Composers in love

February 11, 2019
composers in love feature The Bow and Baton

Here’s a playlist of our favourite works inspired by composers in love.

The Moonlight Sonata (1801) – Ludwig van Beethoven.

The first movement of The Moonlight Sonata is the most famous of all Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas. Written in 1801, Beethoven dedicated this piece to 17-year-old, Giuleietta Guicciardi, his piano pupil and the woman he wanted to marry, but it wasn’t to be (indeed, Beethoven never married).

The Moonlight Sonata begins with a slow and contemplative first movement, which was unusual in its time (usually classical sonatas are characterised by their fast – slow – fast movements).  The key signature of C# minor sets a melancholy mood and its repeated triplet rhythm throughout this movement creates the impression of a reflective state of mind.

This sonata was written at a time when Beethoven was going deaf. Notes in his original manuscripts refer to Mozart’s Don Juan, (also in C# minor), from the scene where Don Juan kills the commander. This suggests that Beethoven may have envisaged a funeral style for this movement rather than a romantic one. It was originally composed with the title “Quasi una fantasia”. The name ‘Moonlight Sonata’ was not Beethoven’s. It was added several years after his death by the German Romantic poet, Ludwig Rellstab. He likened the first movement to a boat floating in the moonlight on Switzerland’s Lake Lucerne.

There were to be many women throughout Beethoven’s life. Apart from Giuleietta, names include Eleonore von Breuning, Magdelena Willmann, Josephine von Deym, Therese Malfatti, Amalia Sebald, Anna Maria Erdődy  and Antonie Brentano, the iconic “immortal beloved” to whom Beethoven bared his soul in a three-part letter.

String Quartet no. 2 in D Major (1881) – Borodin

Borodin composed his String Quartet no. 2 in D Major as a love letter to his wife, the pianist Yekaterina Sergeyevna Protopopova. They first met in Heidelberg in 1861, where Yekaterina was recovering from tuberculosis and they quickly formed a relationship over their joint interest in music. This quartet, which was written some 20 years after their marriage, is a nostalgic recollection of their early romance. Borodin was completely devoted to his wife and this can be heard in the work’s euphoric tone. The quartet begins with a touching dialogue between the first violin and cello—clearly meant to symbolise Borodin and Yekaterina.

Of its four movements, the third “Notturno” is the most famous. This beautiful nocturne seduces the listener from the very beginning with a heartfelt cello solo. The first violin replies in kind. It’s as if we are listening to Alexander and Yekaterina’s sweet nothings.

Salut d’amour (1888)  – Edward Elgar

Elgar wrote this work for his fiancée, Alice Roberts, and presented it to her when he proposed. Called Liebesgruss (Love’s Greeting), this personal and romantic piece carries the dedication To Carice, (a contraction of his wife’s forenames, Caroline Alice).

Elgar sent three versions of the work to Schott’s publishers, who bought it outright for two guineas. Sales were initially slow, so Schott renamed the work (with Elgar’s approval), Salut d’Amour calling him Ed. Elgar. The switch to a French title and a less obvious English composer, helped to improve international sales and it gradually achieved the popularity that it still enjoys today. Elgar, however, still only ever made two guineas from his ‘Love’s Greeting’.

Adagietto from Symphony No. 5 (1901/2)  – Gustav Mahler

The famous Adagietto (fourth movement from Symphony No. 5) is Mahler’s love letter to Alma Schindler, shortly before they were married in 1902. Marked ‘very slow’ and ‘soulful’ with the orchestra reduced down to harp and strings, this is music of inexpressible beauty. The Dutch conductor Willem Mengelberg, in his personal copy of the Symphony, wrote: “This Adagietto was Gustav Mahler’s declaration of love for Alma! Instead of a letter, he sent her this in manuscript form; no other words accompanied it. She understood and wrote to him: He should come!!! (both of them told me this!).” Mengelberg’s own description of the Adagietto was “love, a love comes into his life.

Alma was unable to attend the premiere of the work due to illness, to which Mahler was deeply disappointed.

Symphonie Fantastique; épisode de la vie d’un artiste (1830) – Hector Berlioz

When the French composer Hector Berlioz went to see a production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet in Paris in 1827, he fell madly in love with the Irish actress, Harriet Smithson, playing the role of Ophelia.  Although he wrote many letters to her, Harriet didn’t respond to any of them, so he composed an orchestral symphony, the Symphonie Fantastique, for her.

In his memoirs Berlioz states that the music portrays the dreams of a young man who has taken an overdose of opium following a failed love affair. The symphony is pioneering in several ways. It is a symphony with a program (a story to tell), it has five movements and the orchestra is greatly expanded: the harp and timpani parts are doubled and new instruments are used, such as the ophicleide (predecessor to the tuba), and the valve trumpet. The score itself calls for a total of over 90 instruments. But most interesting of all is its use of a recurring theme called the idée fixe, or fixed idea. This represents the artist’s obsession with his loved one and appears throughout all five movements of the symphony, in various ways.

The five movements:
  1. Rêveries – passions
  2. Un bal – a ball
  3. Scène aux champs – scene in the fields
  4. Marche au supplice – March to the scaffold
  5. Songe d’une nuit du sabbat – Dream of a night of the Sabbath

Two years after the work’s premiere, Harriet Smithson finally agreed to meet Berlioz. They were married the following year in 1833, but the marriage was not a happy one. The couple had separated within a decade.

The video extract below is the second movement, a ball. Beginning with a magical introduction and featuring two harps the waltz itself is taken from the idée fixe and then transformed.  Berlioz wrote:

The artist finds himself in the most diverse situations in life, in the tumult of a festive party, in the peaceful contemplation of the beautiful sights of nature, yet everywhere, whether in town or in the countryside, the beloved image keeps haunting him and throws his spirit into confusion.

Alto Rhapsody (1870)– Johannes Brahms

Brahms’s passion for Clara, Robert Schumann’s wife, played a major part in his life and music. Towards the end of the 1860s when Brahms was lodging with the Schumann family, he began to develop an affection for Clara’s daughter, Julie. When Clara told him that Julie was engaged to be married to an Italian Count, Brahms’s response was to compose a piece for contralto, his favourite voice, called Alto Rhapsody.

The first two verses of the poem are sung by the soloist alone. Set in C minor, the tempo starts off slowly and becomes more agitated in the second verse. It is only when a hope of redemption is offered in the third verse that the key changes to C major. The mood of the piece is further enhanced by the addition of a male chorus.

The Alto Rhapsody demonstrates, in a heartfelt way, Brahms’s statement,

I speak through my music.


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  • Reply Discovering the Elgar Route - The Bow and Baton September 29, 2019 at 7:10 pm

    […] manuscript of Salut d’amour, written for his fiancee, Alice Roberts, and presented to her when he […]

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