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The 10 greatest love affairs in classical music

Features - Classical Music

The 10 greatest love affairs in classical music

by Maxim Boon on February 14, 2015 (February 14, 2015) filed under Classical Music | Comment Now
We're celebrating Valentine's Day with our list of some of the greatest couples in music.

Love is in the air, cupid’s arrows are flying overhead and florists and chocolatiers across the world are enjoying record profits. It can mean only one thing: Valentine’s Day is once more upon us. To help you get in the mood for amore, we offer you this list of 10 of the most romantic couples in classical music. Molto appassionato tutti!

Johann Sebastian Bach and Anna Magedalena Bach

It’s unclear when J.S. Bach first met his second wife, Anna Magdalena, but it’s likely that he was first charmed by her singing during his time as Music Director at the court of Köthen where Anna Magdelena was also employed as a singer. The two married just months after the death of Bach’s first wife, Maria Barbara, and in addition to raising the children from Bach’s first marriage, the two had no less than 13 children of their own (although not all of them made it to adulthood). It has been speculated, most notably in a thesis by Professor Martin Jarvis of the Charles Darwin University in the Northern Territory, that Anna Magdelana may have composed some of Bach’s most revered works, including his Cello Suits. While Bach definitely dedicated works to his beloved wife, such as the two Notenbüchlein für Anna Magdelena Bach, there is no proof at all that he took credit for any of Anna Magdalena's music.

Ludwig Van Beethoven and Therese Malfatti

The course of love sometimes does not run smoothly, and the story of Beethoven’s botched attempt to propose to his pupil, Therese Malfatti, should act as a cautionary tale for any composers hoping to use their music to woo a potential spouse. This extraordinary tale is based on anecdotal accounts, the story goes that in the spring of 1810 Beethoven was invited by the Malfatti family to attend a soirée at their home. Beethoven had written a short piano piece for Therese, a Bagatelle, which he had intended to perform before proposing to her. A particularly strong punch was served, and Beethoven allegedly consumed a vast amount, leaving him in no state to perform the piano piece or propose. Instead Therese suggested Beethoven write a dedication to her at the top of the work. In almost illegible scrawl he wrote Für Therese. Sadly, Therese and Beethoven never married, but upon Malfatti’s death the original manuscript of Beethoven’s bagatelle was discovered among her things and published posthumously. The dedication, drunkenly scribbled on the manuscript was misread, and what would become one of Beethoven’s most cherished works was published with the dedication Für Elise.

Hector Berlioz and Harriet Smithson

Irish Shakespearian actress Harriet Smithson was by all accounts a great beauty and talented performer, and it was no doubt this seductive combination that caught the eye of eccentric composer Hector Berlioz. After attending a performance of Hamlet, in which Smithson was playing the role of Ophelia, Berlioz fell madly in love with her, but despite numerous letters confessing his infatuation, Smithson refused to answer. The outpouring of Berlioz’s unrequited love become one of the most important works of the early Romantic period, Symphonie Fantastique. Smithson was so overawed upon hearing the work and realising Berlioz’s genius that she travelled to Paris to find the composer. The two were finally married in 1833, however their temperaments were wildly unsuited, and their tempestuous relationship ended after several years of unhappiness.

Robert Schumann and Clara Wieck

Clara Wieck was one of the most gifted pianists of her day and the daughter of a celebrated piano teacher, Friedrich Wieck, who in 1930, when Clara was just 11 years old, invited the ambitious young composer and pianist, 20 year old Robert Schumann to live in the Wieck household. Despite the significant age gap, in 1837 when Clara turned 18, Robert proposed to her and she accepted. The match was not welcomed by Clara’s father, and he tried to come between the couple. Despite his objections and his attempt to get a local judge to ban the marriage, the couple finally wed in 1840. Their marriage was a strong one, and the optimism and “vernal passion” Robert felt about his life with his new wife became a strong influence on his first symphony. However Robert suffered from crippling manic-depression and in 1844 suffered a complete mental breakdown. Clara remained a strongly positive element in Robert’s life, but despite a short recovery he would later attempt suicide and be confined to an asylum where he died in 1856.

Felix Mendelssohn and Cécile Jeanrenaud

Mendelssohn recalled his first meeting with Cécile in a way that only a true romantic could. “I’ve met a woman with the most bewitching deep blue eyes,” he wrote in a letter to a friend in 1836. Mendelssohn continued to pursue Cécile, writing to his family in late 1836 that he was “dreadfully in love.” He proposed during a day trip to the forested hills north of Frankfurt and the two were married in March 1837. Their marriage was a blissfully happy one. Mendelssohn described his joy as a contentment that he hadn’t experienced since childhood, and Cécile shared in her husband’s successes as a composer, providing encouragement and stability that allowed him to write some of his finest music including his hugely popular violin concerto.

Edvard Grieg and Nina Hagerup

Nina Hagerup was a celebrated Danish-Norwegian lyric soprano and the first cousin of composer Edvard Grieg. As one of Grieg’s most potent muses she shared a close bond with her cousin, and the two eventually married in 1867. Grieg claimed that Nina was the only singer capable of properly realising his songs, but Nina’s talents were also a source of inspiration for a number of other composers. The British composer Frederick Delius dedicated two song-cycles to her, and she was also celebrated for her interpretations of Mendelssohn’s music. 

Igor Stravinsky and Coco Chanel

The alleged affair between eminent Russian composer Igor Stravinsky and fashion design-icon Coco Chanel is shrouded in mystery. The relationship is claimed to have taken place while Stravinsky was still married to his second wife Vera, and she adamantly denied the credibility of Chanel’s assertions in her biography (written by Paul Morand) that she and Stravinsky were lovers. The two definitely met, introduced by Ballet Russes impresario Sergei Diaghilev in 1920. Indeed Chanel invited the whole Stravinsky family to stay with her in Paris for eight months, and it is also claimed that Chanel personally underwrote the 1920 Ballet Russes production of The Rite of Spring with a donation of 300,000 francs. While the truth of their relationship remains an enigma, it is nonetheless an exciting thought that two such influential and iconic artists may have shared a secret tryst. 

Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears

Although the couple were unable to be open about their relationship as homosexuality was still legally and socially a huge taboo at the time, it was widely accepted that the brilliant British composer Benjamin Britten and the notable tenor Peter Pears were partners. Britten would definitely have been a celebrated composer had the couple never met, but Britten’s huge volume of vocal works, including songs, arrangements and no less than 16 operas were in no small part due to his personal and professional connection with Pears. In a letter to Pears while the singer was in New York for the American premiere of Death in Venice, Britten wrote, “My darling heart, I love you so terribly… You’re the greatest artists there ever was. What have I done to deserve such an artist and man to write for?” The two formidable musicians founded the Britten-Pears School for Advanced Musical Training at the Snape Maltings in Suffolk, a short journey inland from Britten and Pears’ beloved home, the Red House, in Aldeburgh, Suffolk. 

Maria Callas and Aristotle Onassis

Despite both being married, shipping magnate Onassis and opera megastar Maria Callas embarked on an affair after meeting at a party in Venice in 1957. As the two most famous Greeks in the world it’s little wonder the two felt a resonance for each other, and their affair received much attention from the popular press. Both left their respective spouses, and Callas retreated from her singing career. The two never married and Onassis eventually deserted Callas to embark on his next infamous relationship with Jaqueline Kennedy, the widow of the assassinated American President, John F Kennedy. Callas lived the last nine years of her life largely in isolation in Paris, succumbing to a heart attack in 1977. Her death has sometimes been connected to her despair at losing Onassis and consequently dying of a broken heart.

John Cage and Merce Cunningham

One was a radical and inventive composer who changed the face of modern music, the other was one of the most visionary choreographers of his day: John Cage and Merce Cunningham’s relationship was a match made in heaven. The influence of both men on their respective art-forms is probably only second to their influence on each other’s work. Most notably the use of chance and I Ching in their creations was a revolutionary moment in both modern music and contemporary choreography.