Exploring Leonard Bernstein’s Love for Strings

For Leonard Bernstein himself, two string-related works represent his most-cherished accomplishments as conductor and composer, respectively.

By Thomas May

Composer. Conductor. Educator. Humanitarian. Even the official leonardbernstein.com website attempts to cope with its namesake’s oversize legacy by parceling it into categories. The music world has yet again been attempting to reassess it all throughout this centennial year—the actual 100th anniversary of his birth occurs this month—when the absence of “the next Leonard Bernstein” seems to be felt with an especially intense pang.

Amid that superabundance of gifts, one area that probably doesn’t spring instantly to mind is Bernstein’s contribution to the world of strings. Yet for Bernstein himself, two string-related works represent his most-cherished accomplishments as conductor and composer, respectively.

In Dinner with Lenny, his book-length interview conducted during the last year of Bernstein’s life, Jonathan Cott pressed the maestro to nominate one among his hundreds of recordings that was most special to him. Bernstein chose the transcription for string orchestra of Beethoven’s String Quartet in C-sharp minor, Op. 131, as “my personal favorite record that I’ve ever made in my life.” Recorded in 1977 with the Vienna Philharmonic’s string section, it’s paired with a transcription of Beethoven’s final quartet, Op. 135, also with the Vienna players in 1989, on a Deutsche Grammophon release.

Bernstein at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY, between 1946–48
Bernstein at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY, between 1946–48 (Photos by William P. Gottlieb)

Though Bernstein never got around to writing in the string-quartet medium himself, the Op. 131 transcription held a special significance for him that dated back to his undergraduate years at Harvard. As a sophomore in 1937, soon after Dmitri Mitropoulos made his American debut conducting the Boston Symphony, Bernstein experienced a life-changing encounter: “I learned for the first time what a conductor does and how he has to study,” he wrote. Mitropoulos apparently encouraged the young talent at various times to dedicate his life to composing and conducting. Notes biographer Humphrey Burton, “Even as a boy, Bernstein was eager for fame. But it may have been Mitropoulos who inspired him to believe that he had the potential for greatness.”

In particular, Bernstein held onto Mitropoulos’ edition of Op. 131, from which the Greek conductor had prepared the string-orchestra version that figured on one of his Boston programs—Bernstein also attended the rehearsals. He later used it for his famous Beethoven cycle with the Vienna Philharmonic.

Bernstein even made the extraordinary gesture of dedicating his recording to his wife, Felicia Cohn Montealegre, who was dying at the time—“the only record I’ve ever dedicated to anyone,” Bernstein told Cott. “And I had to fight with the Vienna Philharmonic string players to get them to do it.” He added: “You can’t understand any Mahler unless you understand this piece, which moves and stabs—and with its floating counterpoint.”

As a composer, Bernstein was known to single out Serenade after Plato’s “Symposium” for Solo Violin, Harp, and Percussion (to give the score’s official full title) as the “favorite symphonic work” from his output, remarks Robert McDuffie, one of the piece’s foremost champions today. The violinist, who also directs the Robert McDuffie Center for Strings at Mercer University, made a recording of Serenade (coupled with William Schuman’s Violin Concerto) with Leonard Slatkin and the St. Louis Symphony that garnered a Grammy nomination in 1990.

McDuffie’s account helped pave the way to more widespread familiarity with Bernstein’s only de facto violin concerto—indeed, one of the few concertante works he wrote overall. Since then, a remarkable spectrum of violinists has staked a claim to the work, with especially noteworthy recordings by Hilary Hahn, Joshua Bell, Renaud Capuçon, Philippe Quint, and, recently, Anne Akiko Meyers.

“Almost 30 years later, I still play it every season and must have played it at least 130 times by now,” McDuffie says. “When I started to learn Serenade, it was more of a concertmaster piece, meaning the concertmaster would typically play it when Bernstein was a guest conductor. The title is slightly misleading: It actually is a major violin concerto. I fell in love with it the minute I heard the ‘Agathon’ [Adagio] movement. Any atheist would start believing in God after hearing that piece. That’s when I knew I had to learn it.”

Leonard Bernstein receives an award at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam
Bernstein receives an award at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. (Photo by Ron Kroon/ANEFO)

Bernstein’s own fondness for Serenade is a feeling shared by many who have loved his music over a long period. “Serenade is my personal favorite because it has such a satisfying trajectory,” says Jamie Bernstein, the firstborn of the composer’s three children. She adds that she first got to know it seriously when she heard Gidon Kremer’s performances with her father in London. “Kremer understood it at a very deep level. He got the heartrending beauty of ‘Agathon’ but also brought something so playful and clownish to the humor that’s also in the piece.”


Kremer himself recalls his first encounters with Bernstein in Israel around the topic of Serenade in 1979—the violinist, then living in the former Soviet Union, was able to get a pass to travel only through some elaborate behind-the-scenes string-pulling—when they recorded the work live with the Israel Philharmonic. The same orchestra had given the world premiere in 1954 in Venice, with Isaac Stern as the soloist.

Kremer’s account became the third and last recording with Bernstein conducting Serenade. He had recorded it twice before: with Isaac Stern and the Orchestra of the Air (in 1956) and with Zino Francescatti and the New York Philharmonic (in 1965).

“I remember a moment during the rehearsal,” says Kremer. “Suddenly Lenny exclaimed: ‘I didn’t know that I wrote such a beautiful piece!’ You couldn’t get a better compliment, to hear that from the composer. It encouraged me to do my best.”

Marin Alsop with Leonard Bernstein
Marin Alsop with Bernstein (Photo by Walter Scott)

Completed in the summer of 1954 (while he was working on his “problem child” project Candide), Serenade dates from the period when Bernstein was focused on his mission as a composer—before his permanent position leading the New York Philharmonic cemented his public image as a star conductor.

Herbert Glass, who was second in command at the New York Philharmonic’s press office from 1962 to 1966, recalls first getting to know Bernstein while he was an undergraduate at Brandeis University, where the latter had a gig as a freelance teacher (well before his tenure with the New York Philharmonic). “This was the time around Serenade, when he had a huge following on the campus, and he was really making his living by doing lecture courses on the history of music. He was extremely funny and erudite beyond belief.”

Serenade seems at first glance an unusual candidate for such lofty status among Bernstein’s compositions. There’s no overt connection to the stage—though the music has inspired numerous choreographers, including Alexei Ratmansky with American Ballet Theater most recently—and no role even for the composer’s alter ego as a solo performer, the piano.

Yet Serenade stands out, in the view of Marin Alsop, one of Bernstein’s conductor protégées, as “a masterpiece that withstands the test of time.” She expressly chose to program Serenade as part of this summer’s Baltimore Symphony tour—its first overseas tour in more than a decade and her first appearances abroad with the ensemble—with violinist Nicola Benedetti. “Like any great piece, it gets better the more you work on it,” observes Alsop. “You see more and more layers and subtleties.”

Mischa Maisky with Bernstein
Mischa Maisky with Bernstein (Photo by Walter Scott)

In some ways, Serenade can be viewed as a microcosm for Bernstein’s artistic interests. “It embodies so much of Leonard Bernstein and his connection to the wider world, bringing together seemingly disparate elements,” according to Alsop. The musical language incorporates what is often labeled Bernstein’s “eclecticism”—a word that never seems to suit what really happens in his music, where Bernstein metabolizes the motley sources that inspired him into something recognizably his own. The composer shows himself in his most serious, ecstatic vein in the Adagio, which Burton ascribes to his “doom-laden prophet” voice, while rounding it all off with the spirit of “a jazzy iconoclast.” Burton sees these traits as elements of a larger self-portrait reflected throughout the score, embracing his most contradictory aspects.

Serenade shows off Bernstein’s brilliance as an orchestral thinker yet calls for an ensemble of remarkably limited resources. McDuffie remarks that when he started getting to know the piece via Kremer’s recording, he couldn’t believe “it was just a string orchestra with percussion. Bernstein manipulates it ingeniously to make it swing in the last movement like a big band.” He adds: “It’s also hard as hell to play! It’s as awkward violinistically in the first movement as is the Stravinsky concerto. Some intervals have to be played elegantly and beautifully, so you can’t just throw your bow on the string as in a Paganini caprice. And you have to dance with the orchestra.”


One issue that remains open to debate is Serenade’s putative relationship to the dialogue of Plato mentioned in the full title. Like his idol Mahler, Bernstein became skittish about the program he suggested in his own commentary. On the one hand, he noted that he was inspired by “a rereading of Plato’s charming dialogue, The Symposium” and even titled the five movements after the seven characters who appear at a drinking party where the (very Mahlerian) topic is love itself: Taking turns, the revelers deliver an impromptu speech in praise of love, each offering a different description of its true nature.

Plato’s same-sex imagery—notoriously bowdlerized in earlier translations of the Greek—may have added to Bernstein’s personal fascination with the Symposium. And while the Jewish themes that inspired so much of Bernstein’s work are absent, he felt instinctively drawn to the Socratic method that shapes Plato’s dialogue form, attracted by its similarity to Talmudic questioning to arrive at the truth.

On the other hand, he downplayed the idea of a program, and commentators like Humphrey Burton have cast doubt on the Plato connection, suggesting it emerged as more of an afterthought near the end of writing the piece.

Alsop remains convinced of a closer connection to the Symposium. “So many of his works use literature as their inspiration. In rereading the Symposium a few times, I think he was able to distill a very erudite topic into its simplest form. Bernstein was a wonderful storyteller and recreated the dialogue here his own way, in musical terms, with humor and real success. But, of course, one doesn’t need to know the Plato to get the message.” McDuffie adds: “Bernstein told me, ‘Just think of love and you’ll be fine.’ But it really did help to read the Plato and see that he had a field day with this dinner party with a bunch of drunk philosophers. It added a dimension to the piece where I can visualize as well as just try to be a good messenger.”

Leonard Bernstein and Maximilian Schell for TV series ‘Bernstein/Beethoven’
Leonard Bernstein and Maximilian Schell for TV series ‘Bernstein/Beethoven’

If you consider the achievement of Serenade, more’s the pity that Bernstein never got around to composing a cello concerto proper, though for his good friend Mstislav Rostropovich he did arrange the Three Meditations from MASS for solo cello and chamber ensemble. “From my father’s perspective, the cello spoke from the heart almost more than any instrument,” says Jamie Bernstein.

Yet he did channel that love of the instrument into some very special recordings. From his home base in Brussels, Mischa Maisky recalls the magical period of working together on the Dvořák Cello Concerto, which was paired with Ernest Bloch’s Schelomo on a release in 1988. It was the last in a series of concertante-related recordings for Deutsche Grammophon he and Bernstein collaborated on, starting with the Brahms Double Concerto in 1982, on which the cellist was paired with Gidon Kremer, and continuing with the Schumann Cello Concerto in 1985.


“He announced that he was going to conclude the series but when he heard the results of the Dvořák, he was very touched and wanted to plan for another one in May 1991, with Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto and the Sinfonia Concertante of Prokofiev,” says Maisky. “The last time we met was before he went to Berlin in 1989 [for the famous Beethoven Ninth–Fall of the Wall celebration]. And I wasn’t free until this period in 1991 to do the next project, but by then he had of course died.”

“Serenade shows off Bernstein’s brilliance as an orchestral thinker yet calls for an ensemble of remarkably limited resources.”

Incredibly, Bernstein had never previously conducted the Dvořák milestone, according to Maisky. The recording was made from live performances on a tour with the Israel Philharmonic. “His score was completely covered with markings analyzing every harmony as if he were the composer. It was not easy for me as a soloist, because I had to change a lot of things in my interpretation of a piece which I played all my life. For example, he got this great idea that the beginning of the last movement should be at the pulse of a heartbeat, which is actually very logical. So at the end of the slow movement at every concert, he would religiously try to find his pulse in his hand holding the baton, and that would be the tempo. Sometimes it was very slow, and the next day it was suddenly quite fast. The differences in tempo made the DG producer very nervous.”

The fact that at this point in his career, near the very end, Bernstein would take time to focus on concerts might seem hard to fathom. “He didn’t treat this as ‘accompaniment’ but as major orchestral pieces,” Maisky explains. “I had the privilege to play more than 20 concerts altogether with Bernstein. Making music with him was an unforgettable experience every time. We shared a certain attitude toward music making, which is to treat every concert like it is the most important concert of your life. It was reassuring for me that he felt the same way. Some people thought all the exuberance and jumping and so on was just a matter of show, but I know that he was the most sincere and passionate musician imaginable.”

Kremer also looks back on his performances with Bernstein as unmatched highlights: “The experience of playing those masterpieces with Lenny was really special because I understood that he was to the core of his soul an artist who immersed himself completely in whatever he would do. It was very unpredictable. The flow of the music every evening was different, never copy and paste. He really created on the spot. And this kind of risk-taking was something very dear to me.

“It doesn’t mean you are always successful, but it makes you focus as much as you can on the work that you perform. Lenny was always there just for the sake of the music, and this was a great schooling for me to remain loyal to my own ideals and to serve the music, as loyal to its spirit as he was.”

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This article originally appeared in the August 2018 issue of Strings magazine.