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Measures Of Affection: Five Musical Love Letters

Feb 14, 2013
Originally published on February 11, 2016 8:58 am

If you've ever written a love letter, you know it's not easy. Amid a swirl of emotions, balancing elegant language and hormone-fueled passion can be tricky. Composers for centuries have skirted this problem by doing what comes naturally — writing their love letters in the language of music. Here are five passionate outpourings in melody and harmony.

Do you have a favorite musical love letter? Have you ever written one? How was it received? Tell us about it in the comments section.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


Expressions of love will take many forms today: a card and flowers, a romantic dinner, perhaps some poetry for your beloved. But for some, it's an emotion best expressed with music.


SIEGEL: This is "Liebst du um Schonheit" by Gustav Mahler.


SIEGEL: It's a love letter written to his bride, Alma Schindler, written in 1902, and it's one of Tom Huizenga's picks for great love songs. Tom writes about classical music for NPR's Deceptive Cadence blog, and he has picked three classical love songs with great stories behind them. Hi, Tom.

TOM HUIZENGA, BYLINE: Hey, nice to be back, Robert.

SIEGEL: Let's start with this Mahler piece that we're hearing. What do we know about it, and what exactly was Mahler trying to tell his bride?

HUIZENGA: Well, first of, Mahler was big on songs. He wrote dozens of them, even stuffed them into his huge symphonies. But this one that we're listening to right now - "If You Love for Beauty" - is really his only bona fide love song. And like you said, he presented it to Alma Schindler on their wedding day. She was somewhat younger, 20 years younger than Mahler. The text here is saying basically, Robert, if you love for beauty or you love for age or money, then don't bother loving me. But if you love for love, then love me always as I will always love you.


HUIZENGA: It's a beautiful mix of kind of soaring melodies, bittersweet harmonies, and it was actually kind of eerily prescient because little could have Mahler have known then when he wrote the song that he and Alma would eventually drift apart.

SIEGEL: A beautiful song. Well, let's move on to your second pick, Tom. This one is called "Intimate Letters."


HUIZENGA: Talk about love letters. Czech composer Leos Janacek wrote over 700 love letters. I'm talking pen-and-ink letters to this woman named Kamilla Stosslova. She was the wife of an antiques dealer. She was 27 when they met. Janacek was 62 and married, by the way. You know, Kamilla was never interested in Janacek romantically, but that really didn't stop him from composing music specifically fueled by this incredible passion that he had for her. She inspired a late career flood of pieces from him, including the "String Quartet No. 2," which he called "Intimate Letters."


HUIZENGA: The music is really incredible. We'll hear that little delicate scrim sound very soft, and then suddenly, like be careful if you're behind the wheel right now, there's a passionate scrim in the first violin, like a dagger through the heart, almost as if Janacek realizes his dream has been shattered.


SIEGEL: I don't know, Tom, almost a case of beautiful musical stalking here that you ran through...


SIEGEL: ...of Janacek. Finally, you've chosen a piece of music that is set to the poetry of Pablo Neruda.


HUIZENGA: Robert, it doesn't get much more profound I think than this musical love letter and its back story. The text here by Pablo Neruda starts off saying: My love, if I die and you don't, let's not give grief an even greater field. So composer Peter Lieberson stumbled across this book of Pablo Neruda's love sonnets. These are very sensual sonnets. He decided to set a number of them for his wife, the mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson.


HUIZENGA: Less than eight months after Lorraine Hunt Lieberson made this extraordinary recording, that would be in November of 2005, she would succumb to cancer at age 52. She was one of the most deeply thoughtful and passionate singers of her generation, a huge loss. And the music here with its warm, autumnal strings, a plaintive oboe we'll hear, it's the final song in this set, really kind of part lullaby, almost as if he's rocking her to sleep and part tribute to love everlasting. And then the final line, Neruda says: But this love has not ended, just as it never had a birth, it has no death. It's like a long river, only changing lands and changing lips.


SIEGEL: Three beautiful love songs for Valentine's Day - this one from Lieberson, earlier from Janacek and Mahler. You can find all of Tom Huizenga's picks and share your favorite musical love letters at nprmusic.org. Tom, thanks.

HUIZENGA: Thank you, Robert.


SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.