Romances of the Classical Composers, Piece by Piece

by Betty Kim | 2/14/17 2:00am

Imagine the classical composer in love. Most will imagine a stuffy old European man maintaining a rather mediocre relationship with a matronly wife; in reality, however, it’s not an exaggeration to say that classical composers’ romances were just as sensational and dramatic as their music. Upon examining the lives of some of the most famous classical composers, we see love lost and found, love triangles and forbidden romances intertwined with their most famous works.

The first romance can be found in the anomalies of a title page of a manuscript: many believe Johann Sebastian Bach dedicated the six “Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin,” a staple of solo violin repertoire, to his first wife, Maria Barbara Bach. In the quirks and misspellings of the title page, we can see just how much he was attached to her.

First, Bach wrote the year of composition, 1720, on the title page of the manuscript. This is notable because composers almost never did this so they could sell works as newly composed even if the manuscript had been sitting in a dusty drawer for years. Furthermore, 1720 is the year of his first wife’s death.

He left all his sorrows through wordplay on the title page. He misspelled the title, writing “sei solo” instead of “sei soli,” meaning “six solos.” Some people think that “sei solo” translates to “only you,” referencing the late Maria. The phrase, however, could also mean “you are alone,” referencing Bach’s heartache after her death. The second translation is perhaps more accurate. The structure of the piece reflects this loneliness, as the first note of the entire book is a sustained, lone G — a note called “sol” in Bach’s time.

Fast forward a hundred years to the forbidden love found between German composers Johannes Brahms and Clara Schumann. Though Brahms said, “I would as soon write an opera as marry,” he wrote over 200 lieder, or German love poems set to music. This might be the best metaphor for his romance with Schumann because their relationship was only openly expressed through the crypt of the music they made.

The situation was precarious: at the time of the emotional affair, Clara was married to Robert Schumann, a famous German composer as well. Clara, a renowned concert pianist, grew close to Brahms after Robert attempted suicide in the Rhine and was sent to live in an asylum for over a year. Brahms moved to Dusseldorf to comfort Clara and take care of the Schumann children. Brahms was overwhelmed with yearning; he deeply respected Robert, but was helplessly in love with Clara. He wrote, “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?”

But their romance was only consummated through the music they made onstage. Clara was the first to give a public performance of Brahms’ compositions, and after declaring his love for Clara, Brahms composed the famous “First Symphony.” The following symphonies further intertwined them; according to pianist and conductor John Axelrod, Clara Schumann’s songs fall under the categories of four distinct moods. The four Brahms symphonies, each of which correspond to these moods, can easily be thought of as portraits of different aspects of Clara’s character.

However, the relationship did not last. After Robert Schumann died, Brahms left Clara with little explanation. She was devastated; to her daughter she said she never understood why he so suddenly turned away, and to violinist and friend Joseph Joachim, she wrote that her “heart bled.” Both buried themselves in work. Clara returned to a performing career with a renewed fervency, telling Brahms her career was “the very breath of [her] body.”

Though their romance is still shrouded in mystery — they allegedly burned the letters they sent each other — it’s easy to believe Brahms yearned for her till the end: after Clara died, “Four Serious Songs” were written as a last goodbye to her.

Lastly, there is the love life of Russian composer Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, whose music is known for its romantic expressiveness and sincerity of feeling. Despite his success, Tchaikovsky’s sexual orientation put him at odds with the world because homosexuality was against the law in Russia. Today, it is difficult to find proof of his romantic and sexual life, as Soviet censors are believed to have destroyed evidence suggesting he was gay.

Tchaikovsky’s famous “Violin Concerto in D Major” is a perfect example of his repressed romantic feelings. He wrote the piece after hastily marrying his former pupil Antonina Miliukova despite having a man as his muse.

Tchaikovsky became depressed and suffered from a terrible case of writer’s block, eventually attempting suicide by wading into the freezing Moscow River. The incident likely forced him to come to terms with his sexuality. He even wrote to his brother, “I [have] finally begun to understand that there is nothing more fruitless than not wanting to be that which I am by nature.”

As the composer recovered in the countryside by composing, his composition student and violinist Iosif Kotek joined him in his retreat; historians suggest they were almost certainly lovers. After they played pieces for violin and piano together, Tchaikovsky was inspired to write a concerto and wanted to dedicate it to Kotek, but didn’t “in order to avoid gossip of various kinds.” Their relationship ended in 1881 when Kotek refused to play the “Violin Concerto” because he thought it was badly received by the public and would damage his career as a violinist.

Kotek must have regretted his decision soon after, however because the concerto became a standard of solo violin repertoire and has been lauded by listeners and critics for combining virtuosic passages with a singing expressiveness unparalleled by even the most famous concertos.

In many of the classical pieces that might seem bland or boring, there’s an intricate history of romance. Perhaps we can learn something from each composer and their passionate songs this Valentine’s Day, and compose a symphony (or four) for the person of our dreams.