Thursday, February 25, 2016

Wagner's Love for Cosima

This month on Clef Notes we’ve been looking at love and classical music. Today, let’s look at a famous composer who has a very famous love story: Richard Wagner. Over the course of his life, Wagner had multiple mistresses and even a first wife, but it was Cosima von Bulow who seemed to be the one for whom his soul truly desired. When they married in 1870, they remained together until his death in 1883.

But just who is Cosima von Bulow? Cosima was the daughter of Franz Liszt, the second of three children born by his mistress, Countess Marie d’Agoult. During their late teenage years, Cosima and her sister were put in the care of one of Liszt’s friends, the mother of a former pupil and rising musician, Hans von Bulow. Hans was a pianist and conductor and a champion for the music of both Liszt and Wagner. Not long after their meeting, Hans decided to request Cosima’s hand in marriage. The young girl was ecstatic to have someone love her after growing up with feelings of abandonment by her own parents. Hans, perhaps, was intrigued by the idea of building his association with Liszt. After their marriage, it is interesting to note that one of the first things young Hans did was take his new bride to visit his dear friend and colleague, Richard Wagner.

Courtesy of 
After years of an unhappy marriage and frequent meetings with Wagner as a family friend, the daughter of Liszt and the legendary composer realized their love for one another. Their union did not come easy, however. Hans was understandably not thrilled with the love affair between his wife and friend and refused to agree to divorce. It wasn’t until Cosima bore three of Wagner’s children that Hans finally agreed and Cosima was united to Wagner in marriage in 1870. Did you know that Wagner and Cosima’s three children were named Isolde, Eva, and Siegfried—all three names from Wagner’s operas?

Following the marriage, Wagner wrote his famous Siegfried Idyll for Cosima on her birthday. You can listen to this work below:

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Beethoven's Immortal Beloved

Beethoven’s Immortal Beloved—a mystery that scholars have been trying to solve for decades. This month on Clef Notes we’re exploring love and its relation to classical music and composers. Today, let’s look at Beethoven and the woman who will forever be labeled his “Immortal Beloved.”

When Beethoven passed away in 1827, his brother and several friends found a letter among his belongings. It contained no year, location, or addressee. It did, however, contain passionate lines written to someone for whom the composer must have felt deeply:

“My angel, my all, my very self…”
“Though still in bed, my thoughts go out to you, my Immortal Beloved—I am resolved to wander so long away from you until I can fly to your arms and say that I am really at home with you, and can send my soul enwrapped in you into the land of spirits.”
“Oh continue to love me—never misjudge the most faithful heart of your beloved…”

Beethoven’s Immortal Beloved has been a subject of musicological research for years. In the 1950s, the analyzing of a water mark on the paper estimated that the note was composed in 1812. Records state that at that time, Beethoven was in a Bohemian spa town known as Teplitz. Though scholars have disagreed over the years in just who this woman may be, there are several popular candidates.

Some consider Countess Julia Guicciardi a viable candidate. Beethoven’s former piano student, he dedicated his famed “Moonlight” Sonata to the girl. It is known that he did love her however her father did not approve of the relationship.

Julia Guicciardi [Courtesy of]
What about Josephine Brunsvik? She also studied with Beethoven at one point. Though married to Count Josef Deym, Josephine maintained correspondence with the composer following her husband’s death. Beethoven once referred to her as his “only Beloved” in a letter.

Josephine Brunsvik [Courtesy of]
Lastly, and probably the most popular candidate, it’s Antonie Brentano, wife of Beethoven’s friend Franz Brentano. For years, many people didn’t believe it was possible for Beethoven to love the wife of his dear friend in such a way. But in the 1970s, scholar Maynard Solomon shed some light on the situation, claiming both Beethoven and Antonie were at the same hotel in Prague just days before the letters were written, according to the hotel registry. Interesting.

Antonie Brentano [Courtesy of]

These are just three of many potential “Immortal Beloveds” whom have been considered over the years. Will we ever know exactly who Beethoven addressed in his 1812 letter? One can only speculate.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Love in Gluck's Orfeo and Euridice

The love story of Orfeo and Euridice is one that has inspired composers for centuries. You may be familiar with Monteverdi’s take on the tale, or perhaps Rossi? My personal favorite is one by Christoph Willibald Gluck. Written in 1762, Gluck’s version of Orfeo is in the style of reform opera—a movement that encouraged the music to serve the text, moving the plot forward by writing less contrast between recitatives and arias and including less opportunity for soloists to show off. He wrote the opera alongside poet Raniero de Calzabigi.

Are you familiar with the tale of Orfeo and Euridice? Gluck’s setting tells of Orfeo’s beloved Euridice who dies of a snake bite. When Orfeo hears the news, he is devastated and gets permission from the gods to travel to the underworld to retrieve his bride. He is permitted to embark on this journey under the condition that, once there, he must not look at Euridice as she follows him back to Earth. If he disobeys this command, he will lose his lover forever.

After arriving in the underworld, Euridice comes to Orfeo. When she notices that he will not look at her, she fears he no longer loves her. Overcome with grief, Orfeo turns toward her in order to express his passion and immediately, she is taken from him. In despair, Orfeo decides to take his own life, unable to live without Euridice. Realizing that Orfeo’s love is genuine, the god Amor decides to allow Euridice to return to Earth with Orfeo.

Below you can listen to the Dance of the Furies from Act II of Orfeo and Euridice. Note how Gluck uses string tremolos, horns, trombones to depict the Furies in the underworld while Orfeo is represented by a harp and plucked strings, in reflection of the lyre he carries.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Love in Tristan und Isolde

Continuing our “love” theme this month on Clef Notes, let’s continue this week by looking at love in several famous operas. Opera lovers know that love is a prevalent theme throughout opera history. This week we will look at just two, saving the many others for future posts.

Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde is a famous opera from the mid-nineteenth century that tells the tale of passion between two lovers after they take a love potion. Like many operas, the story ends in death and heart break. For a full synopsis of this dramatic plot, you can go to the Metropolitan Opera’s website.

Wagner began work on Tristan und Isolde in 1857 after he and his wife, Minna, moved into a guest house owned by friends Otto and Mathilde Wesendonck. Wagner was at a low point, his Ring cycle still waiting for production and his personal finances strapped. It wasn’t long before Wagner and Mathilde began to have intimate feelings toward one another. These feelings likely remained on an emotional level rather than physical but his passions are clearly displayed in the opening of Tristan, which he was composing at the time of the affair. Once his wife heard of the adulterous relationship, Wagner left her, fleeing to Venice where he continued work on his opera. It wasn’t until 1865 that the work was premiered.

Tristan und Isolde is famously known for the “Tristan” chord which first appears in the opera’s prelude. It is an unresolved chord that creates a sense of longing for the listener—a longing that lasts throughout the entire opera until it is finally resolved when Tristan and Isolde’s love is fulfilled in death. Below you can listen to an orchestral performance of both the Prelude and Liebestod, which appears at the end of the opera. Following that, it’s an actual operatic performance of the Liebestod scene at Bayreuth. Can you hear the “Tristan” chord? Do you agree that it provides a sense of passionate longing the complements the story line? 

Next week, we’ll look at Wagner once again—only in relation to his relations with Cosima von Bulow.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Happy Valentine's Day!

Happy Valentine’s Day! Here are a few of my favorite classical love songs for today. What are some of your favorites?

Liszt, Dream of Love

Elgar, Love’s Greeting

Puccini, Turandot: Nessun dorma (this is one of many great love arias by Puccini!)

Tchaikovsky: Romeo and Juliet

Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet

Wagner: Tristan und Isolde: Liebestod

Ho Zhan Hao & Chen Kang: Butterfly Lover’s Violin Concerto

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Settings of Romeo and Juliet: Berlioz

Today we continue our look at various musical portrayals of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Did you know that Hector Berlioz wrote his own dramatic symphony based on this beloved tragedy in 1839? After watching Harriet Smithson as Juliet in a theater production in 1827, Berlioz fell in love with both the actress and the play. He went on to write his famous Symphonie fantastique in 1830, inspired by his passion for Smithson. He then married Smithson several years later. The marriage did not turn out to be what he fantasized for so long.

It wasn’t until several years later that he was able to act on his love for Romeo and Juliet. Violin virtuoso NicolòPaganini offered to pay Berlioz 20,000 francs, rewarding him for his talent. He compared Berlioz to the late Beethoven and perhaps hoped the young composer would carry on Beethoven’s legacy in his own work. Berlioz used the money to devote his time to writing a large-scale symphony including solo voices, chorus, and orchestra—similar to Beethoven’s Ninth. This work, Romeo and Juliette, was completed in 1839 and later revised in 1846. The premiere included more than 100 singers and 100 instrumentalists. It is written in three parts and seven sections. Due to the grandeur and length of the performance, many orchestras today play excerpts rather the full symphony. Below, you can listen to the work in its entirety.

Be sure to tune into 90.9 this Friday, February 12 at 7pm for our annual Valentine’s Day special “Love Greetings,” hosted by Mark Perzel. When you download our free mobile app, you can listen to this special wherever you are that evening! 

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Settings of Romeo and Juliet: Prokofiev

This month on Clef Notes we are exploring love stories in music. First, we are taking a look at several well-known settings of Shakespeare’s famous Romeo and Juliet. Last time we listened to Tchaikovsky’s setting. Today, let’s compare it to Prokofiev’s version.

In 1934, the Kirov Theater in Leningrad expressed interest in staging a ballet written by Prokofiev, suggesting Romeo and Juliet as a subject. Not long after this, the theater changed their mind and he went on to sign a contract with the Moscow Bolshoi Theater instead. Despite his work alongside the choreographer, the Bolshoi ended up dropping the ballet as well, claiming the music to be too complex for the dancers. The ballet ended up holding its premiere in Czechoslovakia in 1938 by the Brno Opera. It did not receive a Soviet premiere until 1940.

Today, most listeners are familiar with the concert suites Prokofiev created using selections from the ballet. Excerpts from these suites feature titles highlights key moments in the story including “Death of Tybalt,” “Juliet as a Young Girl,” and “Romeo at the Tomb of Juliet.” Below you can enjoy all three suites. Do you prefer Prokofiev’s setting or that by Tchaikovsky that we heard last time?

Next time, we’ll look at one more setting of Romeo and Juliet composed by Hector Berlioz. 

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Settings of Romeo and Juliet: Tchaikovsky

Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is one of the most famous love stories in history. This explains why many Romantic composers have used this story as inspiration for their works. This month on Clef Notes, I would like to explore love stories in music. We’ll begin by looking at three pieces over the next week that each draw upon Shakespeare’s beloved tale.

Peter Tchaikovsky’s setting of Romeo and Juliet is perhaps the most well-known and is considered his first masterpiece. Prompted by fellow composer Miley Balakirev to write a work using Shakespeare’s work as a program, Tchaikovsky completed the piece in just six weeks. Balakirev received the dedication and it was later premiered in Moscow by Nikolai Rubinstein. Initially it was not received well, so Tchaikovsky worked to revise it both in an 1870 version and then in the 1880 version we have come to know and love today.

Though the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture was not directly fueled by the composer’s own love affairs, it is likely Tchaikovsky’s experiences from a year earlier gave him knowledge as how it feels to be infatuated with another person. Tchaikovsky had taken a liking to the French opera singer Désiré Artôt and even had thoughts of offering her a marriage proposal. When she ended up marrying another famous singer, Tchaikovsky was crushed. The nature of his passionate feelings for Artôt is questionable since scholars now know that the composer was homosexual.

Below you can listen to a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture by Valery Gergiev and the London Symphony Orchestra. Listen to how Tchaikovsky brilliantly allows the music to follow Shakespeare’s plot. It begins with a slow introduction including a chorale-like theme representing Friar Lawrence. The music then introduces intense themes depicting the conflict between the Montagues and Capulets. The lovers are introduced for the first time as the music quiets down and the English horn beautifully plays the famous love theme, followed by soft responses in the violins. The development section displays the struggle between families with interjections from Friar Lawrence displayed by fragments of his chorale theme. We hear the love theme again, only this time it bursts forth in a full array of passion, alternating with the continuing conflict that’s appeared throughout. The piece ends with funeral drum beats, implying a tragic ending.

Next time we’ll look at Prokofiev’s setting of Romeo and Juliet!