Five Iconic Classical Musical Works About Love
Love may not conquer all, but it inspires all—from Shakespeare to Schoenberg. When it comes to matters of the heart, the style of music doesn’t matter, as long as it captures the depth of feeling. The theme of love takes many forms in all genres: youthful passion, deep yearning, unrequited ardor, forbidden feelings, infidelity, and forgiveness (to name a few). In classical forms, love stories are the heart of opera, and leading composers have written countless songs and works inspired by the emotion. Here are some familiar solo, chamber, and orchestral works that express this mercurial feeling in musical terms, as well as a few surprises.
Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet
Shakespeare’s tale of young, star-crossed lovers has probably inspired the most music of any of his works. Composer Mily Balakirev nagged Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky to write a piece based on the story. Balakirev even went so far as to sketch out a few bars, suggesting, “The piece should start like this.” The music Tchaikovsky eventually wrote vividly captures the play’s spirit. A solemn theme representing Friar Laurence opens the work before the music turns agitated in a portrait of the feuding Montagues and Capulets. Then comes what’s arguably the most famous love theme in all of music: the gorgeous theme of longing depicting Romeo and Juliet. After the theme is grandly repeated, the music becomes dark and closes with a mournful chord that underscores the tragedy. Tchaikovsky revised the piece twice, and its final 1880 version is one of his greatest masterpieces. The first Carnegie Hall performance was on November 10, 1893, with Walter Damrosch conducting the New York Symphony Orchestra.
Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique
When Hector Berlioz attended a performance of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, he fell madly in love with the Ophelia in the production, Irish actress Harriet Smithson. He wrote a stream of letters to her that went unanswered and became furious when he heard gossip that she was having an affair with her manager. Thankfully, Berlioz channeled all this ardor into his music. His Symphonie fantastique uses spectacular orchestral colors to tell the story of a young artist’s obsession, which leads to an opium overdose and hallucinations of murder and execution. Throughout the work, the object of the artist’s love is depicted by a tender musical motif. In a dramatic masterstroke, the theme is heard in a truncated form moments before the artist is executed on the guillotine. Symphonie fantastique has been a Carnegie Hall mainstay since it was first performed here on March 18, 1899, with Emil Paur conducting the New York Philharmonic.
Schumann’s Fantasie in C Major, Op. 17
The courtship between Robert Schumann and Clara Wieck has all the drama of a Hollywood romance: A struggling but brilliant composer falls in love with his teacher’s young daughter, a remarkable piano virtuoso. Clara’s father was furious about the attraction and forbade their meeting, as Schumann recounted, “under pain of death.” Despite that, they did eventually marry. Clara was ever Robert’s muse, and one of his most ardent love letters to her is his Fantasie in C Major, Op. 17. He pours his yearning and devotion into every phrase, from its impassioned opening theme to the concluding poetic song of longing. Robert and Clara’s story did find its way to the Hollywood screen. The 1947 film Song of Love starred Katharine Hepburn as Clara and Paul Henreid as Robert. Each actor “hand-synched” at the piano to performances by Arthur Rubinstein—one of the many great pianists who have performed Schumann’s masterpiece at Carnegie Hall.
Janáček’s String Quartet No. 2, “Intimate Letters”
In the summer of 1917, 63-year-old Leoš Janáček and his wife, Zdenka, befriended Kamila Stösslová and her husband while on vacation. It ended up being a fateful friendship. Janáček was eventually estranged from his wife and became enraptured by Stösslová, 35 years his junior, who remained true to her husband. Throughout the next decade, Janáček and Stösslová exchanged more than 700 letters. She was the muse that inspired some of his finest music. The String Quartet No. 2’s subtitle speaks to the voluminous correspondence they shared, and each of the work’s movements refers to real or imagined episodes in their relationship. Janáček’s music smolders and sighs as it recalls their first meeting, his secret yearnings, an idolized vision of Stösslová, and finally his great longing for her. He wrote to Stösslová about the quartet: “You stand behind every note … Those notes of mine kiss all of you. They call for you passionately.” It was more than four decades later that Janáček’s quartet finally made its way to Carnegie Hall in a performance by the Purcell String Quartet on December 3, 1974.
Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht
Arnold Schoenberg is probably not the first composer who comes to mind when contemplating the theme of love. His intellectually rigorous music fascinates but doesn’t necessarily inspire romance. One of his earlier works, however—the 1899 string sextet Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night)—checks all the boxes for passionate music. Schoenberg’s breakthrough piece was inspired by a Richard Dehmel poem. It tells a dramatic tale of love, betrayal, and forgiveness, and Schoenberg brilliantly captures its dark-hued eroticism and intensity. Steeped in the music of Wagner, R. Strauss, and Mahler, Schoenberg’s hyper-Romantic tone poem (music that tells a story) for strings uses lush harmonies and shimmering colors to narrate the passionate poem. Schoenberg arranged the work for string orchestra in 1917, and that’s the version most frequently performed at Carnegie Hall. The first time was when Willem Mengelberg conducted the National Symphony Orchestra on March 7, 1921. The original version had its day, too, when the Orpheus Chamber Ensemble performed it on March 22, 1976.
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