Plato's 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 the Symposium.
What is it
Plato’s Symposium is arguably the most memorable philosophical work ever written on the subject of love. It is also the inspiration for Leonard Bernstein’s gorgeous violin concerto, the Serenade. What would Plato think of Bernstein’s Serenade, especially given his criticism of art and poetry? Is Bernstein more interested in what one of Plato’s drunken characters calls “vulgar love”? Or is he inspired by Platonic love – the highest form of love? How does Bernstein explore these themes through his music? In this special episode featuring violin virtuoso Anne Akiko Meyers and the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, John and Ken talk to Brandi Parisi from All Classical Portland radio about love – its nature, its origin and its purpose – and music.
John and Ken start the show by assessing exactly what kind of relationship exists between Plato's Symposium and Bernstein's Serenade. John questions what it would mean to translate the ideas Symposium into instrumental music, and expresses doubt as to whether music can offer any philosophical content without lyrics. Meanwhile, Ken is less skeptical, suggesting that instrumental music holds the power to express ideas as complex as philosophy.
Our hosts are joined by Brandi Parisi, Radio Host of All Classical Portland and professor of philosophy at Portland Community College. They begin by questioning whether Plato himself would enjoy Bernstein's Serenade. Given Plato's disdain for representational art in general, Brandi suggests that he would likely be unhappy with it, and claim it as unhelpful in acquiring true knowledge of the forms. Brandi then leads John and Ken through several listenings of Bernstein's piece, pointing out the ways in which it mirrors the Symposium. Ken goes on to claim that, as beautiful of a piece as it is, Bernstein actually read the Symposium wrongly when the Serenade was written, missing Plato's underlying argument about love.
The discussion is opened up to the audience, kicked off by the question of how does a mother's love for her child fit within the ideas proposed in the Symposium. John and Ken debate whether the claims of Symposium, which is meant to focus on erotic love, can be applied to the love of one's child. Another audience member asks what Plato might think about contemporary political discussions on what kind of love is appropriate. John closes up the episode with some final criticisms of Plato's view of love in Symposium, questioning its philosophical content.
Roving Philosophical Reporter (seek to 7:20): Shuka Kalantari speaks with Anne Akiko Meyers about her relationship with Bernstein's Serenade and her own musical depictions of love.
60-Second Philosopher (Seek to 44:28): Ian Shoales considers the party in Symposium amongst other famous parties throughout history.