Thursday, June 27, 2013

Classical Love Stories

Not everyone wants to read about harmonic structure, or fugue, or the problems of modernism or anything technical. No, some people would just like to hear a good love story. Classical music history is full of them!

There are many different kinds of love story and the way each unfolds does tell us something about the people involved. The claim is often made that music compositions are a kind of sonic autobiography, but I really don't think that is true. But I do think that autobiographical information, such as a composer's romantic involvements, does tell us something about the character of the composer.

Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky

Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky was the title of a 2009 French film, based on a fictional novel, that traces the course of an affair between the great fashion figure and the Russian composer. Wikipedia tells us that in the film
Chanel invites Stravinsky to live in her villa outside Paris, along with his ailing wife and their children. The summer months that follow see Chanel and Stravinsky begin an affair, one which Stravinsky's wife cannot avoid becoming aware of. Tensions between Stravinsky and his wife, and between Stravinsky's wife and Chanel, are unavoidable.
The film implies that the affair, and the later termination of the affair by Chanel, has a major influence on the lives of both Chanel and Stravinsky. It is during this time that Chanel creates Chanel No. 5 with her perfumer, Ernest Beaux, and that Stravinsky begins to compose in a new, more liberated style.
The basic facts are not fictional, but quite true. With Stravinsky one always has the suspicion that his motives might be rather selfish. His cultivation of a close relationship with Coco Chanel might have had something to do with her having donated 300,000 francs for a new production of the Rite of Spring.

The Poème of Ernest Chausson

Chausson was a French composer who died tragically young in a freak bicycle accident. One of his most famous pieces is his Poème for violin and orchestra that has a fascinating genesis. The Poème is inspired by a story by the great Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev called “The Song of Triumphant Love.” Way back in 1843, Turgenev, age 25, heard the celebrated mezzo-soprano Pauline Viardot, age 22, sing in St. Petersburg. She was married to the much older Louis Viardot. Turgenev fell head over heels in love with her and for the rest of their lives the three of them were closely associated, sharing residences in Baden-Baden, London and Paris. In 1872 Gabriel Fauré was introduced to the Viardot family and Turgenev. Pauline had a daughter, Marianne, with whom Fauré fell in love, and a son, Paul, for whom he wrote his violin sonata op 13. Alas, Marianne ended up marrying someone else as Fauré was a bit too gloomy for the family. Then, in 1881, Turgenev wrote his very unusual story “The Song of Triumphant Love” set in Renaissance Italy in which the young friends Fabio and Muzzio are rivals for the hand of the lovely Valeria. It appears that the character of Valeria is based on Marianne and Muzzio on Fauré. Muzzio loses out and for five years travels in the Far East returning with an exotic Indian violin with which he enchants Marianne. Fabio retaliates by stabbing Muzzio. Some time later, Valeria, picking out on the organ the strange Indian melody Muzzio played, realizes she is pregnant, at which point the story ends. Now Fauré had a very good friend, Ernest Chausson, who, in 1896 based his Poème for violin and orchestra or piano on the story by Turgenev. The opening theme is associated with Valeria and the more dynamic second theme with Muzzio. You can even trace the main outlines of the story in the music. Whew! You could certainly say that artistic circles in Paris in the 19th century were very interwoven! Here is Hilary Hahn playing the Poème:

Béla Bartók and Stefi Geyer

In 1907-08 Bartók wrote his first violin concerto for the nineteen-year-old violinist Stefi Geyer. Alas, he was not the only composer interested in her as Othmar Schoeck, a Swiss composer, also wrote a concerto for her. Stefi seems to have rejected at least the concerto by Bartók and probably the one by Schoeck as well as both composers filed them away. The one by Bartók was not performed until after both he and Stefi Geyer were dead. Incidentally, Stefi later married a Viennese lawyer. Here is Antal Zalai playing the first movement of the concerto:

Alban Berg and Hanna Fuchs-Robettin

Here is one example where a real world love affair was reflected directly in a piece of music. The New York Times has an excellent summary. In a kind of musicological detective story, a copy of the score of the Lyric Suite for string quartet that Berg gave to Hanna turned up that explained all the references built into the composition. For example, the musical structure is based on the pitches B natural, F, A and B flat. In the German names for the notes this comes out as HF and AB for Hanna Fuchs-Robettin and Alban Berg. A repeated C note, pronounced as "doh" in solfege stands for Hanna's daughter Dorothea, nicknamed "Dodo". The metronome markings and the numbers of measures in movements were all multiples of either 23 or 10. Berg had determined that his mystical number was 23 and Fuchs-Robettin's, 10. The movements of the suite are claimed to trace the course of their affair and musicologists have gotten into some nasty scraps over whether the fourth movement proves that they consummated their affair--they were both married. I agree with David Schiff, the author of the NYT article that it is best to enjoy the piece just as a piece of music and not get too concerned with a literal mapping of their affair into the music. It works very well just as music. But Berg's obsessive coding of their identities into the music does say something about his personality. Here is the Julliard Quartet with the complete Lyric Suite:

Dmitri Shostakovich and Elmira Nazirova

Another bit of coding occurs in Shostakovich's Symphony No. 10 where he, for the first time, encoded his own name in the score: DSCH which stands for the notes D, E flat, C, B natural. He also encoded the name of his composition student Elmira Nazirova. That was a little more difficult so he had to resort to cobbling together German names and solfege syllables: E, La, Mi, Re, A or "Elmira". I wrote at some length about this symphony here. The third movement, usually described as a nocturne, has the two mottos sounding together. Here is Gustavo Dudamel with the Venezuelan Youth Orchestra with the third movement (which comes in two parts):

Leoš Janáček and Kamila Stösslová

My favorite classical love story is that between the Czech composer Leoš Janáček and Kamila Stösslová whom he met in 1917 when he was sixty-three years old and she was a young married woman of twenty-six. He was also married and they both remained married, though had a relationship until his death eleven years later. He wrote her some 700 love letters! Referring to his string quartet named by him "Intimate Letters", he said:

"You stand behind every note, you, living, forceful, loving. The fragrance of your body, the glow of your kisses – no, really of mine. Those notes of mine kiss all of you. They call for you passionately..."
The reason I find their love story fascinating is that it had such a huge impact, not only on Janáček's own career, but also on music history. When he met Kamila, he was a very obscure composer, mostly of minor choral works and a researcher of folklore. He had no international renown whatsoever. But after meeting Kamila, he suddenly flourished and composed most of the works on which his fame is based which included several operas, two fine string quartets, a sinfonietta, a mass and other works. This is probably the clearest case in music history of the influence of a muse on a composer's work. Poets, especially classically-influenced ones like Robert Graves, talk a lot about the inspiration of a muse, but one rarely sees it in music. Here is that string quartet, "Intimate Letters"


Craig said...

Have you seen that recent film about Stravinsky and Chanel? I have been thinking of watching it, but I'd rather not waste my time if it isn't any good.

Speaking of love stories, that Hilary Hahn is pretty sweet.

Bryan Townsend said...

I have not. I just discovered its existence doing research for this post. I think I will see if I can find it on YouTube tonight. I see there are several clips from it.

I think my favorite, just based on looks, is Khatia Buniatischvili. She is wearing a dress in a performance of the Schumann concerto that is pretty hard to forget!

Wait, what did I just say? Never mind. I would never notice what an artist was wearing in a performance. That would be, uh, something...

cnb said...

I would never ever notice something like that either.

Bryan Townsend said...

Oh, thank goodness! And if you want to check and make sure you wouldn't notice it, here is the video: