If you've ever written a love letter, you know it's not easy. Amid a swirl of emotions, balancing elegant language and hormone-fueled passion can be tricky. Composers for centuries have skirted this problem by doing what comes naturally — writing their love letters in the language of music.
Gustav Mahler to Alma Schindler: "Liebst du um Schönheit"
Gustav Mahler composed dozens of songs but only one, "Liebst du um
Schoenheit," is an outright love song. He wrote it in 1902 as a wedding
gift for his new bride, Alma. The text by Friedrich Rückert rejects the
idea of love for beauty, age or treasure, concluding, "but if you love
for love, then love me always, as I will always love you." Mahler's
music, a beautiful mix of soaring melody and bittersweet harmonies, was
eerily prescient. Little could he know then that he and Alma would
eventually drift apart.
Leoš Janáček to Kamilla Stösslová: 3rd mvt from String Quartet No. 2, "Intimate Letters"
Talk about love letters. Leoš Janáček wrote more than 700 of them to Kamilla Stösslová, the wife of an antiques dealer 36 years his junior. The sad fact is that she was never interested in Janáček romantically. But that didn't stop him from composing music specifically fueled by his passion. In February 1928, while writing his Second String Quartet, subtitled "Intimate Letters," 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." The music rocks softly, pivots to a daydream and then cries out in a piercing scream.
Peter Lieberson to Lorraine Hunt Lieberson: "Amor Mio" (from Neruda Songs)
It doesn't get more profound than this musical love letter and its back story. The text, by Pablo Neruda, starts: "My love, If I die and you don't, let's not give grief an even greater field." Lieberson set five of Neruda's love sonnets to music for his wife, mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. Less than eight months after she made this extraordinary recording she would succumb to cancer at age 52. With its warm, autumnal strings and plaintive oboe, this final song is part lullaby, part tribute to love everlasting. In the final line, Neruda says love "is like a long river, only changing lands, and changing lips."
Tchaikovsky: Tatiana to Onegin "Letter Scene" (from Eugene Onegin)
Musical love letters also get delivered on the operatic stage. In Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, there's an emotionally charged scene that resonates with almost everyone. Tatiana falls in love and takes that vulnerable step in composing her first love letter, not knowing if Onegin, the man she just met, will feel the same. Since it's opera, he doesn't — at least not until it's too late. In her letter, Tatiana says that at first she wanted to stay quiet but she can't control her feelings. "I have lived my whole life waiting to meet you," she writes, as Tchaikovsky's music rises with passion.
Edward Elgar to Alice Elgar: Variation 1 (from the Enigma Variations)
Edward Elgar began writing his "Enigma" Variations as something of a joke, improvising a short tune at the piano. Then he and his wife Alice had the idea that the tune could be altered to depict or, in some cases, caricature their various friends. Elgar loved it and spent part of two years writing 13 variations for orchestra, each one a portrait of someone close to him. He started with an affectionate sketch of Alice (identified as C.A.E. on the score), which features Elgar's lilting mystery theme lovingly dressed in warm, Brahmsian winds and strings.
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