For The Lovers and The Lonely Hearts: Great Classical Music for Valentine’s Day

Feb 14, 2017

Looking for the perfect classical soundtrack to bask in the most romantic day of the year? Look no further. Think Valentine’s Day is a shallow excuse of a holiday, invented by greeting card companies to cash in on the delusions of lovesick fools? We’ve got something for you, too! Regardless of your relationship status or feelings about February 14th, listen up:   

For the True Romantic: Franz Liszt, Liebestraum No. 3

Liszt based each of his three Liebesträume (meaning “love dreams”) on romantic poetry by Ludwig Uhland and Ferdinand Freiligrath. While the first and second pieces are centered around poems depicting religious and erotic love, respectively, the third and most famous Liebestraum was inspired by Freiligrath’s “O lieb, so lang du lieben kannst,” an ode to life-long love. An excerpt:

O love, as long as love you can,

O love, as long as love you may,

The time will come, the time will come

When you will stand at the grave and mourn!

Be sure that your heart burns,

And holds and keeps love

As long as another heart beats warmly

With its love for you

For That Passionate New Romance (That You Suspect May Not End Well): Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Romeo & Juliet

When Tchaikovsky composed this Overture-Fantasy in 1869, inspired by Shakespeare’s famous tale of doomed lovers, he probably had no idea how much his “Love Theme” (hear it around the 9:00 mark) would pervade romantic pop culture over a century later. Seriously, it’s everywhere—you’ve probably heard it in A Christmas Story, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, any time a cartoon character ever fell in love, or, if you were a tween in the 2000s, when your Sims finally kissed each other

For the Sentimental Romantic: Sergei Rachmaninoff, Rhapsody of a Theme from Paganini, Var. 18

Out of the 24 variations in this 1934 set from Rachmaninoff, number 18 is by far the most romantic, and the most famous. A lovesick piano melody begins the piece, and is soon joined by a sweeping orchestra that climaxes to a grand, symphonic profession of love. Some find it almost too romantic, bordering on the cliché. If it sounds familiar, it was a musical centerpiece in the 1980 time-travelling romance starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour, Somewhere in Time.

For the Poet: John Dowland, “Now cease my wand'ring eyes"

English Renaissance composer and lute master John Dowland is probably best known for his melancholy compositions rather than his musical expressions of love. Amidst all those references to tears, grief, darkness, and misery, however, Dowland occasionally strikes a romantic chord—and they seem just that much sweeter considering the composer’s generally gloomy repertoire. Take, for example, the last stanzas of his piece “Now cease my wand’ring eyes:”  

Nature two eyes hath giv'n,
All beauty to import,
As well in earth as heav'n,
But she hath giv'n one heart.

That though we see
Ten thousand beauties, yet in us,

in us one should be,
One steadfast love,
Because our hearts stand fix'd

although our eyes do move.

For The Recently Dumped: Guillaume de Machaut, Puis qu’en oubli

If you and your love have recently parted ways, feel free to commiserate with Guillaume de Machaut, a Medieval composer born in 1300, proving that heartbreak is not just a modern phenomenon. The text of Puis qu’en oubli roughly translates as:

Since I am forgotten by you, sweet friend,

I bid farewell to a life of love and joy

Unlucky was the day I placed my love in you;

since I am forgotten by you, sweet friend

But what was promised you I will sustain:

That I shall never have any other lover

Since I am forgotten by you, sweet friend,

I bid farewell to a life of love and joy

“I shall never have any over lover”? On second thought, maybe don’t take Machaut’s advice—a pint of ice cream and moving on seem like emotionally healthier choices.  

For The Vengeful Scorned: Richard Strauss, Salome

Opera may have some of the most romantic musical pairings between lovers, but the genre is also home to some of the most twisted. It’s hard to think of anything less romantic—or more revolting—than the final scene of Richard Strauss’s 20th century shocker Salome, in which the title character demands the head of John the Baptist after he rejects her advances. When the severed head is brought to her on a silver platter, Salome serenades it in an orgasmic expression of both her desires and her encroaching madness. If you’re feeling grossed out, so are the characters on stage with her, and she is promptly crushed by the shields of on looking soldiers after she and the head share an impassioned kiss. 

For the Infatuated: Hector Berlioz, Symphonie Fantastique

Scrambling to find the perfect gift to give your crush this Valentine’s Day? Why not write a symphony, complete with a musical theme that represents your beloved? That’s what Hector Berlioz did for Harriet Smithson, a Shakespearean actress who left Berlioz’s many love-struck fan letters unanswered (take a hint, dude!). Embittered by this rejection, Berlioz composed Symphony Fantastique, which musically depicts the less-than-subtle storyline of an artist that becomes infatuated with a woman, overdoses on opium when he is convinced she’ll never return his love, hallucinates that he murders her and is consequently beheaded at the guillotine, and is then haunted by his beloved’s ghost at a ghoulish witches’ Sabbath. It’s safe to say that subtlety was not Berlioz’s forte, but his labors paid off: he eventually married Smithson in 1833, and perhaps unsurprisingly, their marriage was one marked with bitterness, jealously, and Berlioz’s eventual affair with a 19-year old pianist.  

For the Single Ladies: Georges Bizet, “Habanera” from Carmen

“Habanera” is only the nickname for the most famous aria in Carmen, which is actually titled “L'amour est un oiseau rebelle," or “Love is a rebellious bird.” The brazen text about the fickle nature of love and slippery chromaticism of Carmen’s melody bring to life a woman that was shocking for Victorian audiences: a free-thinking, sexually autonomous (and explicit!) woman that smoked, drank, and did as she pleased when it came to her romantic affairs. Her behavior, and her blatant disregard for the perceived virtues of Victorian love, made her a feminist hero for some—and a threat to others. And like many opera heroines that exert sexual power over their male costars (remember Salome?) she ultimately must die; as the curtain falls, she is stabbed in a jealous frenzy by her ex, Don José.

Tune into Classical 91.1 for more music exploring the many facets of love and romance throughout this Valentine's Day.

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