Bernstein once wrote, “All musicians write their music in terms of all of the music that preceded them.” (The Infinite Variety of Music, pg. 271)

Speaking about the composer Igor Stravinsky, Bernstein wrote, “he unashamedly borrow[s] and [steal]s from every musical museum…there’s some composer from the past lurking in every page, leering at us through the dissonance of Stravinsky’s own twentieth century language.”  (The Unanswered Question, pg. 385)

Bernstein might as well have been talking about himself.  Here are some ways that Bernstein winked and nodded to other composers in the Serenade.

Johann Sebastian Bach

The Serenade begins with a fugue.  A fugue is a musical form similar to a round (like Row, row, row your boat) except that in a fugue, each melody begins on a different note and once the melody is finished, instead of repeating itself, it meanders somewhere else.  Listen to Bernstein explain what a fugue is, starting at 2:40 in the video to the right.

The composer J.S. Bach was a master of fugues.  Bernstein said, “in Bach’s hands [the fugue became] a form so mighty that no composer has ever been able to equal it since.” (The Joy of Music, pg. 254)

Bernstein also wrote that “Bach was a mystic…and one aspect of this mysticism was his interest in numerology. He was fond of that Talmudic trick of substituting numbers for letters of the alphabet and deriving mystical conclusions from the results. For example, on the principle that A equals 1, B equals 2, etc… the name of Bach adds up to 14. For him, this became a mystic number…The whole name of J.S.Bach adds up to 41 (in the old German alphabet) which is the exact inversion of 14… In fact, in the very last piece he wrote before he died (the chorale-fantasia vor deinen Thron tret’ich allhier), the first phrase contains exactly 14 notes, and the whole melody contains 41 notes.” (Joy of Music, pg. 262-3)

While I was practicing the opening phrase of the fugue melody in the Serenade, I always felt it was an interesting, lopsided length.  When I read the above paragraph about Bach’s interest in the number 41, I had a hunch — count with me…

Yes, the opening fugue theme has 41 beats!!  I can’t imagine that that is a coincidence.  Using a form that Bach used often (the fugue) I think Bernstein created a 41 beat phrase as a silent tip of the hat to this old master.

(For more on Bernstein’s thoughts about Bach.)

Gustav Mahler

Speaking about the slow movement of Mahler’s fifth symphony, Bernstein wrote, “All that preliminary vamping on the harp is first of all syntactically vague; we have no idea what beat we’re on or what meter we’re in. What’s more, the harp is setting up the key of the piece, F Major… but the F itself is missing. Only two-thirds of the triad is given us, the A and the C…so we’re not yet really sure that our key is going to be F Major…are we in a minor or F major?… That ambiguity lends a certain poignancy, almost hurtful…As the three upbeats begin, we’d almost vote for A minor because there’s that A in the cello part which seems to predominate; but no, it sneakily descends to G, and then the basses confirm the descent to F – oh, it feels so good. We’re home, in F major; but there’s still an unresolved tug-at-the-heart in that appoggiatura up there in the melody, and when it resolves we just melt away, with the pleasure of fulfillment.” (The Unanswered Question, pg. 197-198)

Listen to the beginning of the Mahler.

Now listen to the first few seconds of Agathon — vague vamping on the notes A and C, and we have no idea what time or key we are in! And now listen to the last few seconds, starting at 6:56. Where do we finally melt away with the “pleasure of fulfillment?” The last chord resolves to a beautiful F major chord. Like Bernstein says about the Mahler, “Oh it feels so good!”


Bernstein spoke often about what he called “rhythmic ambiguity” — the tension or excitement that comes when rhythm keeps you guessing.

Speaking about the composer Aaron Copland‘s piece El Salon Mexico, Bernstein wrote, “There’s a great new excitement in this music because of constant rhythmic surprise. You never know what’s coming next. You can’t tap your foot to it… you can break your ankle trying to keep time to that one. But that’s what exactly makes it so exciting; it has a brand new kind of rhythmic vitality.” (The Infinite Variety of music, pg. 105)

About composer Robert Schumann, Bernstein wrote, “Schumann’s most exciting sallies into ambiguity are his rhythmic ones, such as the festival of asymmetry at the end of Carnaval. All that music is basically in ¾ time, but you’d never know it, because it’s been beautifully distorted by an overlay of 2s and 4s plus a superimposed meter of 3/2. …” (The Unanswered Question, pg. 207)

(Listen from about 3:05)

About composer Igor Stravinsky: “There are countless new ways to use rhythm – through syncopation, changing meters, displaced accents, cross-rhythms, and all the rest. The best example of all this is Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, which once and for all took the shackles off rhythm.” (The Joy of Music, pg. 229)

About composer Richard Wagner‘s Prelude to Tristan und Isolde: “…Wagner deliberately imposes syntactic ambiguities to make it seem languishing, mysterious and timeless. Timeless – that’s the clue. ..[he] plunge[s] us into a new dimension of time, quite different from anything before in music. It is a time which no longer ticks by, or even dances or saunters by: it proceeds imperceptibly, as the moon moves, or as leaves change their color.” (The Unanswered Question, pg. 235)

There are thousands of examples in the Serenade of Bernstein employing rhythmic ambiguity. This is music born free from the shackles of square symmetry. The opening melody of the first movement, for example, is timeless, mysterious and asymmetrical. As is the opening of Agathon. Or listen to 3:51 in the first movement, and you’ll hear a lopsided lilting/limping waltz. Or in the last movement, at 5:40, when the jazz gets into full swing…Really, basically, everywhere.

The Tritone (Debussy and Stravinsky)

Bernstein explained that composer Claude Debussy used an interval called a tritone in his great piece The Afternoon of a Faun, and explained, “…tritone, the most unstable interval there is – the absolute negation of tonality. And it is this interval – so unsettled and unsettling that the early church fathers declared it unacceptable and illegal, calling it diabolus in music (the devil in music)…” (The Unanswered Question pg. 243)

Though in this video I couldn’t resist quoting Maria from West Side Story (which was written after the Serenade,) Bernstein loved the tritone and you can hear it everywhere in the Serenade, for example, the cadenza in Agathon at 3:50 on the recording below, is chock full of them…