The best pieces of music inspired by love
Violinist Fenella Humphreys chooses her favourite love-inspired works for an exclusive BBC Music Magazine playlist
Franck: Piano Quintet
I’ve played this piece quite a few times without knowing its history, and always found it so rich with intense emotions and so honest. Learning more about the origins of the piece gave it even more meaning.
When Franck composed the Piano Quintet he was 57 and had been a professor at the Paris Conservatoire for some years. He developed strong feelings for his organ and composition student, Augusta Holmès.
However, he had competition from many others who had fallen in love with her, including Saint-Saëns, who had proposed to her several times. Franck was married, so couldn’t act on his feelings, so instead poured his emotions into the Piano Quintet, a work dedicated to Saint-Saëns.
Fauré: ‘L’hiver a cessé’ from La Bonne Chanson
The overarching theme of these choices seems to that composers cannot seem to be faithful! Fauré spent the summer with the banker Sigismond Bardac and his wife Emma, a soprano. Fauré fell completely in love with her, despite the fact that she went on to marry Debussy. Emma worked closely with Fauré, singing new material for him each day. He dedicated this set of songs to her.
Mahler: Adagietto from Symphony No. 5
This was famously written as a declaration of love to Alma, who Mahler would soon marry. She was excellent at getting married – and also consequently pretty good at having affairs. However, this piece was composed at the beginning of their relationship before the affairs began.
The conductor Willem Mengelberg, a close friend, annotated in his score of the Fifth Symphony: ‘This Adagietto was a declaration of love to Alma! In place of a letter, he sent her this in manuscript form, not adding a further word.’
Brahms: Intermezzo Op. 118 No. 2
The whole Brahms/Clara Schumann did-he-didn’t-he thing will probably never definitely be answered, but there’s no question there was a lot of love and respect between them. Brahms’s Six Pieces Op. 118 were dedicated to Clara and this Intermezzo in A is one of the most beautiful pieces in the set.
‘My Beloved Clara, I wish I could write to you as tenderly as I love you and tell you all the good things that I wish you. You are so infinitely dear to me, dearer than I can say. I should like to spend the whole day calling you endearing names and paying you compliments without ever being satisfied.’
Listen to Fenella Humphreys's playlist in full here:
Janáček: String Quartet No. 2, ‘Intimate Letters’
Janáček’s Second String Quartet was written towards the end of his life, and in it he reflects on his long friendship with Kamila Stösslová, married and 38 years younger than him. They exchanged over 700 letters during their friendship, and it is these which give the work its title.
‘You stand behind every note, you, living, forceful, loving. The fragrance of your body, the glow of your kisses – no, really of mine. Those notes of mine kiss all of you. They call for you passionately…’
Berlioz: Un Bal (A Ball) from Symphonie Fantastique
When he was 24, Berlioz went to a performance of Hamlet, where he fell distractedly in love with the actress Harriett Smithson. He sent her love letters which she ignored. At a further attempt to capture her attention, Berlioz poured his broken heart into Symphonie Fantastique.
She later listened to the piece, realised he was rather talented, and married him the following year. Unfortunately, they probably should have left their relationship within the brilliant symphony because the marriage became increasingly miserable and they eventually separated.
Kreisleriana was written incredibly in only four days in 1838 as a dedication to his wife Clara. At this point in their relationship she had accepted his offer of marriage and they were in the process of fighting her father who was opposed to them. Eventually they took him to court, the judge ruled in their favour, and the happy couple married the day before Clara’s 21st birthday.
Wagner ‘Träume’ from Wesendonck Lieder
In 1849 Wagner and his wife Minna fled Germany to stay with his patron Otto Wesendonck and his wife Mathilde. Although he later denied it, Wagner and Mathilde appear to have fallen deeply in love, causing a 10-year separation between Wagner and his wife.
Wesendonck Lieder, songs written to the words of five poems by Mathilde are some of his most beautiful compositions, and he himself said ‘I have done nothing better than these songs.’ My favourite of these songs is 'Träume', because it floors me every time.
Elgar: Salut d’amour
During the summer of 1888 as he was heading off on holiday, Elgar was given a poem about love by one of his students, Alice Roberts. He reciprocated by writing this lovely piece, which he handed to her on his return. He also proposed. She accepted. Her family disinherited her. Why do composers never have it easy?
A few other personal choices…
Christopher Wright: Violin Concerto ‘And then there was silence…’
It seems totally self-indulgent to have something I have recorded on this list but it just fits so perfectly and is such beautiful, heartbreaking music, and nobody else has performed it! Chris wrote this concerto as an outpouring of grief and love on the untimely death of his violinist wife a few years ago. The three movements are titled Beauty, Joy, and Fading Away.
John Taverner: Agnus Dei from Missa Gloria tibi Trinitas
I’m sneaking this one in here even though it probably wasn’t remotely inspired by love, but I was introduced to it by my closest friend who I sadly lost. In the way music can always take you back to places, emotions and times long ago, this music will always fill me with peace, happiness and so much love.
Benjamin Britten: Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo
Britten’s first full song cycle for Peter Pears, written as a love letter to him.
Toby Young: I Carry your Heart
Toby’s a brilliant composer and one of my mates. This lovely piece was written for his fiancée Kate.
Joseph Achron: Hebrew Melody
A totally different sort of love from most of the other pieces on this list, this beautiful and haunting music is dedicated to the memory of the composer’s father. It means a lot to me as it’s also the last piece of music I ever played to my Dad.
Freya Parr is BBC Music Magazine's Digital Editor and Staff Writer. She has also written for titles including the Guardian, Circus Journal, Frankie and Suitcase Magazine, and runs The Noiseletter, a fortnightly arts and culture publication. Freya's main areas of interest and research lie in 20th-century and contemporary music.