The idea of love songs without a singer may seem surprising, but every now and again we pianists can dispense with vocal company and enjoy having a love song entirely to ourselves.
As the modern piano evolved over the course of the 19th century, and its expressive range increased, many composers understood its potential as a vehicle for intimate and very personal expressions of emotion and provided us with a repertoire of extraordinarily affecting pieces. Felix Mendelssohn so loved this genre that he wrote eight volumes of solo piano Lieder ohne Worte, a genre invented by his sister, Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel.
Here are six of my favourites…
Josef Suk –Píseň Lásky (Love Song) Op. 7 No. 1
This passionate declaration of love by a young composer in his late teens has been a firm favourite of mine since I discovered the score in a secondhand music shop in Prague in the mid-1980s. Immensely popular in Suk’s own lifetime, it has enjoyed many different arrangements, and is now more often heard in a version for violin and piano than in its original form as a solo piano piece. Its carefree romanticism is all the more poignant in the light of the darkness that entered Suk’s music after the death of his wife Otilie, Dvořák’s daughter, aged only 27.
Zdeněk Fibich – Lento (Poème) from Moods, Impressions and Souvenirs (No. 139 Op. 41/IV)
While Suk was composing his six early piano pieces, the musical world in Prague was scandalised by an affair that his compatriot, Fibich, was conducting with a beautiful and talented pupil, Anežka Schulzová, who was 18 years his junior. The romance gave birth to one of the most extraordinary collections of piano pieces ever written. Fibich’s Moods, Impressions and Souvenirs consists of almost 400 short piano pieces written as a kind love diary, including expressions of feeling, recollections of events that they shared and tributes to almost every part of Anežka’s body. By far the best known of all these pieces is the warm and nostalgic Poème, which has lived on in many different kinds of arrangements, and became a smash hit in 1933 with the title My Moonlight Madonna. Here's a wonderful version of this sung by John McCormack.
I may get into trouble for including one of Schumann’s best-loved lieder in a list of piano love songs, but many of Liszt’s arrangements of other composers’ works are classics of the piano repertoire and works of genius in their own right. The breathless rapture of Schumann’s Widmung, written as a wedding present for his beloved Clara, has an inward quality that intensifies the passion of the song. Liszt, in his piano transcription, brings this latent passion into the foreground and embellishes the melodic line with dramatic, swirling arpeggios and massive, triumphant chords covering the entire span of the piano. It is hard to imagine that the Schumanns would have approved of Liszt’s treatment of the song, but as a pianist I can’t resist this outrageous and glorious reworking.
Liszt took similar liberties in his piano arrangement of a song, ‘O Lieb, so lang du lieben kannst’, but on this occasion the original was his own. This impassioned piano piece, published as Liebestraum No. 3, has become Liszt’s best-known work and has far outstripped the song in popularity. The poem that he set in the original song is an exhortation to love unconditionally, until separated by death (a sentiment echoed in Elvis Presley’s Today, Tomorrow and Forever!, his 1963 version of the Liszt). A comparison of the piano and voice versions provides an insight into Liszt’s extraordinary imagination for the expressive possibilities of the piano as a solo instrument.
Enrique Granados – Quejas ó la Maja y el Ruiseñor (Laments, or The Maiden and the Nightingale) from Goyescas
The haunting atmosphere of The Maiden and the Nightingale hovers between bleak despair and almost angry passion. The plaintive melody, based on a Valencian folk song, is coloured by piano writing of exceptional subtlety and originality, and some of the most evocative birdsong effects in the Romantic piano literature. Granados instructed that this piece should be played 'not with the grief of a widow but with the jealousy of a wife', an intriguing recommendation given that he dedicated the piece to his own wife Amparo.
Fritz Kreisler arr. Rachmaninov –Liebesleid (Love’s Sorrow)
Anyone who hasn’t heard Kreisler’s own performance of his famous encore piece should rush to hear it without delay (below). The irresistible sweetness of his violin sound and his schmaltzy portamentos might cause pianists to despair of the limitations of their own instrument, but help is at hand with Rachmaninov’s reinterpretation of his friend’s piece, which brings a whole different flavour to the Liebesleid. The sugary melody is still present, but Rachmaninov adds an acerbic wit and a dazzling display of pianistic flourishes that are inimitably his own. His performance of Liebesleid should not be missed either.
'Sixteen Love Songs' by William Howard is available on Orchid Classics.