Love, requited or otherwise, was a huge inspiration for many of our greatest Romantic composers. We take a look at some of the best romantic tales of classical music…
Beethoven & Countess Josephine von Brunsvik (above)
Though Beethoven never married, he was desperately in love with Countess Josephine von Brunsvik for much of his life. They met in 1799 when Beethoven began working as Josephine’s piano tutor. Despite some affection on Josephine’s side, her family quickly married her off to the far more eligible (and much older) Joseph Count Deym.
It is thought that Josephine was the ‘Immortal Beloved’ to whom Beethoven refers in his famous letter, now held by the British Library, in which Beethoven feverishly writes of his longing for his ‘angel’. ‘An die Hoffnung’ (To Hope) was secretly dedicated to Josephine, and the piano work Andante favori is also thought to have inspired by his love for her.
Wagner & Cosima Liszt
Cosima, daughter of the Hungarian composer and pianist Franz Liszt, first met Wagner whilst on honeymoon with her first husband, Hans von Bülow. It was while sharing conducting duties with von Bülow at a concert in Leipzig that Wagner was ‘utterly transported by the sight of Cosima'. Though they were both still married, they began a relationship, and Cosima gave birth to two daughters that Bülow accepted as his own. Bülow and Cosima finally divorced in 1870, and Cosima and Wagner were married later that year.
The most famous work Wagner wrote for his adored wife was the ‘Symphonic Birthday Greeting’ (later known as the Siegfried Idyll), which he composed for her birthday in 1870, only months after they were married. Cosima was Wagner’s artistic partner for the duration of their marriage and, after his death in 1883, maintained his legacy as director of the theatre at Bayreuth.
For years Clara and Robert Schumann were prevented from getting married by Clara’s father Friedrich Wieck, who resolutely opposed the match. After a lengthy legal process, and much heartbreak on both sides, the couple finally wed in 1840. Robert gave Clara two wedding presents: a diary, in which they kept a record of their marriage in minute (and sometimes sordid) detail, and the song cycle Myrthen. Clara dedicated her Romance variée to Schumann, though with a huge amount of deference to his opinion: 'I ask forgiveness for the enclosed,' she wrote to her future husband; 'your ingenious setting of this little musical thought will redeem the errors in mine.'
Brahms & Clara Schumann
Brahms introduced himself to the Schumanns in 1853, aged 20, and became a fast family friend. Brahms was deeply in love with Clara. In 1855, while Robert was in an asylum following a suicide attempt, Brahms wrote to her a passionate plea: 'I can do nothing but think of you… What have you done to me? Can’t you remove the spell you have cast over me?' After Robert’s death the couple almost married, but Brahms seems to have abandoned her.
Brahms’s love for Clara must have had an impact on his music, but the only work he actually dedicated to her was the Capriccio, Op. 76, No. 1. Despite its length (just under four minutes) the work is a turbulent battle of emotions, perhaps reflecting Brahms’s own feelings about his ill-fated love affair.
Berlioz & Harriet Smithson (below)
More than any other composer, Berlioz defined his life and works around his love affairs. In 1827, the composer attended a performance of Shakespeare’s Hamlet in which Harriet Smithson was playing Ophelia. It was love at first sight for the composer, who began writing Smithson a series of impassioned letters to which she did not reply. Shortly after this, Berlioz wrote to a friend: 'You don’t know what love is, whatever you may say. For you, it’s not that rage, that fury, that delirium which takes possession of all one’s faculties, which renders one capable of anything.'
Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique is a direct outpourings of these feelings of passionate rage and delirium. The ‘idée fixe’ that recurs throughout the work in various guises is a musical portrait of Smithson, who soothes and taunts the ‘artist’ character in equal measure. In 1833, he finally managed to meet Smithson in person, and despite not speaking the same language managed to persuade her to marry him. Their marriage was not a happy one, and they separated in 1841.