Most of us listen to music on a regular basis, but we don't think much about how we listen. Moreover, when we disagree about music, we'...
This week’s episode is a special one. It was recorded a few weeks ago, in front of a live audience, at Skyview Concert Hall, in Vancouver Washington. We were there at the invitation of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. They were performing Leonard Bernstein’s very lyrical piece Serenade after Plato’s Symposium, with world renown violinist Anne Akiko Meyers. The thought was that a philosophical discussion of the Symposium might interest the concert goers and might also help them to hear the piece differently. We were really grateful for the invitation and the opportunity.
After much back and forth, we decided to call our episode: “In Praise of Love – Plato’s Symposium Meets Bernstein’s Serenade.” In it, we took up the challenge of trying to bring music and philosophy together. And it’s a serious challenge -- make no mistake. Plato’s Symposium is one of the most memorable philosophical works ever written on the topic of love. And not just because of it’s philosophical content, but also because its style. The Symposium is by turns hilarious, emotionally resonant, and always philosophically deep. It’s a fun and inspiring read. If you haven’t ever read it, you really should. It certainly inspired Leonard Bernstein., who apparently read it repeatedly. Bravely, Bernstein sets out to reproduce in music something of both the philosophical content and literary structure of Plato’s Symposium.
That’s a tall order, because the Symposium is an extraordinarily intricate and complicated philosophical work. It’s a series of speeches, each spoken by a different character, each in praise of erotic love. Each speaker has a distinctive personality and a distinct philosophical outlook. And we can’t forget here the most entertaining part. I mean the drinking!
The assembled company want to drink, but feel they drank too much the night before. So to ensure that they drink less this night, they decide to temper their drinking with a little philosophy. Instead of trying to outdrink each other, they try to outdo each other in their praise of love. They don't really succeed though. By the time the final speaker – Alcibiades -- comes barging in, looking for Socrates, they’re very drunk already. And they commence drinking even more, as he gives the final speech.
Now Bernstein tries to capture much of this dynamic in his music. It is a series of musical movements, each offered in praise of love, each modeled on one or more speeches in Plato’s Symposium, with each movement building on and correcting earlier movements just like in the dialogue. And it’s all done with a kind of drunken joyfulness. Well, drunken isn’t really the right word to describe the mood of Bernstein’s piece. But it is a very joyful piece of music.
Here’s where the challenge comes in though. The Serenade is a very fine piece of music, but suppose you didn’t have access to Bernstein’s notes explaining his motivations for writing the piece, and you could just listen to the music itself, would you really be able to determine, just from listening to it, that it was modeled after the Symposium?
Ask yourself, for example, how a purely musical argument for the superiority of homosexual love over heterosexual -- the sort of thing you find in early parts of the Symposium -- sound? It’s not that I doubt the music powers of Bernstein, personally. He was a musical genius, no doubt. But even musical geniuses can’t pull of the impossible. Music is one thing. Philosophical arguments are a different thing entirely. You can't replicate the one in the other.
Plato himself might have agreed with this line of thought. Plato actually wanted to banish all lyric poets from his ideal Republic entirely. Philosophy is improving. It aims at unadorned truth. It speaks to reason. Lyric poetry is corrupting. It can't distinguish the true from the false. It speaks to the emotions. It deals in mere appearances and illusions rather than reality.
But you don’t have to agree with Plato on that score to appreciate the challenge we face in interpreting Bernstein’s music in light of the Symposium. Even if you don’t think lyric poetry is corrupting, you can still wonder how a purely musical argument for the superiority of Platonic love to other forms of love might go? How, that is, do you capture philosophical themes in wordless music? Maybe music just isn’t an appropriate vehicle for representing philosophical themes and arguments.
Still, I don’t think we should be so quick to dismiss the possibility so easily. Maybe just as Plato’s philosophy is full of artistry, there can be music that is full of philosophy. But you know what, I don’t think we’re going to settle a question like that with abstract philosophical arguments alone. We’re going to have to do some listening. We’re going to have to see if we can hear the philosophy in Bernstein’s music and the music in Plato’s philosophy. That’s what we tried to do back in Vancouver. We invite you to listen in and see if we pulled it off.