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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 3, No. 5

If Music Be the Food of Love, Play On...

February 1, 1998

Version française...

Shakespeare called music the food of love, but love has also nourished countless musical masterpieces, especially among the Romantic composers of the nineteenth-century. Archetypal Romantic poet Alfred de Musset wrote an elegy on the premature death at 28 of the great diva Malibran. Here is the 26th verse of Stances à la Malibran, freely translated:

Yes, yes, you realized, and knew that in this life,
Nothing's as good as to love, as true as to suffer.
Every night in your songs you felt yourself wane.
You knew the world, and the people, and desire,
And, holding in that broken body your genius,
You also observed La Malibran expiring
Clara Wieck and Robert Schumann
Poets and musicians have always had the power to crystallize their emotions into masterpieces. The love story of Clara Wieck and Robert Schumann is one of the most famous and tragic musical unions in history. Clara Weick was a brilliant pianist, a child prodigy tutored by her stern father Friedrich Wieck, a piano professor. Young Robert Schumann came to live with the Wiecks to take piano lessons and despite Herr Weick's close surveillance, Clara and Robert fell in love. Herr Weick discouraged their affection, intercepting and returning the letters Schumann wrote to his daughter. Robert courted Clara with musical love letters, sometimes incorporating an acronym of Clara's name in the notes. Stimulated by love he wrote Carnaval opus 9, Fantaisie opus 17, the Etudes symphoniques, Davidsbündlertänze, Kinderscenen and Kreisleriana. Unimpressed by Schumann's genius, Clara's father went to court to prevent their marriage, but in vain. Their marriage initiated a period of great creativity for Schumann. He set to music more than 30 poems, the most famous of which are Liederkreis, Myrthen, Frauenliebe und Leben, and Dichterliebe (using poems by Heine). He also started the Concerto for piano in A minor and composed the Symphony No.1 in B flat major ("Spring") in one month, and he completed two more symphonies before the end of the year. The happy couple had eight children before Robert was stricken with madness. Following several suicide attempts, he was confined to a lunatic asylum where he died. -Agathe de Vaux
Beethoven: The Distant Beloved
At the dawn of the Romantic era, Beethoven had platonic relationships with several women. He dedicated his Trios Op. 70 and the Sonata for cello Op. 102, No.2 to Maria von Erdödy. He had passionately loved several women: Giulietta Guicciardi, to whom is dedicated the Moonlight Sonata Op. 27; Joséphine von Brunswick, dedicatee of the Sonatas Op. 31, and probably Beethoven's "immortal beloved"; and Theresa Malfatti, the possible muse of Beethoven's song cycle An die ferne Geliebte (Songs to the Distant Beloved). -Agathe de Vaux
Hector Berlioz and Harriet Smithson
Berlioz was inspired to compose his Symphonie Fantastique by his unrequited love for Irish actress Harriet Smithson, celebrated in Paris for her Shakespearean acting. The violence of his love letters to the actress frightened her and she did everything in her power to discourage him. He pressed his case. "If she could perceive but for one moment the poetry, the infinity, of such a love she would throw herself in my arms where she would suffocate from my embrace." Friends of Berlioz' brought Smithson to a concert where she finally heard the Symphonie Fantastique more than a year after its composition. She was moved by Berlioz's passion and flattered that she had been the inspiration for both the Symphonie Fantastique and Lélio. Smithson married him a few months later despite the fierce opposition of their parents. Harriet was, at that time, crippled by an accident and financially ruined but, as Berlioz exulted, "she was mine . . ." -Agathe de Vaux
Richard Strauss: Last Songs
Richard Strauss, a great romantic in every sense of the word, had offered Morgen and other songs (Op. 27) to his wife as a wedding present. There has been speculation about a possible relation with the famous soprano Maria Jeritza. Strauss wrote a fifth Lied, "Malven", which was not part of his Four Last Songs (Vier Letzte Lieder) cycle, and dedicated it to Jeritza. She never sang it in public but kept the manuscript until her death in 1985, when it was sold at auction in New York. That year it was sung for the first time in public by Kiri Te Kanawa. Thanks for these details to Pierre Béique, general manager of the OSM from 1937 to 1970, who had met Jeritza. -Agathe de Vaux
Richard Wagner's Wesendoncklieder: A Gift Never Presented
On the run from the Prussian authorities for his involvement in the Dresden revolution, Richard Wagner was forced into exile in May 1849. After a brief stay in Paris, he moved to Zurich, where he obtained patronage from a rich financier named Otto Wesendonck. Wagner grew to admire his patron's wife, Mathilde, and confessed his ever-increasing passion in a now famous correspondence. Mathilde Wesendonck had an artistic personality and was a talented writer. Wagner set five of Mathilde's poems to music in the Fünf Gedichte für eine Frauenstimme (Five Poems for a Woman's Voice), also known as the Wesendoncklieder. Two of these Lieder are subtitled "Etude for Tristan." Their Schopenhauer-inspired content foreshadowed the harmonic language of Tristan, characterized by unresolved tensions.
It is not clear if the passionate letter writers Richard and Mathilde consummated their passion. The unresolved harmonic tensions in Tristan suggest unrequited love. We know that during his relationship with Mathilde, Wagner interrupted his composition of Siegfried to indulge his obsession for Tristan. Perhaps Wagner, torn between love for Mathilde and loyalty to his patron Otto, identified with Tristan, torn between his love for Isolde and loyalty to his master, King Marke. When Otto discovered one of Wagner's passionate letters to Mathilde containing the possibly adulterous passage, "I will come to the garden today, I hope that when I see you I will find you alone and that we won't be disturbed", Richard and Mathilde were forced to part.
The Wesendoncklieder, inspired by Mathilde, paved the way forTristan . The composer admitted later in his Diary to Mathilde, "I have never done any better than these Lieder; extremely rare are those among my other works that compare favorably." - Jacques Desjardins
The Gift Of The Siegfried Idyll
While most of his operas focus on the volatility of ecstasy and despair found in the world of human and supernatural passion, Wagner's Siegfried Idyll was written at a time of great domestic stability in his life. Siegfried Idyll, for small chamber orchestra, is an intimate one-movement piece created as a love offering for his wife Cosima, who had recently borne him a son. Wagner' ode used several musical themes which he had jotted down years earlier as they were falling in love. Cosima awoke on her 33rd birthday to the music of the idyll being played by a small band on the stairs of their Swiss villa. The peaceful first theme of the Idyll leads into a hauntingly simple German cradlesong, "Sleep, Little Child, Sleep". Wagner elaborates and develops the heroic motif "Siegfried, hope of the world" before winding down with a drowsy reiteration of the lullaby and opening theme, creating the image of a hushed beginning to a long, peaceful sleep. Probably the best-known of his instrumental works, Siegfried Idyll bears witness to the fact that even an epic genius like Wagner can be inspired by the emotions and events of domestic life. - Valorie Dick
"Love arrives without knocking. Love cannot be explained, yet explains all . . ." or almost all masterpieces.
Happy Valentine's Day!

[Translation: Saskia Latendresse, Philip Anson]

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