Music for love

Today, 14 February, was a day of celebration devoted to lovers and their love. Love remained a mystery to me for many years. Now that its full majesty has been revealed to me I embrace it with all my limbs and I pulsate with love.

Music and love are natural companions. The ecstasy aroused by music can (almost) match that derived from love. Both music and love can make you feel deeply, both joy and pain, and both have an irresistible force that can leave you gasping.

Here then is my musical compilation for lovers, or perhaps it is just a compilation of love in music, or a meditation on love and music. At any rate, it is music that I love.

1. Sibelius’ Violin Concerto

This is romantic music, music from the heart, played here with a gloriously sweet tone by Jascha Heifetz. I love the phrase that comes a little after 3 minutes into this clip: a blast of extra sweetness like a sudden gesture of affection between lovers. It always makes me catch my breath, like a rush of hormonal emotion.

2. Rachmaninov’s vespers

Rachmaninov wrote so much wonderful romantic music! He is forever associated with thwarted love because the film Brief Encounter used music from his 2nd piano concerto. The 3rd piano concerto and the deliciously tender 18th variation from his Paganini Variations are equally lovely, but I am choosing something from his Vespers – section 12, the Greater Doxology (Znamenny Chant). To me this conveys not love exactly but rather awe, a muscular serenity, and ecstasy. Imagine you are walking into a great church building; you feel the silence and immensity. Then you hear this music coming from somewhere, you can’t see where. It is beautiful and heartfelt and sweeps you up in its flow. Soon you are flying, high up, like an angel, looking down from the ceiling.

3. Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet

I think Prokofiev was at his most intensely lyrical in his ballet music, Romeo and Juliet, based on Shakespeare’s play. Many years ago I saw Rudolf Nureyev dancing Romeo to his own choreography at Covent Garden and I have loved the piece ever since. I am ashamed to say that I was not familiar with the play before, so when the ending came I was shocked (i.e. wept buckets). It is a classic romantic tale, so gorgeous but so tragic. I know it’s only a story, but it is too sad. In the balcony scene Prokofiev gives us throbbing bass, surging music, soaring strings that match the intensity of emotions of these young lovers. This is music that expresses my heart.

4. Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time

A little contemplation to follow that: the last movement of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. Religion and love were two of Messiaen’s preoccupations and here he expresses his love for Jesus. Yes, it may seem weird, but love of God is a thing too. This is not romantic love then, but something noumenal. The beauty of the violin tone evokes for me the contemplation of your beloved, like watching your lover sleeping.

5. Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde

Tristan is another classic tale of love, again with an outcome that I’m not eager to match. Liebestod seemed an alien concept to me for many years – what connection is there between love and death?  Now I can understand it. Having found love, experienced that joy, one may feel a satisfaction with one’s life, a sense of completion. Death can come and there is no regret. At the climax of this music the feeling of release is incredible.

6. Philip Glass’s Songs of Liquid Days

These songs are not about love. However, the text of one of them – Forgetting – conjures up for me a vision of the ideal lover:

Bravery. Kindness. Clarity.
Honesty. Compassion. Generosity.
Bravery. Honesty. Dignity.
Clarity. Kindness. Compassion.

Linda Ronstadt sounds oh so sultry, and the Roches on backing vocals give an edge of sweet frenzy to the music. It is full of energy and light.

7. Bartok’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle

Duke Bluebeard is the kind of man that I’m sure your mother warned you about. In the opera Judit has gone and married him anyway. Love is blind and all that. Bartok’s opera tells the story as Bluebeard shows his new wife round his castle There are seven doors that he unlocks one by one to reveal a succession of horrors, a bit like a scary estate agent. The fifth door is the least scary – a vision of his vast lands. The music is grand and terrifyingly impressive. This doesn’t really fit well with the Valentine’s Day theme, except as a warning that all may not be as it seems. Bartok coaxes some ear-ticklingly beguiling sonorities from the orchestra which make this piece come alive for me. Plus, the soprano in this clip is one of my favourites – Jessye (no relation) Norman.

8. Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe

Another ballet, another love story. Ravel’s sumptuous orchestration is masterful and overwhelming. He includes a large choir at certain points which adds another dimension. The music is hard to sing but thrilling. This extract includes my favourite section, reaching a truly pornographic climax. From about 13mins 30secs it is pure sexual energy. I used to be innocent and to think it wasn’t really meant that way, but now I’m sure it is.

9. Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier

Richard Strauss produced an evocation of beauty, pain, love and regret in the closing scene of his opera Der Rosenkavalier. The music always has a profound effect on me, I can’t explain why. Well, I can – I suspect it has something to do with my father. He loved this music. I bought tickets to see the opera with him in 1981. Sadly he had a stroke and died a month before we were due to see it. I still have not seen it performed live. Put this one down to filial love.

10. Poulenc’s Figure Humaine

Poulenc’s cantata Figure Humaine is an a capella setting of Paul Eluard’s poetry. The last movement is extraordinary. It begins:

On my school notebooks
On my desk and on the trees
On the sands of snow
I write your name

The tension builds as each stanza ends with the same line: I write your name. You think you know where it is going – it seems like a love poem. As the movement proceeds your expectation and curiosity increase – whose name?  Who is it?  The final word of the final verse reveals the true meaning of the poem. It comes as a blinding flash, with a suitably ear-splitting final top note for the top sopranos.

The poem was first published in 1942 and reprinted a number of times.  The RAF dropped copies of the poem over occupied France as a morale-booster.  This piece is not about the love of a person, but about the love for an idea. It is just as powerful as the other kinds of love described above. You can love and idea, and love a person because of their ideas.

About Frank Norman

I am a retired librarian. I spent 40 years working in biomedical research libraries.
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