Music for Valentine’s Day, 2016

St. Valentine’s Day is fast approaching.  I’m sure there are some purists who honor the martyrdom of St. Valentine with pious solemnity… but for most of us, this is a holiday about love, romance, and a box of decadent chocolates that we might quietly keep for ourselves.

In honor of the holiday, I want to share a playlist of 10 great classical works that focus on love.  For this particular playlist, I tried to limit my choices to works about love, rather than to simply list romantic-sounding pieces… although those are perfectly enjoyable, too.

If you have other suggestions, by all means let me know in the comments section.  Enjoy!

* * *

Bizet: “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle,” from Carmen.  To be clear, opera positively teems with love songs, and there is no way I could possibly list them all.  So let’s have this little chestnut stand in for all of them.  Plus, part of its charm is that it is an indirect love song, where the title character sings about the nature of love as a way to entice a seemingly indifferent Don José.  “Love is a rebellious bird that none can tame….”


Duruflé: “Ubi Caritas et Amor,” from Four Motets on Gregorian Themes.  This may at first seem an outlier, as this work celebrates Christian love rather than romantic love (“Where there is charity and love, there is God”).  But it is absolutely gorgeous.  And, it just so happens to be the work that my good friends and colleagues of the Minnesota Chorale sang at my wedding, so it most definitely makes my list.


Elgar: Salut d’Amour. One of Elgar’s most familiar works, Salut d’Amour was written as a love letter to his sweetheart Caroline Alice, and given to her as an engagement present.  It was originally scored simply for violin and piano, but at his publisher’s urging the work was arranged for a wide range of instruments; the version for full orchestra debuted in 1889. Every measure radiates Elgar’s profound love for his wife.


Franck: “Psyché et Eros,” from Psyché Franck’s massive, multi-movement symphonic poem, Psyché, is rarely performed and has slid into neglect. It’s not hard to understand why—the text Franck set is fairly pedestrian, there isn’t a strong musical argument, the story is episodic, and the performing forces required are unusual.  Still, this retelling of the classical myth were the Greek God of Love finds himself falling in love with a mortal is drenched in some of the most sensual, gorgeous music imaginable.   Franck’s supporters endlessly argued that the work is truly an allegory of the human quest for divine love, but don’t believe that for a second.  This movement in particular is a beautiful study in passion and fulfillment.


Janáček: String Quartet No. 2, “Intimate Letters.” This work is a story of unrequited love—a fiery passion that cannot ever be fulfilled.  The letters in question were written by Janáček to a married woman named Kamila Stösslová, who was 37 years his junior.  Janáček pursued Kamila again and again through his letters, although she did not respond with anything but polite friendship.  The Quartet brings his quiet obsession to life.  In it, the composer imagines what a love affair with her could be like, although he ultimately realizes it is not to be.  The paired ideas of fantasy and resignation give the work its great power and depth of feeling.


Liszt: Liebestraum No. 3. Liszt’s “Dreams of Love” is a set of three piano solos, inspired by poems by Ludwig Uhland and Ferdinand Freiligrath.  All three are gorgeous, but the third of the set has particularly resonated with the public.  It deals with the purest kind of love, which floats above all earthly desire.  It is a stunning example of Liszt’s ability to fuse melody and emotion, and demonstrates his brilliant technical writing for piano.


Nielsen: Hymnus amoris. What a gorgeous work—one that is too rarely performed!  This “Hymn of Love” was inspired by Nielsen’s honeymoon in Italy, particular his deep happiness with his new bride, his delight in experiencing Italian art and culture with her, and his daydreams of their future together.  Nielsen famously wrote on the autograph score, “To my own Marie! These tones in praise of love are nothing compared to the real thing; but if you continue to show your affection for me, I will strive to achieve a higher expression of the world’s strongest force, and then the two of us together will rise higher and higher towards the goal, as we constantly aspire for love in life and in art.” It is staggeringly beautiful, with a Latin text that celebrates love at all stages of life.  My favorite moment, however, comes at the very end, where the composer sets up an expected “Amen” for the chorus, yet playfully tweaks it so they sing instead “Amor!”—love.


Scriabin: Poem of Ecstasy.  This is another one of those works that supporters state is about a “transcendental moment of divine interaction” or some such.  And yes, the work has some elements of high poetry, mysticism, and even Nietzsche. But… well, don’t overthink it.


Sibelius: Rakastava Sibelius’s work (“The Lover”) stands apart from his other compositions.  Most of his works drew inspiration from The Kalevala, Finland’s epic that draws from folk poetry.  But the rune-singers didn’t just perform epic poetry; they performed a wide range of lyric poems, ballads, elegies, and romances at well, and these poems were gathered together into a companion work known as The KanteletarRakastava comes from this collection, and speaks to romantic longing, desire, and fulfillment.  It is a work of surprising tenderness and beauty, especially given Sibelius’s hewn-from-granite reputation.  Originally scored for a cappella men’s voices, Sibelius made a variety of arrangements before finally settling on this gorgeous version for strings and light percussion.


Tchaikovsky: Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture.  Given the piece’s immense popularity, it seems like a cliché to actually add it to my list.  But it’s impossible to avoid it—how much love music from the past century has been influenced by this poetic masterpiece?  This is romantic music.  Just listen to it… I mean, you know you melt every time the lovers’ theme sets in.


Happy Valentine’s Day!


PS: Just because, here’s a bonus piece—everyone’s slow-boil favorite, Ravel’s Boléro.





2 thoughts on “Music for Valentine’s Day, 2016

  1. No, not “Bolero”! If it’s possible for me to detest any piece of classical music, it is “Bolero.” I do not think of it as having anything to do with love. I think that connection came from the movie “10” but I could be wrong. I’ve always thought of Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto as being the journey of love between two people. Maybe I’m alone in that…..:-)


    • I agree 100% with you ccyager. “Bolero” is a piece of junk. Even Ravel stated “I have written but one masterpiece, yet it contains absolutely no music.”

      Liked by 1 person

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