Love Notes: Musical Expressions of Affection

Happy Valentine’s, dearest readers! In honor of America’s most loved/hated holiday, I’ve compiled a “Top 5” list of my favorite musical expressions of love. In no particular order:

1. Richard Wagner, Siegfried Idyll
In Wagner’s autobiography, Mein Leben, he remembers the exact moment when he and Cosima von Bülow fell in love. While traveling together in a carriage in 1863, they “fell silent and all joking ceased. We gazed mutely into each other’s eyes and an intense longing for the fullest avowal of the truth forced us to a confession, requiring no words whatever… With tears and sobs we sealed a vow to belong to each other alone.” Cosima was already married to Wagner’s close friend, Hans von Bülow; but seven years and three illegitimate children later, she finally divorced him and married Wagner. On Christmas morning 1870 — a few months after their wedding and the day after Cosima’s birthday — Wagner ushered 15 musicians to the foot of the stairs in his home and woke Cosima with the beautiful “Symphonic Birthday Greeting,” which later became the Siegfried Idyll.

2. Leoš Janáček, String Quartet No. 2, Intimate Letters: III. Moderato. Adagio. Allegro
Whereas Wagner and Cosima’s love surpassed all obstacles, Czech composer Leoš Janáček had no such luck. In 1917, the 63-year-old composer met and fell madly in love with the beautiful Kamila Stösslová, the young wife of an antiques dealer. Over the course of the next 11 years, Stösslová and Janáček exchanged over 700 letters. She never returned his love, but she was his muse, and he credits her for the magnificent works he produced late in his life. His second string quartet, subtitled Intimate Letters, is directly fueled by his love for her. He wrote to her about the third movement: “It will be very cheerful, and then dissolve into a vision of your image, transparent, as if in the mist, in which there should be a suspicion of motherhood.”

3. George Gershwin, “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess 
In this scene depicting the love between a mother and her child, Clara sings a sublime lullaby to her baby while walking through the beleaguered community of Catfish Row.

“One of these mornings
You’re going to rise up singing
Then you’ll spread your wings
And you’ll take to the sky

But till that morning
There’s a’nothing can harm you
With daddy and mamma standing by.”

4. Douglas Moore, “Dearest Mama” from The Ballad of Baby Doe
In this tortuous saga of love and death — based on the actual lives of Horace Tabor, Elizabeth “Baby” Doe Tabor, and Augusta Tabor — Douglas Moore traces the history of Baby Doe, a young woman who is having an affair with the extremely wealthy (and married) Horace. “Dearest Mama,” also known as the “letter scene,” takes place after Horace’s wife, Augusta, discovers the affair. Baby Doe writes a letter to her mother, explaining that she has made a mistake in loving this man and expressing regret that she has caused so much pain in pursuit of her own pleasure. She is torn; she and Horace love and need each other deeply, but she knows the relationship must end for the sake of his family and her reputation.

5. Frederic Chopin, Piano Concerto No. 2, II. Larghetto 
When it comes to his romantic life, Chopin is best known for his extended love affair with the French writer George Sand. But in his twenties, he was passionately in love with the Polish Countess Delphina Potocka… their surviving love letters are deliciously racy and refreshingly frank when it comes to their sexual exploits. Jokingly complaining about what must have been a fervid and all-consuming love, Chopin once wrote to her, “Inspiration and ideas only come to me when I have not had a woman in a very long time… I have been so deeply engulfed in my love for you [that] I have hardly created anything.” He dedicated his second piano concerto to her, the second movement of which is one of my favorite pieces of music of all time.

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