Classical Music's Greatest Love Stories, On And Offstage

Feb 13, 2018
Originally published on February 13, 2018 7:43 am

Classical music has plenty of infamous fictional couples: Dido and Aeneas, Mimì and Rodolfo, and of course, Romeo and Juliet.

"The thing about fictional love stories in music is that, especially in opera, most of them end very badly, you know, with the lovers singing heartrending arias just before they die," says Miles Hoffman, The American Chamber Players founder and violinist and professor at the Schwob School of Music. "But in real life, there have been tons of musical couples who've fallen in love and lived happily ever after — or at least happily for a long while."

Before there was Sid and Nancy or Kurt and Courtney, there was Robert and Clara. In the spirit of Valentine's Day, Morning Edition host Rachel Martin invites Hoffman to assess the best and most torrid romances in classical music throughout the ages.

On and offstage, the greatest love stories have been tied together by music. Listen to the music that came from these coupled collaborators below and hear the full conversation at the audio link.

Robert and Clara Schumann

"My number one couple historically would have to be Robert and Clara Schumann ... In that year that they were married, Robert Schumann wrote over 130 songs, almost all of them inspired by his feelings for Clara."

As Hoffman explains, Clara Schumann was also great musician.

"She was by all accounts one of the greatest pianists of the 19th century. She was also a first-rate composer ... The bad news, I'm afraid, is that the Schumanns didn't live happily ever after. Robert suffered attacks of mental illness for many years and after he attempted suicide in 1854, he was committed to a mental institution. That's where he stayed for the last two years of his life."

Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears

"The composer Benjamin Britten and the great English tenor Peter Pears met in 1937 and they remained life partners and musical partners for almost 40 years until Britten's death in 1976. Peter Pears was Britten's great love, but he was also his great inspiration. Britten wrote many songs for Pears and he wrote leading roles for Peter Pears in at least 10 of his operas, including the tenor part in one of his most moving works, his great War Requiem. And the rest of us have reaped the rewards."

Galina Vishnevskaya and Mstislav Rostropovich

"The great Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and soprano Galina Vishnevskaya met in 1955 when Vishnevskaya was a star with the Bolshoi Theatre, which was the top upper company in the Soviet Union. Four days after they met, they got married. Vishnevskaya said that Rostropovich tried to seduce her for four days endlessly and that he was successful. [Laughs] They stayed married for 52 years and during that time had two children. Rostropovich died in 2007. I can tell you from personal observation that it wasn't always the calmest or the most peaceful of marriages, but I don't think they could live without each other."

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Classical music is filled with great love stories, including this one.

(SOUNDBITE OF TCHAIKOVSKY'S "ROMEO AND JULIET")

MARTIN: This is the "Romeo And Juliet" overture by Tchaikovsky. Their romance was fictional. But for Valentine's Day we have asked music commentator Miles Hoffman to tell us about some real-life love stories from the world of classical music.

Good morning, Miles.

MILES HOFFMAN, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: All right. So what is the best, most beautiful musical love story you can think of? No pressure.

HOFFMAN: (Laughter) No pressure. It's a tough choice. There are so many. You know, the thing about fictional love stories in music is that - especially in opera - most of them very badly, you know, with the lovers singing heart-rending arias just before they die. But in...

MARTIN: Right. Someone takes poison. Someone kills himself.

HOFFMAN: Yeah, yeah. And then they sing...

MARTIN: (Laughter).

HOFFMAN: But in real life...

(LAUGHTER)

HOFFMAN: But in real life, there have been tons of musical couples who have fallen in love and lived happily ever after - at least happily for a long while. I suppose my No. 1 couple, historically, would have to be Robert and Clara Schumann.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WIDMUNG")

DIETRICH FISCHER-DIESKAU: (Singing in German).

HOFFMAN: "You, my soul - you, my heart - you, my rapture - oh, you, my pain. You, my world in which I live - my heaven, you, to which I aspire."

That was Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau singing the song "Widmung," or "Dedication", which is one of a set of songs that Robert Schumann wrote as a wedding present for his wife Clara.

MARTIN: That was pretty good - pretty good present. Did it stop after the honeymoon, or did he keep writing inspired by her?

HOFFMAN: No, no, no, no. First of all, in that year, the year they were married, Robert Schumann wrote over 130 songs, almost all of them inspired by his feelings for Clara.

MARTIN: We should note - Clara herself was a talented musician. Right?

HOFFMAN: She was a great musician. She was, by all accounts, one of the greatest pianists of the 19th century. She was also a first-rate composer. And when she wasn't on tour, playing lots and lots of concerts, she managed to have eight children and to take care of all the family business and financial matters. So she was kind of a superwoman, Rachel.

MARTIN: Right.

HOFFMAN: The bad news, I'm afraid, is that the Schumanns didn't live happily ever after. Robert had suffered attacks of mental illness for many years. And after he attempted suicide in 1854, he was committed to a mental institution, and that's where he stayed for the last two years of his life.

MARTIN: OK - So not exactly a happy ending. But just for variety's sake, is there a famous musical couple whose story you could share - some folks who may have had a happier love story?

HOFFMAN: I - yeah. The composer Benjamin Britten and the great English tenor Peter Pears met in 1937, and they remained life partners and musical partners for almost 40 years, until Britten's death in 1976.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SEVEN SONNETS OF MICHELANGELO OP. 22 - SONETTO XXXII")

PETER PEARS: (Singing in Italian).

HOFFMAN: That's an excerpt from a set of songs called the "Michelangelo Sonnets" (ph). Benjamin Britten wrote the songs in 1940 for his partner Peter Pears, and that was Pears we just heard singing...

MARTIN: Oh.

HOFFMAN: ...With Britten at the piano in fact, yeah.

MARTIN: And did Britten write other music for him - for Pears?

HOFFMAN: That would be putting it mildly (laughter). Peter Pears was Britten's great love, but he was also his great inspiration. Britten wrote many songs for Pears, and he wrote leading roles for Peter Pears in at least 10 of his operas, including "Peter Grimes," "Death In Venice," "Albert Herring," "Billy Budd," and on and on. It was also for Pears that Britten wrote the tenor part in one of - what I think is one of his most moving works, and that was the great "War Requiem."

MARTIN: So this amazing personal love story and also a musical partnership.

HOFFMAN: Yeah. And the Britten "War Requiem" - that piece actually provides a thread running through our conversation today.

MARTIN: OK. How so?

HOFFMAN: Britten wrote the tenor part in the "War Requiem" for Peter Pears. He wrote the baritone part in the requiem for Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, whom we heard singing the Schumann song a few moments ago.

MARTIN: Oh, OK.

HOFFMAN: He wrote the soprano part for the Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya. And Vishnevskaya is one half of the next musical couple I was going to mention for our Valentine's Day celebration...

MARTIN: Oh, well, look at you, Miles, with the throughline.

HOFFMAN: (Laughter).

MARTIN: All right. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WAR REQUIEM")

GALINA VISHNEVSKAYA: (Singing in Latin).

HOFFMAN: That's Galina Vishnevskaya - just a brief snippet from Benjamin Britten's "War Requiem."

MARTIN: Is there a love story there? Who was the great love of Vishnevskaya's life?

HOFFMAN: That would be the great Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, my old boss. Rostropovich and Vishnevskaya met in 1955 when Vishnevskaya was a star with the Bolshoi Theatre, which was the top opera company in the Soviet Union. Four days after they met, Rachel, they got married.

MARTIN: Whoa.

HOFFMAN: And they stayed married - yeah. Vishnevskaya said that Rostropovich tried to seduce her for four days endlessly and that he was successful.

MARTIN: And she caved after four days? Wow.

HOFFMAN: (Laughter).

MARTIN: Some serious...

HOFFMAN: They stayed married for 52 years. They had two children, and they stayed married until Rostropovich died in 2007. And I can tell you from personal observation that it wasn't always the calmest or the most peaceful of marriages, but I don't think they could live without each other.

MARTIN: So theirs was a personal love story, obviously. Did they ever play together? Did they ever make music together?

HOFFMAN: They did. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NIGHT IS MOURNFUL")

VISHNEVSKAYA: (Singing in Russian).

MARTIN: Great love stories that turned into great music.

HOFFMAN: Yeah. That's Galina Vishnevskaya singing the music of Sergei Rachmaninoff, "Mournful Waters" (ph) and the pianist in the recording is her husband Mstislav Rostropovich. Rostropovich may have been the world's greatest cellist, but he was also a wonderful pianist. And he accompanied Vishnevskaya in countless recitals over the years. They were quite a couple.

MARTIN: Miles Hoffman is the founder and violist of the American Chamber Players and the distinguished visiting professor of chamber music at the Schwob School of Music in Columbus, Ga.

Miles, thanks as always.

HOFFMAN: Thank you, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MSTISLAV ROSTROPOVICH, BERLIN PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA AND HERBERT VON KARAJAN PERFORMANCE OF DVORAK'S CELLO CONCERTO IN B MINOR, OP. 104, B. 191 - 1. ALLEGRO) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.