Forget the sexy tones of ‘Je t’aime’, classical music has sultrier sounds and bigger climaxes to offer wannabe Valentines.
Messiaen: Turangalîla-Symphonie (Joie du sang des étoiles)
Messiaen’s music generally defies the accepted standards of musical decorum of its day. The composer, to an extent almost unmatched in earlier musical history, was unashamed of lavish Romanticism, with his works typified by unrestrained resonance and the inflation of musical themes through repetition and sheer volume. Yet the composer’s musical proclivities cannot be regarded as mere kitsch or lacking in taste – Messiaen used them too consistently and with too much conviction, instead forcing us to accept them as legitimate expressions of heightened emotion.
Written between 1946 and 1948, the eighth section of the symphony entitled Joie du sang des étoiles is a sensual frenetic dance. For Messiaen, it represented the union of two lovers seen as a transformation on a cosmic scale. The dance is interrupted by a shattering piano cadenza (get it?) before a brief orchestral post-coital coda.
The ondes martenot, an electronic keyboard instrument with a slide mechanism invented in 1928, provides swooping glissando effects; its tone penetrates the thickly-scored sections and inflates the moment of climactic frenzy.
Scriabin: Le Poème de l’Extase
While Alexander Scriabin’s idea of ‘ecstasy’ was metaphysical, not just physical, his turbulent Poem of Ecstasy does feature some pretty rapturous climaxes. The early 20th-century Russian composer was into all things mystic, and at one point was involved with the Theosophical society – at one point he even believed himself to be divine!
Of course he was no stranger to sensual pleasure: he conducted numerous affairs (while committed to another woman) and made it his life’s work to explore the treatment of colour in his music (going so far as to colour-code the circle of fifths).
Scriabin saw ecstasy as the highest, most potent of human emotions. Wanting to indulge this burning passion of his, he composed a 20-minute orchestral tone poem surging with emotion and exploring his philosophies on love and art. The harmonies slip and slide into all sorts of unexpected places, as he defines his new, more sensual approach to composing music. Scriabin, ever the romantic, wrote an accompanying poem, revealing he knew a thing or two about “spiritual” fulfillment. Just read the end:
Is embraced in flames
Spirit at the summit of its being
Of divine power
Or free will
That which menaced
Is now seduction.
That which frightened
Is now pleasure.
And the bites of panther and hyena
Are new caresses
And the serpent’s sting
Is but a burning kiss
And thus the universe resounds
With joyful cry
Dowland: Come Again
If you’re looking for a bit of thinly veiled bawdiness in classical music, then look no further than the Renaissance. The saucy madrigalists of the 16th Century could be just as dirty as today’s pop singers, though they had a keener eye, perhaps, for subtlety. If you look hard enough (which is probably not very hard), you can find all kinds of references to carnal delight, artfully dressed in the language of springtime and swan songs.
English lutenist and composer John Dowland was particularly naughty. The lyrics for Come Again are decidedly more explicit than other offerings of the period, with kissing, touching and a passing reference to “hot shafts” set over a melodic pattern that climbs higher and higher, before the sweet resolution at the end.
Just listen to the last verse:
draw forth thy wounding dart:
Thou canst not pierce her heart;
For I that do approve.
By sighs and tears
more hot than are
thy shafts, did tempt while she
for scanty triumphs laughs.
Schubert’s innocent sounding song Ganymed illustrates the joys of a young man about to embark on his first intensely loving, sensually and spiritually-fulfilling relationship.
Set to Goethe’s poem of the same name, Schubert’s music represents the story of Ganymede as he is seduced by the God Zeus through the medium of the beauty of Spring. The Lied, through the use of varied rhythmic and melodic motifs alongside ever-shifting tonalities, represents the journey and transformation of the youth, from shepherd basking in the earthly pleasures of Spring to becoming ensnared in God’s divine (but equally sensual) power.
From the repeated cries of “Ich komm …” onwards the character of the piano part changes: the rhythm becomes insistent and staccato, and Schubert gives the instruction “un poco accelerando” (accelerating slightly). The song drives through, reaching two climaxes, the second of which is achieved by repeating the last seven-and-a-half lines of the poem, and then repeating again the final cry of “Alliebender Vater!” (All-loving father!).
Tippett: Fourth Ritual Dance from The Midsummer Marriage
Ritual and symbolism veil the heated passion of the climax in Michael Tippett’s opera, The Midsummer Marriage. Set on a hillside in view of a mysterious temple, Tippett draws on features of Mozart’s Magic Flute to create a drama about love, both physical and spiritual.
Mark and Jenifer are the exalted lovers, who come together in the Third Act to express their devotion for each other in a consummate sense. The accompanying music is rich and expressive, culminating in full orchestral and choral ecstasy. Each lover’s melody climbs over the other, surging to a point where you think it will burst – but Tippett delays the release, and then it starts all over again.
The duet is accompanied and eventually taken over by the chorus, singing in passionate strains of the couple’s divine love. Did we mention the lovers are attaining this eternal bliss while being set on fire?
Audiences may have been bewildered by the plot, but you can’t deny Tippett’s ability to write a truly sizzling operatic love scene.
Saint-Saëns: Bacchanale from Samson et Dalila
They say that in the early days of Hollywood the best way to get sex on screen was if the film had a “Biblical” subject. This is definitely the case when it comes to 19th-century master Camille Saint-Saëns’ opera, Samson and Delilah. While the rest of his operas failed to satisfy their audiences, this sumptuous tale of seduction and erotic pleasure was a hit.
The opera depicts the story of Samson, leader of the Israelites, and the irresistible Delilah, as she deceives him into revealing the secret of his strength. The opera heats up during the final scene with the eruption of an orgiastic Bacchanale onstage. A pagan ritual dance to the god of wine, parties and pleasure, this ballet episode features sensual melodies and frenzied drum patterns inspired by the Far East.
A sultry oboe melody gets things going, but it’s after the languishing middle section that things really start losing control. With drums pounding wildly and the whole orchestra getting louder and faster, the dancers on stage can’t help but fall down exhausted at the end.
Ravel: Bacchanale from Daphnis et Chloé
Maurice Ravel’s score to the ballet Daphnis and Chloe is simply brimming with sexual anticipation and longing. Full of lush orchestral colour and sweeping melodies, it is surely one of the richest, most lavishly romantic scores ever composed.
When the young shepherd and shepherdess meet, they unwittingly discover love for the first time. The music that accompanies their exchange never seems to stop swooning and sighing. The lovers spice things up in Part III with a bit of Belle Époque-style role-playing: Daphnis is the libidinous fawn-god Pan, and Chloe is the nymph Syrinx, the object of the god’s desires. After persuading the shy nymph out of the water reeds with his pipe-song, the two engage in some tender moments before a riotous orgy of dancing explodes onstage.
The final bacchanale (or,more tamely put, danse generale) swells with burgeoning energy and excitement, thrusting forwards with no sign of letting go. An offstage chorus of voices accompanies the frenetic dancing with wordless moaning, building to fever pitch as the final, prolonged chord rings with euphoric satisfaction.
Wagner: Love duet from Tristan und Isolde
While the opera’s best-known outtakes are the Prelude and the Liebestod at its end, the heart-beating climax of the work is the ecstatic love duet at the centre of Act II.
Tristan und Isolde, written in 1859, is notable for its use of harmonic suspension. In the duet, Wagner primes the audience for a musical climax with a series of suspended chords building in tension – only to purposefully defer the anticipated resolution. A particular example of this technique occurs towards the duet’s end (“Wie sie fassen, wie sie lassen…”) where Tristan and Isolde steadily build up to a musical climax, only to have the anticipated resolution interrupted by the dissonant arrival of Kurwenal (“Rette Dich, Tristan!”).
The varied resolutions are often understood as symbolising both physical sexual release and spiritual release via suicide. The final completion of this cadential series arrives with the opera’s Liebestod, at which point the musical resolution corresponds with Isolde’s death.
Musical orgasm spotters will probably also detect something of that ilk earlier on in Act II when Tristan arrives breathless to greet the waiting Isolde. The build up of his approach with accelerating rhythms and harmonically rising sequences rockets into full thrust after the cries of “Tristan” – “Isolde” – “Geliebter!”
Prokofiev: Balcony Scene from Romeo and Juliet
While Tchaikovsky’s tone poem on Shakespeare’s doomed lovers has become the standard for schmalzy TV romance, his fellow countryman Prokofiev came up with the real sexy deal for his full length Romeo and Juliet ballet.
Strange as it may seem now, Prokofiev’s work had a particularly painful birth. The Soviet director Adrian Piotrovsky suggested a ballet adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy to the composer in 1935, but the Bolshoi pronounced the finished work “undanceable”. The Kirov agreed to stage Romeo and Juliet (complete with happy ending!) but plans were rapidly shelved after the dramaturge was denounced in the Pravda article Balletic Falsehood. It was his libretto for Shostakovich’s ballet The Limpid Stream that had offended. Piotrovsky was arrested and shot the following year – a definite nadir for the arts in Stalin’s Russia.
The revised version (now with acceptable tragic ending) didn’t see the light of day until 1940, when the Bolshoi turned out to be able to dance it after all. Since then it has conquered the world, danced by the likes of Fonteyn and Nureyev.
The extended balcony scene is the romantic, and erotic, highpoint of the whole affair with full strings starting from a basic pulse and then building to a series of soaring climaxes.
Yes, it’s classical ballet, so things tend not to get too heated but in its own sweet way the classic stagings usually manage to rise to the occassion.
Richard Strauss: Opening of Der Rosenkavalier
Written in 1911, Der Rosenkavalier blends sentimental comedy and farce, with a busy libretto by Hugo von Hoffmansthal set to evocative post-romantic music by Strauss. Its overture also happens to include one of the steamiest climaxes ever set to music, portraying great sex and the afterglow of intimacy.
The horns’ initial thrusting theme is warmly reciprocated by the string section; the two lines blend together and fall jointly to earth, melting with knowledge of each other. As the curtain rises, Strauss even paints the sun coming up in the opening scene, with birds twittering in the background. The couple – Octavian and Marschallin – are in bed, speaking sweet nothings as they bask in love’s warm glow.
Although he boasted he could portray anything in music, Strauss drew the line at depicting the post-coital cigarette.