enters for a rhetorical duo-cadenza with a solo cello before the fast main body of the movement exploded forth (Alcibades and his drunken friends gate-crashing the proceedings). In rondo form, elements of country fiddle music and jazz add to the excitement. The work’s opening returns presto before the end, rounding off the work in exhilarating fashion.

Nearly all of Bernstein’s works are concerned with the search for meaning in a post-modern world deprived of the traditional mooring of religious faith. The ballet Facsimile (choreography by Jerome Robbins) is a psychological drama in which post-war men and women use outward, superficial “busyness” to attempt to fill an inner, spiritual vacuum, a common theme of post-World War II literature. Similar in plot to Debussy’s Jeux, it follows three characters, The Woman, The Man and Another Man, as the men vie for the woman’s attention, ultimately ending in frustration and boredom for all. Bernstein perfectly captures the melodramatic atmosphere in music that is by turns acerbic and angular as well as solemn and tender. A concertante solo piano in Part Two adds a distinctive noir colouring as in Fancy Free. Negative reviews at the première only served to demonstrate its successful exposure of post-war malaise, where true intimacy could be shunned for a cheap “facsimile” of it.

One of Bernstein’s final works, the Divertimento for Orchestra is, in essence, a tribute to the broad diversity both of his compositions and the favourite works he conducted. It was composed for and dedicated to the Boston Symphony on the occasion of their centenary. Paying tribute to the “hometown” orchestra which nurtured him, along with the attendant memories and emotions, Bernstein heartily enjoys himself with many musical puns as the eight-movement form and breezy humour reflect the classical divertimento. The work is unified by a two-note motto B-C (Boston Centenary) which generates each movement. Sennets and Tuckets is a clear reference to the fanfares of Shakespeare’s time but nothing could be further from Elizabethan times than this music. The fanfare theme, strangely reminiscent of the Woody Woodpecker cartoon theme, uses Bernstein’s signature intervals, the final interval (strongly accented) being the B-C motto. The theme recalls the memorably witty, nose-thumbing fanfare of Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel. Jocular, extroverted variations of the motto and fanfare capture the imagination. Waltz takes the warped 5/4 metre of Tchaikovsky’s waltz from the “Pathetique” Symphony a step further into a 7/8 metre. A graceful, romantic melody in the strings revolves around the motto. Mazurka features the sombre colours of double reeds and harp with the motto generating both the dance melody and its accompaniment. A brief oboe solo before the end unexpectedly but gracefully quotes the famous oboe cadenza of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony as the movement draws to a soft close. Samba begins with the fanfare sounded three times as clear reminiscences of Fancy Free come to life. Turkey Trot alternates three and four-beat patterns, recalling “America” from West Side Story. With a hiccup, the movement comes to a close. Sphinxes is a mysterious slow movement full of portent. An ascending twelve-note melody based on the fanfare appears twice, first in the strings and secondly in the winds. These “sphinxes”, obvious references to the twelve-tone method of Schoenberg, are answered by tonal cadences. For Bernstein this is a humorous version of the central statement of his creative life, the struggle between atonality and tonality. Blues follows without a break, dispelling the philosophical clouds. Brass with jazz mutes use the motto to generate another twelve-note melody in solo tuba and trombone before muted trumpet gets the final “lick” pianissimo. The finale The BSO Forever, a pun on the most famous American march, Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever, begins with a reflective canon based on the motto for three solo flutes, an In Memoriam for deceased members of the Boston Symphony family. Tribute having been paid, a rowdy march ensues with quotations from the Radetzky March and Bernstein’s Mass. The motto and fanfare are found throughout, building with themes from earlier movements to provide a happy and exciting conclusion to a work which wears its learning lightly.

David Ciucevich


Close the window