3 of Bernstein’s Chamber Pieces and What They Tell Us

I have always been interested in listening to and playing chamber music and have been drawn to the dynamic of working together in a small group and amazed by the amount of incredible chamber music repertoire available. When I started taking this class I was curious if Bernstein had written any. Although Bernstein is not known primarily for his chamber works and other smaller scale pieces, the ones that he did write show a lot about his ability to take risks, experiment, and push the boundaries of classical music.

  1. Sonata for Clarinet and Piano

Bernstein’s first published work was a sonata for clarinet and piano written in 1942. Bernstein wrote it after his first few summers at Tanglewood and the piece has a few connections to Tanglewood; it was dedicated to clarinetist David Oppenheim who Bernstein met during the summers of 1940 and 1941 at Tanglewood, and the first movement “opens with a musical line reminiscent of Hindemith who was the composer-in-residence at Tanglewood in 1941”(1). The piece features walking bass lines, syncopated rhythms, and elements of jazz. Bernstein used compositional techniques that he would later use in West Side Story. (2)

The Boston premier took place at the Institute of Modern Art and featured Bernstein on piano, and the New York premier took place a year later at the New York Public library also featuring Bernstein on piano and featuring David Oppenheim on clarinet. In 1943, Oppenheim and Bernstein released the first recording of the piece. The piece is now a standard in Clarinet repertoire (3). As with many of his pieces, the dedication and the connection to Tanglewood show that this piece had a significant personal meaning for Bernstein, and the elements of jazz show us that Bernstein’s love for incorporating jazz started at an early age.

  1. Serenade for Violin solo, strings, and percussion

In 1954, Serenade for Violin solo, strings, and percussion was first performed (4). The Serenade developed into a five movement piece featuring violin, harp, string orchestra, and percussion. It is a little large to be considered a chamber piece, but does not feature the full orchestra, and thus is considered by some to be a chamber work. The piece was written for a few reasons; It was a commission from the Koussevitzky Foundation originally from 1951, and satisfied a promise Bernstein made to write a piece for his friend and famous violinist, Issac Stern. (5) Bernstein dedicated the piece to the memory of Serge Koussevitzky and his wife, Natalie.

The piece is based on Plato’s dialogue, “The Symposium”. In the dialogue, which is concerned with the nature and purpose of love, there are a series of speakers. Each speaker starts by pointing out what they agree with or disagree with from the previous speaker’s remark, and build upon what they said (6). The music is structured in a similar way, in which musical ideas from previous movements and phrases are expanded upon and refined in later on in the piece (7). Though this was not the first time someone composed a piece based on themes from classical literature, Bernstein’s concept of writing a piece so closely based on the text’s form shows a lot about his creativity and willingness to experiment with his compositions, in the same way that he experimented with incorporating Jazz and musical theatre based sounds into the classical music he wrote.

  1. Halil for flute, piano, and percussion

Bernstein’s attention was for the most part diverted away from chamber works for the next few decades, other than some short pieces. In 1981 Bernstein returned to write Halil, a sixteen-minute piece for flute, piano, and percussion (8). The piece was dedicated to a talented nineteen-year-old Israeli flutest who in 1973 was killed in his tank in Sinai. Bernstein said, “Halil (the Hebrew word for “flute”) is formally unlike any other work I have written, but is like much of my music in its struggle between tonal and non-tonal forces. In this case, I sense that struggle as involving wars and the treatment of wars, the overwhelming desire to live, and the consolations of art, love and the hope for peace.” (9) Bernstein talks about how the piece represents conflict in its tonality with an opening 12-tone row and ending with a diatonic final cadence, two contrasting sounds. Bernstein said “I never knew Yadin, but I know his spirit”(10). The piece not only teaches us that Bernstein was not afraid to do the somewhat provocative act of dedicating a piece to an Israeli, but also shows us an example of the tension Bernstein often created in his music, showing conflict between the tonal and ton-tonal forces.


Whether he was experimenting with form, the inclusion of jazz or theatre elements, tonality, or the use of a particularly controversial meaning to his piece, Bernstein was never afraid to push the boundaries of what it meant for a piece to be considered “classical”. This confidence bled over into his life as a conductor, performer, teacher and humanitarian, and is part of what contributed to him becoming an American icon.


Works Cited

  1. Revolvy, LLC. “‘Sonata for Clarinet and Piano (Bernstein)” on Revolvy.com.” Revolvy, www.revolvy.com/page/Sonata-for-Clarinet-and-Piano-%28Bernstein%29.ttps://leonardbernstein.com/works/view/34/sonata-for-clarinet-and-piano
  2. Revolvy, LLC. “‘Sonata for Clarinet and Piano (Bernstein)” ‘
  3. “1980 To 1990  | Leonard Bernstein Timeline 1918-1990  | Articles and Essays  | Leonard Bernstein  | Digital Collections  | Library of Congress.” The Library of Congress, www.loc.gov/collections/leonard-bernstein/articles-and-essays/leonard-bernstein-timeline-1918-1990/1980-to-1990/.
  4. “Leonard Bernstein at 100.” Works | Works | Leonard Bernstein, leonardbernstein.com/works/view/23/serenade-after-platos-symposium.
  5. “Leonard Bernstein at 100.” – Serenade after Plato’s Symposium
  6. “Leonard Bernstein at 100.” – Serenade after Plato’s Symposium
  7. “Leonard Bernstein at 100.” Works | Works | Leonard Bernstein, leonardbernstein.com/works/view/18/halil-nocturne.
  8. “Halil.” Boosey & Hawkes, www.boosey.com/cr/music/Leonard-Bernstein-Halil/6117.
  9. “Halil.” Boosey & Hawkes


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