Love has inspired countless composers, some of whom have written pieces dedicated to, or directly inspired by, their own beloveds. Here are ten of the best musical love letters ever composed.
1. Wagner: Siegfried Idyll
Though his reputation rests on his big, long, and loud mythological operas, Richard Wagner was also capable of composing on a smaller scale. He wrote the Siegfried Idyll as a birthday present to his wife Cosima, who had recently borne him a son, Siegfried. Wagner hired an orchestra of thirteen players to perform the piece on the steps of the family’s country villa at Tribschen, Switzerland on Christmas morning 1870, as his wife slept in a bedroom above. Cosima recalled:
“As I awoke, my ear caught a sound, which swelled fuller and fuller; no longer could I imagine myself to be dreaming: music was sounding, and such music! When it died away, Richard came into my room with the children and offered me the score of the symphonic birthday poem. I was in tears, but so were all the rest of the household. Richard had arranged his orchestra on the staircase, and thus was our Tribschen consecrated forever.”
Wagner meant for the piece to remain private, but years later, in need of money, he sold the Siegfried Idyll to a publisher, expanding the orchestration of the work.
2. Mahler: Adagietto from Symphony No. 5
Gustav Mahler wrote two pieces for his wife Alma, the song “Liebst Du Um Schönheit” (“If You Love for Beauty”) after a poem by Friedrich Rückert, and this famous movement from his Fifth Symphony. Unfortunately, over time the Adagietto became associated with death; Leonard Bernstein played it at the funeral of John F. Kennedy, and the music was featured in the 1971 film, Death in Venice. Largely due to this association, most conductors have drawn out the tempo of the Adagietto in recent decades to a funereal ten, eleven, or twelve minutes—and in a few cases, even beyond—stretching the movement out of shape and altering its proper character. The evidence indicates that Mahler himself conducted the movement in about eight minutes, and it is this tempo that reveals the origin of the piece as a poignant love letter. The recording below follows Mahler’s wishes in this regard.
3. Mozart: “Great” Mass in C Minor
The Mass in C Minor was likely the result of Mozart’s promise that he would compose a Mass in thanksgiving to God for his marriage to Constanze Weber. “It is quite true about my moral obligation,” the composer wrote to his father Leopold soon after the marriage. “I made the promise and hope to be able to keep it. When I made it, my wife was still single; yet as I was determined to marry her soon after her recovery it was easy for me to make it.” Leopold did not approve of the union, thinking his son should concentrate on composition, and deeming Constanze unworthy of his Wolfgang. Though the younger Mozart never fully completed the Mass, he premiered the unfinished work in his hometown of Salzburg, when he returned there to introduce his new bride to his father. Constanze sang the soprano solos of the Mass at this performance, in what may have been an effort to ingratiate Constanze to the displeased Leopold. The attempt failed.
4. Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique
Obsessed with the work of Shakespeare, French composer Hector Berlioz one evening attended a performance Hamlet at the Odéon Theatre in Paris. A second obsession began that evening, when he found himself captivated by the performance of the Irish actress, Harriet Smithson, in the role of Ophelia. Ignoring his repeated advances, Smithson soon left Paris, and Berlioz turned to composition for relief from his yearning. The result was a strange, new work: the Symphonie Fantastique, which tells the tale of an obsessed lover who dreams of the woman he desires (movement one); who attends a ball, as she remains elusive (movement two); who then goes to the countryside and finds a balm for his longing, as he listens to the interplay of horn calls of two shepherds (movement three); who next takes opium and dreams of killing his beloved and being guillotined for his crime (movement four); and who finally dreams that he is in the midst of an orgiastic Witches’ Sabbath, as his death is celebrated by, as the composer put it in his original program notes at the Fantastique‘s premier, a “hideous gathering of shades, sorcerers and monsters of every kind.”
This is not the stuff of Hallmark cards! Berlioz did eventually succeed in getting Smithson to consent to marrying him. But their life together was miserable from the start, and Berlioz ended up having an affair with another woman.
5. Janáček: String Quartet (“Intimate Letters”)
At the age of sixty-three, Czech composer Leoš Janáček met and fell immediately in love with the twenty-six-year-old Kamila Stösslová. Both were already married, and Stösslová was ambivalent about the composer as a man and as a composer. Nevertheless, Janáček proceeded to write more than 700 love letters to the young woman over the remaining eleven years of his life. “You are so lovely in character and appearance that in your company one’s spirits are lifted,” he wrote in his first missive. “Happy you! All the more painfully I feel my own desolation and bitter fate.” Stösslová became the inspiration for female characters in his operas and for several of his compositions, including the String Quartet, “Intimate Letters.” He wrote to her about the third movement of the quartet: “It will be very cheerful, and then dissolve into a vision of your image, transparent, as if in the mist.”
6. Richard Strauss: “The Hero’s Companion” (from Ein Heldenleben)
Richard Strauss’ tone poem, A Hero’s Life, is unabashedly autobiographical—though Strauss unconvincingly equivocated when pressed on the issue—by a composer who deemed himself “no less interesting than Napoleon.” The piece describes in music a hero’s victory over his enemies (music critics?), his wonderful works of peace (his compositions?), his retirement in glory… and his romantic companion. For Strauss this companion was his wife, Pauline de Ahna, whom he described as “very complex, very feminine, a little perverse, a little coquettish, never like herself, at every minute different from how she had been a moment before.” The music of “The Hero’s Companion” might be said to reflect this characterization of Pauline. Strauss’ wife would again appear as an unnamed character in the composer’s less musically interesting sequel to A Hero’s Life, the Domestic Symphony.
7. Beethoven: “Für Elise”
One of the most popular piano pieces ever written, this three-minute bagatelle was not published until forty years after Beethoven died. The subject of its dedication has been an issue of much debate among scholars ever since. Who was this “Elise”? Some have suggested the woman in question was Elisabeth Roeckel, a friend of the composer who went by the nickname Elise, while others argue that the dedication was transcribed incorrectly and that “Für Therese” was meant for Therese Malfatti, a woman who once rejected Beethoven’s marriage proposal. As with the subject of his undelivered letter “To the Immortal Beloved,” the identity of the object of Beethoven’s affections remains a mystery.
8. Smetana: String Quartet No. 1, “From My Life”
Czech composer Bedřich Smetana, known primarily for his opera, The Bartered Bride, and his cycle of tone poems, Má Vlast (My Fatherland), also wrote this autobiographical and very personal chamber work, which details events in the composer’s life, including the onset of his deafness. The work, Smetana explained, was “written for four instruments which, as in a small circle of friends, talk among themselves about what has oppressed me so significantly…. The third movement (the one which, in the opinion of the gentlemen who play this quartet, is unperformable) reminds me of the happiness of my first love, the girl who later became my first wife.” This was Kateřina Kolářová, who would die of tuberculosis ten years after the couple married.
*This essay was originally published at The Imaginative Conservative, 14 February 2017 and is republished here with gracious permission.
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