Long before a symposium was a dry, academic conference, it was an after-dinner party with a lot of wine. Plato’s Symposium, written around 360 BCE, imagines such a party attended by Phaedrus (a wealthy intellectual), Eryximachus (a physician), Aristophanes (the comic playwright), Agathon (the party’s host), Pausanias (Agathon’s lover), and Socrates (Plato’s teacher). Gathered in Athens, they decide that each man should make a speech in honor of the god of love.
Some of the characters’ ideas may seem both jarringly unfamiliar and yet surprisingly contemporary. Love between men is assumed to predominate, with women almost an afterthought, and they discuss the legality of same-sex relationships across different city-states. Phaedrus sees love as motivating: “Love will make men dare to die for their beloved alone.” Pausanias, meanwhile, says that love between men is of the highest order, that its prohibition is tyrannical, and legal recognition is important because “open loves are held to be more honorable than secret ones.” (It resembles a modern progressive position, except he thinks women’s intellects are the limiting factor for heterosexuality.)
Next, Eryximachus suggests that love is a matter of balance and reconciliation, extending the concept even to music, which “is concerned with the principles of love in their application to harmony and rhythm.” Aristophanes spins a tall tale in which humans were originally four-legged creatures cut in two by Zeus, and now everyone is looking for their other half.
Agathon argues that beauty is the driving force of love. “From the Love of the beautiful has sprung every good in heaven and earth.” Finally, Socrates refuses to praise love, and instead recounts a conversation he once had with Diotima, a priestess. From her he learned that love is a “daemon” between mortals and gods that interprets between the two. Though at first focused on the human body, love can grow to focus on the divine. It is from this passage that we derive the concept of “Platonic love.” As if to underline the difference, the Symposium ends with Socrates fending off the lusty advances of Alcibiades, a drunk party crasher.
It makes sense that this intersection of classical philosophy and homoeroticism interested Leonard Bernstein, a Harvard-educated artist who, according to a friend, “required men sexually and women emotionally.” The Symposium became the framework on which he based a multi-movement work, commissioned in 1954 by the Koussevitzky Foundation, for solo violin and an orchestra of strings and percussion. Bernstein described each section (which slightly reorders the speakers from Plato’s original):
I. Phaedrus; Pausanias (Lento—Allegro). 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 form, based on the material of the opening fugato.
II. Aristophanes (Allegretto). 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.
III. Erixymachus (Presto). 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 (Adagio). Perhaps the most moving (and famous) speech of the dialogue, Agathon’s panegyric embraces all aspects of love’s powers, charms, and functions. This movement is simply a three-part song.
V. Socrates; Alcibiades (Molto tenuto—Allegro molto vivace). Socrates describes his visit to the seer Diotima, quoting her speech on the demonology of love… his seniority adds to the feeling of didactic soberness in an otherwise pleasant and convivial after-dinner discussion. 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.