Romantic love, with its often irrational sea of complex emotions, has long been a rich source of inspiration in music. With Valentines Day just around the corner, let’s listen to a selection of love songs from the Renaissance to the present day. Most of these songs would have been considered popular music when they were first written. Sampling this list, I was struck by how many great love songs are tinged with melancholy. These songs serve as a reminder of the ability of music to communicate powerful and contradictory emotions which cannot be expressed in words.“Come Again” by John Dowland
John Dowland (1563-1626) was an English Renaissance composer, singer and lutenist. Sting’s 2006 recording of Dowland songs (Songs from the Labyrinth) demonstrates the timelessness of this music. Listen to the way the melody expresses the text, especially in the breathlessly euphoric “To see, to hear, to touch, to kiss, to die…” You can read the entire text here.
Here is tenor Paul Agnew and lutenist Christopher Wilson:
Des Fischers Liebesglück, D.933
Now let’s listen to Des Fischers Liebesglück, D.933 (The Fisherman’s Luck in Love) by Franz Schubert (1797-1828). Listen carefully to the harmony and consider the feelings evoked by certain chords. Notice how the music alternates restlessly between minor and major. The first turn to major comes with the first reference to the “beloved.” Here is the text by Karl Gottfried von Leitner.
This recording features tenor Christoph Genz accompanied by pianist Wolfram Rieger:
Next let’s hear Johannes Brahms’s (1833-1897) Liebeslieder Walzer, Op. 52. Musicologists speculate that Brahms’s infatuation with Clara Schumann’s daughter was the inspiration behind these waltzes.
The singers on this 1968 recording are Heather Harper, Soprano, Janet Baker, Mezzo-soprano, Peter Pears, Tenor and Thomas Hensley, Baritone. Benjamin Britten & Claudio Arrau play the piano part, which requires four hands.
My soul trembles with love, desire and grief, when it thinks of you.
-conclusion of Liebeslieder Walzer textSongs of a Wayfarer
Gustav Mahler’s (1860-1911) Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (‘Songs of a Wayfarer’) deals directly with the pain of love lost. It’s an autobiographical work, springing from Mahler’s unsuccessful relationship with the soprano, Johanna Richter. The text, based on Des Knaben Wunderhorn was written by Mahler. In a letter he explained:
I have written a cycle of songs which are all dedicated to her. She has not seen them. What could they tell her that she does not know already?
-“Mahler” by Kurt Blaukopf
In Songs of a Wayfarer, the orchestra is not merely accompaniment but an equal dramatic partner to the singer. What moods and colors are evoked by the orchestration? Consider the emotional impact of the dream-like conclusion of the fourth song, a funeral march. Notice the way the music alternates between melancholy despair and transcendent moments of joy. Mahler’s first song cycle, Songs of a Wayfarer provided the seeds for his Symphony No. 1. Get more historical background here.
This recording is by Leonard Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic:
- “Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht” (“When My Sweetheart is Married”) (0:00)
- “Ging heut Morgen übers Feld” (“I Went This Morning over the Field”) (4:20)
- “Ich hab’ein glühend Messer” (“I Have a Gleaming Knife”) (8:27)
- “Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz” (“The Two Blue Eyes of my Beloved”) (11:47)
A Boy and A Girl
American composer Eric Whitacre’s (b. 1970) A Boy and a Girl is a choral setting of a poem by Octavio Paz, 1914-1998. The poem paints three scenes, ultimately drifting into infinity: