Like a theme that threads through so much art, literature and music, love has provided inspiration for some of the most celebrated composer’s works. In this article, I will single out a few of my favourite examples of pieces that relate directly to this tender area of human experience.
Classical Music about Love
1. “Salut D’Amour” by Edward Elgar
Elgar is perhaps best known for his Pomp and Circumstance Marches or the Cello Concerto made famous by the soloist Jaqueline Du Pres, but this charming three-minute salon piece has also become one of his best-loved compositions. It was composed in 1888 in response to a parting poetic gift from his wife to be, Alice Roberts.
The poem touched Elgar and he responded by composing her this work that he originally titled, Love’s Greeting. The music publisher Schott re-titled the work as Salut D’ Amour, having paid Elgar the grand sum of two guineas for it. They felt a French title might make the work more popular. Whether this genuinely gave the music more credibility is difficult to know, but the work does give us early pointers towards the polished composer Elgar would develop into.
2. “Leiberstraum” by Franz Liszt
This is one of the most passionate works for the piano that Liszt ever composed. Each of the three Liberstraum take their inspiration from the poems by Uhland and Freiligrath and this is the final piece in the trio. Liszt had conceived the pieces in the first instance, as songs but later a solo and four-hand piano works. This final love dream is a homage to unconditional love that Freiligrath captures elegantly in his poem. Liszt, in my opinion, then elevates this poem to a completely different, higher level of expression.
The Lieberstraum is a technically demanding work that broadly divides into three sections, each divided by electric cadenzas that demonstrate the astonishing mastery Liszt enjoyed over the piano. There have been many arrangements of this work that have only added to its popularity over many years.
3. “Widmung” by Robert Schumann
It would be impossible not to include this moving love song in such a collection of pieces devoted to the subject. This leider is one of some 150 songs that Schumann composed in his lifetime. It comes from the song cycle titled “Myrthen”; Op. 25: No. 1, and sets the text of the poet Rückert.
The title means dedication, the dedicatee being his beloved wife Clara Schuman and opens the song cycle. It was composed in the year 1840 in what became known as the year of the song for Schumann and a happier time than the years that were to follow.
4. “Prelude and Liebestod” from Tristan and Isolde by Richard Wagner
Composed in 1850, Wagner was about to embark on his herculean Ring Cycle, but before he did, he wrote the equally epic love story of Tristan and Isolde. This opera is based loosely on a 12th Century tale of two unfortunate lovers. The story itself is not overly remarkable but what Wagner brings to it musically is nothing short of remarkable.
Many claim that this opera marks a key turning point in Western Harmony that resulted in the ultimate destruction of tonality in the work of Schoenberg. The Liebestod comes in the third and final act of the work and offers a dramatic conclusion to this impressive piece. The title literally means love death and represents a similar situation to Romeo and Juliet where the lovers finally find eternal love in death.
5. “O soave fanciulla” from La Boheme by Puccini
It would be impossible to survey classical music that dedicates itself to love without mentioning Puccini. His operas have become amongst the most popular and regularly performed of all opera composers. This four act opera was composed in 1896 and takes its narrative from the Murger novel titled “Scenes de la vie de Boehme”.
As you may expect, the opera is a tragedy and centres around a bohemian couple living in the Latin quarter of Paris in the mid 19th Century. The piece I have selected from the opera comes in Act one and is a love duet between Rodolfo and Mimi. It is rich with the passion of love and adoration like so much of Puccini’s music and a fine example of love at the heart of classical music.
6. Romeo and Juliet Op.64 by Prokofiev
This is one of the most famous pieces of ballet music from the early part of the twentieth century. It fluently shows off the robust, scoring of this most notable of Russian composers and his ability to conjure the full gamut of human emotions. The ballet, initially rejected by its intended company, was eventually premièred in 1938 but not in Prokofiev’s native Russia but in the then Czechoslovakia.
It is based around the tragedy by William Shakespeare that holds the same title, strikingly depicting the struggle between the rival families and the love between these star-crossed lovers. Many arrangements have been made of this famous piece, Prokofiev himself turning the ballet into three Suites of pieces for orchestra.
7. String Quartet No.2 (Intimate Letters) by Janacek
Towards the latter stages of his life, Janacek became obsessed with a married woman some thirty-seven years his junior to whom he wrote 700 letters. As far as we are aware from his correspondence the love, or obsession for Kamila was never reciprocated but Janacek composed his second string quartet with her at its very centre.
The music is energised by Janacek’s enviable ability to create emotion from the smallest of motifs. There are four movements in total, beginning with an Andante that gives the viola some of the sweetest melodic kernels in this composers output.
The mood is rarely restful, instead of throughout the quartet there is a restlessness that suggests a composer who has discovered the very meaning to his whole existence in the love for this woman. At no point in the music does Janacek lose the characteristically folk-like quality to his writing yet the warmth of a devotional love fills the entire work.