A ranking of composers’ musical gifts to their loved ones, from most romantic to just plain gross
1. Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 5 – IV. Adagietto
Romance level: 10
Gross-out level: 0
One of music’s most famous symphonic love-letters, the Adagietto of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony was written for the composer’s eternal sweetheart, Alma. The two were due to be married in about a year, and Mahler couldn’t bear to wait. The music is breathtaking from the start, beginning with the softest caress of string instruments and harp. The melody starts and stops, hesitating as if Mahler struggles to find just the right words, before moving to sweeping gestures that repeat three times, seeming to convey his impatience to begin their life together. Their relationship wouldn’t be without its troubles (understatement), but Mahler would dedicate many pieces to Alma, often scrawling her notes in the margins of his manuscripts. The score to his Tenth Symphony, left unfinished at his death, bore the inscription on its final page: “To live for you! To die for you!…Almschi!”
2. Béla Bartók: Violin Concerto No. 1
Romance level: 9
Gross-out level: 1
Bartók’s First Violin Concerto sprung from his infatuation with the Hungarian violinist Stefi Geyer. Each movement depicts different aspects of her personality: Bartók wrote that the first “idealized Stefi Geyer, celestial and inward,” the second depicted a side to her character that was “cheerful, witty, amusing.” During composition, he wrote to her “One letter from you, a line, even a word—and I am in a transport of joy, the next brings me almost to tears, it hurts so. What is to be the end of it all? And when?” She had a firm answer for that last question, making it clear that she did not share the composer’s feelings (maybe it didn’t help that Stefi was 19 and Bartók was 26 when they met). He presented Stefi with the manuscript nevertheless, with “My Confession” written at the top, and the message “For Stefi, from the times that were happy ones. Although even that was only half-happiness.”
3. Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique
Romance level: 8
Gross-out level: 2
A programmatic symphony that stunned the world of music, Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique was fueled by his desire for the Irish actress Harriet Smithson, together with copious amounts of opium. Berlioz fell in love with the actress after seeing her in Shakespeare’s Hamlet in 1827, and after penning numerous love letters that were met with no response, he plunged into composition of the massive symphony in a near-suicidal state. We literally hear his heart pounding in the first movement “Dreams, Passions”, together with a love melody that recurs throughout the symphony: the longing idée fixe. Things go downhill in the fourth movement “March to the Scaffold”, when he finds himself in an opium-fueled dream believing he has murdered his love, and he witnesses his own execution. The symphony concludes with the nightmarish “Dream of Witches’ Sabbath”, which portrays satanic rituals through an opiate haze. Despite this twisted ending, Harriet would in turn fall in love with the composer when she finally heard the work in 1832, and the two would be joined together in a marriage that was ultimately unhappy and short.
4. Edward Elgar: Enigma Variations – Var. I “C.A.E.”
Romance level: 7
Gross-out level: 2
Elgar immortalized his friends, acquaintances, and one dog in his Enigma Variations, a work for large orchestra composed 1898-99. The original theme is thought to represent Elgar himself, and the first variation was dedicated to the composer’s wife, Caroline Alice Elgar. It features a repeating four-note melody that Elgar used to whistle while returning home. After her death, he wrote: “The variation is really a prolongation of the theme with what I wished to be romantic and delicate additions; those who knew C.A.E. will understand this reference to one whose life was a romantic and delicate inspiration.” But while the first variation was for his wife, the second-to-last variation is a beautiful hushed Romanze, featuring a cryptic quote of Mendelssohn’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage. While all other variations are marked with initials as clues to the identity of the dedicatee, Elgar wished to keep this one is a secret, printing only ***.
5. Ludwig van Beethoven: Für Elise
Romance level: 5
Gross-out level: 1
If you are a human, you have probably heard Beethoven’s treasured bagatelle Für Elise (For Elise) at some point. The short piece was discovered after Beethoven’s death and we don’t actually know who Elise is – in fact, Elise may actually be Therese, due to an error on the part of the transcriber. Beethoven proposed to a friend and piano student of his named Therese Malfatti in 1810. Or was the mysterious Elise actually the opera singer Elisabeth Röckel, who would go on to marry Beethoven’s composer rival Johann Nepomuk Hummel? Could there possibly be ties with the secret “Immortal Beloved” he addresses in his famous letter of 1812? We will likely never know.
6. Dvorak: Cello Concerto in B minor
Romance level: 4
Gross-out level: 4
Hear it on Classical KING FM Sunday, Feb. 14 at 1:05 PM
Dvorak’s sister in law Josephina became gravely ill during the composition of his Cello Concerto, and this motivated him to compose the second movement’s middle section based on her favorite melody of his Four Songs, Op. 82. The slow elegy just before the concerto’s finale is also based on another part of the same song, and was inserted just after she died. There may have been extra impetus for the composer to pen this moving tribute, however: he was in love with her 30 years earlier, and when she did not reciprocate, he ended up marrying her sister.
7. Richard Wagner: Siegfried Idyll
Romance level: 5
Gross-out level: 6
To say the least, Wagner had a troubled love life. His long marriage to the actress Christine Wilhelmine “Minna” Planer was marred with a variety of affairs, the last of which was his relationship with Cosima, wife of the renowned conductor Hans von Bülow and 24 years his younger. Bülow had premiered a number of Wagner’s works, notably Tristan und Isolde; he only agreed to divorce Cosima after she ended up having two children with Wagner (named Isolde and Eva after the heroine of Wagner’s opera Die Meistersinger). As a birthday gift for Cosima and to celebrate the occasion of the birth of their third child, Siegfried, Wagner composed the Siegfried Idyll and led a performance on the steps of their villa as she awoke on Christmas morning. Their son was of course named after the protagonist of the third opera of Wagner’s Ring series, of which the composer himself had written the story. In the Ring, this character was the son of Siegmunde and Sieglinde, who were twin brother and sister. And to think Cosima’s father, Franz Liszt, put up with this…
8. Richard Strauss: Sinfonia Domestica
Romance level: 4
Gross-out level: 7
This massive Strauss tone-poem is a depiction of a day in the composer’s family life, introducing a different theme for each family member and telling the story of the day’s domestic activities through music. After the baby is put to bed (complete with orchestral screams of resistance), the music graphically portrays a sexual encounter between Strauss and his wife Pauline, with the wife’s theme placed “on top” of the composer’s. Strauss’ program notes on this section are very specific, but maybe it’s best if you just use your own imagination:
9. Berg: Lyric Suite
Romance level: 2
Gross-out level: 8
Can twelve-tone music be romantic? Well, Berg certainly tried with his Lyric Suite for string quartet, which incorporated secret messages, spelled out in note names, to his mistress Hanna Fuchs-Robettin (also married). It was discovered in 1977 that the piece’s structure was based on the notes A B (Alban Berg) and H F (Hanna Fuchs), and the movements outlined a secret love story that only Fuchs-Robettin would have understood from reading the score. The movements depict life before the illicit affair, the lovers’ first meeting (even identifying the presence of Fuchs-Robettin’s two children), a moment of passion (Trio estatico) followed by an extended love scene replete with various allusions and heavy breathing. A reference to a phrase from Alexander Zemlinsky’s ”Lyric Symphony” links the work to a passage explicitly marked ”You are my own” in the other score’s manuscript. Berg’s wife Helene tried to conceal these scandalous references by restricting access to Berg’s music, but the Lyric Suite wasn’t even the worst: his Violin Concerto contains secret musical references to another woman, Mizzi, who secretly bore his child when the composer was still in his teens. This addition was possibly in poor taste given the concerto was actually a memorial work, dedicated “To the Memory of an Angel,” the 18-year-old daughter of Walter Gropius and Alma Mahler (who remarried after the death of Gustav). You can’t make this stuff up.
10. Leos Janácek: String Quartet No. 2 “Intimate Letters” III. Moderato
Romance level: 3
Gross-out level: 10
Janácek’s crazed infatuation with Kamilla Stösslová, the wife of an antique dealer 36 years younger than Janácek, bordered on obsession. The composer sent Stösslová over 700 letters, and penned an entirely musical one with the third movement of his String Quartet No. 2. Janácek wrote to her: “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 is in a dream-like state, rocking softly before crying out in a piercing scream. Stösslová, who inspired the creation of other Janácek works such as The Diary of the One who Disappeared, was not interested.
Geoffrey Larson is Music Director of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber Orchestra.