By Andrew Lin
A quick sampler of som e of what the late romantic classical pantheon has to offer on Valentine’s Day.
So it’s another early spring season, and with the usual return-to-psets-and-readings antics of a spring semester at Harvard comes the inevitable scramble for classes, summer recommendation letters, and Valentine’s Day plans. For all our readers in established or potentially soon-to-be-established relationships, however, we at the Indy want to remind you of one essential facet of any successful Valentine’s Day: appropriate mood music. Of course, there are the usual selections from the last fifty or so years of the modern pop-music tradition to choose from, and notionally it is naturally your and your SO’s tastes which should dictate the listening choice on this most special of days. But we at the Indy believe that Valentine’s Day is as much a holiday for trying new things as anything else, and broadening your horizons to the world of the late romantic Western classical tradition is a nice low-risk sort of risk to take on this most culturally significant of romantic holidays. And on this front, we at the Indy do indeed have your back, regardless of your relationship status: whether you need the perfect rarefied backdrop to a pleasant night in with your significant other or just feel like inflicting one more reminder of the romance surrounding you on your single self, here’s five classics of the Western musical tradition sure to get you in the Valentine’s Day spirit.
Der Rosenkavalier – Richard Strauss’s 1911 opera is one of the classic greats of the operatic repertoire, and its comedy love story of a 1740’s love quadrangle in the Viennese aristocracy is offers both comedic laughs and poignant meditations on the fleeting nature of youth in relation to love. As incidental music Strauss works quite well too: whether you’re seeking the whooping passion of the French horns in the prelude to the first act or the deep, simmering emotional proclamations of the final love-duets of the third act, Der Rosenkavalier offers music befitting the whole pantheon of love-related emotions. Nor do you have to sit through the entire 3 hours of the piece to get to such prized moments either – Strauss himself later composed an orchestral sampler of some of the choicest bits, and the English composer Percy Grainger offers a fascinating piano ramble on themes from the last duet.
Romeo and Juliet – This classic Shakespearean romance is set to brilliantly innovative and daring music by Sergei Prokofiev, the great early 20th-century Russian composer. Taking the form of a ballet, Prokofiev’s 1938 Romeo and Juliet sets Shakespeare’s old warhorse to some of the composer’s most famous and enduring musical backgrounds. All manner of famous melodies stem from this work as well, from the imposing might of the Montagues and Capulets reflected in the ‘Dance of the Knights’ to the sweet romance of the various love themes to the desperate pathos of Juliet’s discovery of Romeo’s body. Adaptations of this grand ballet came out in droves throughout the early-to-mid 20th century: Prokofiev himself borrowed freely from Romeo and Juliet to cobble together a delightful piano transcription along with three orchestral suites, and scores of movie and television soundtracks have borrowed freely from those.
Daphnis et Chloe – Ravel’s enchanting 1912 ballet & choreographic symphony set amidst the outcroppings of ancient Greece presents some of his most staggeringly beautiful orchestral moments. Presenting the passionate love story of the goatherd Daphnis pursuing his kidnapped shepherdess lover Chloe in three acts, Ravel draws heavily from classical mythology, and specifically from the 2nd century poet Longus, and the musical settings (particularly the unabashedly passionate Danse Generale) reflect the bacchanalian predilections of the period. And although Ravel never spun out any orchestral suites or piano adaptations from this particular work, Daphnis et Chloe has seen considerable use in popular culture, and in the most surprising places: the Broadway belter “On a Clear Day (You Can See Forever)” leans heavily on the “Dawn” theme from the second act, and Frank Sinatra famously proclaimed Daphnis et Chloe as the sort of “classy stuff” he would play while attempting to get friendly with a special companion – a ringing endorsement from another oft-sampled Valentine’s Day crooner.
Enoch Arden – We come to Richard Strauss again, but this time in the form of his musical settings over Alfred Lord Tennyson’s (he of “Tis better to have loved and lost” fame) fittingly sentimental and unabashedly romantic poem “Enoch Arden”. Strauss set “Enoch Arden” to a sparing piano accompaniment overlaying the usual recitation of the entire poem in its full 58 or so minutes. Unfortunately, the poem, though romantic, does not make for particularly interesting listening material: poor Enoch Arden is a fisherman who is melodramatically stranded on an island while his erstwhile wife eventually forgets him for his childhood friend/rival, and Strauss himself purportedly only composed the piano accompaniment as a way of appeasing his music publisher with as little effort as possible. Nevertheless, however, Strauss’s setting is more interesting, if only for the game of tracking the various leitmotifs of the main characters throughout the story. We at the Indy would recommend Patrick Stewart’s recording with pianist Emmanuel Ax – whose voice, after all, could be more romantic?
Siegfried Idyll – Richard Wagner’s 1870 symphonic poem, aside from being a work almost wholly invested in the development of his magnificent Ring cycle, has perhaps the most romantic gestation of the works we’ve previewed here. In writing the Siegfried Idyll, Wagner did not merely aim to please a music publisher or produce a blockbuster hit, for the Siegfried Idyll was intended as Wagner’s celebration of the birth of their first son, Siegfried, to his wife, Cosima Wagner. And indeed, Herr Richard pulled out all the stops for the premiere: on Christmas Day of 1870, Cosima Wagner awoke to the gorgeous cascade of the opening melody, played by an orchestra Wagner had assembled (and was busily conducting) at the foot of the stairs leading to her apartment. Fine orchestral recordings abound, but for my money the most interesting (and most intimate) is Glenn Gould’s quietly sublime 1973 piano transcription – something for you and a musically-inclined SO to attempt, perhaps?
Andrew Lin ’17 (firstname.lastname@example.org) is eagerly awaiting the post-Valentine’s-Day chocolate sales at CVS.