Measures Of Affection: Five Musical Love Letters

Composer Peter Lieberson wrote his Neruda Songs for his wife, mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. (Peter Lieberson)

If you've ever written a love letter, you know it's not easy. Amid a swirl of emotions, balancing elegant language and hormone-fueled passion can be tricky. Composers for centuries have skirted this problem by doing what comes naturally — writing their love letters in the language of music. Here are five passionate outpourings in melody and harmony.

Do you have a favorite musical love letter? Have you ever written one? How was it received? Tell us about it in the comments section.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit

Gustav Mahler to Alma Schindler: "Liebst du um Schönheit"

Gustav Mahler composed dozens of songs but only one, "Liebst du um Schoenheit," is an outright love song. He wrote it in 1902 as a wedding gift for his new bride, Alma. The text by Friedrich Rückert rejects the idea of love for beauty, age or treasure, concluding, "but if you love for love, then love me always, as I will always love you." Mahler's music, a beautiful mix of soaring melody and bittersweet harmonies, was eerily prescient. Little could he know then that he and Alma would eventually drift apart.

Leoš Janáček to Kamilla Stösslová: 3rd mvt from String Quartet No. 2, "Intimate Letters"

Talk about love letters. Leoš Janáček wrote more than 700 of them to Kamilla Stösslová, the wife of an antiques dealer 36 years his junior. The sad fact is that she was never interested in Janáček romantically. But that didn't stop him from composing music specifically fueled by his passion. In February 1928, while writing his Second String Quartet, subtitled "Intimate Letters," he wrote to her about the third movement: "It will be very cheerful, and then dissolve into a vision of your image, transparent, as if in the mist, in which there should be a suspicion of motherhood." The music rocks softly, pivots to a daydream and then cries out in a piercing scream.

Peter Lieberson to Lorraine Hunt Lieberson: "Amor Mio" (from Neruda Songs)

It doesn't get more profound than this musical love letter and its back story. The text, by Pablo Neruda, starts: "My love, If I die and you don't, let's not give grief an even greater field." Lieberson set five of Neruda's love sonnets to music for his wife, mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. Less than eight months after she made this extraordinary recording she would succumb to cancer at age 52. With its warm, autumnal strings and plaintive oboe, this final song is part lullaby, part tribute to love everlasting. In the final line, Neruda says love "is like a long river, only changing lands, and changing lips."

Tchaikovsky: Tatiana to Onegin "Letter Scene" (from Eugene Onegin)

Musical love letters also get delivered on the operatic stage. In Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, there's an emotionally charged scene that resonates with almost everyone. Tatiana falls in love and takes that vulnerable step in composing her first love letter, not knowing if Onegin, the man she just met, will feel the same. Since it's opera, he doesn't — at least not until it's too late. In her letter, Tatiana says that at first she wanted to stay quiet but she can't control her feelings. "I have lived my whole life waiting to meet you," she writes, as Tchaikovsky's music rises with passion.

Edward Elgar to Alice Elgar: Variation 1 (from the Enigma Variations)

Edward Elgar began writing his "Enigma" Variations as something of a joke, improvising a short tune at the piano. Then he and his wife Alice had the idea that the tune could be altered to depict or, in some cases, caricature their various friends. Elgar loved it and spent part of two years writing 13 variations for orchestra, each one a portrait of someone close to him. He started with an affectionate sketch of Alice (identified as C.A.E. on the score), which features Elgar's lilting mystery theme lovingly dressed in warm, Brahmsian winds and strings.



Expressions of love will take many forms today: a card and flowers, a romantic dinner, perhaps some poetry for your beloved. But for some, it's an emotion best expressed with music.


SIEGEL: This is "Liebst du um Schonheit" by Gustav Mahler.


SIEGEL: It's a love letter written to his bride, Alma Schindler, written in 1902, and it's one of Tom Huizenga's picks for great love songs. Tom writes about classical music for NPR's Deceptive Cadence blog, and he has picked three classical love songs with great stories behind them. Hi, Tom.

TOM HUIZENGA, BYLINE: Hey, nice to be back, Robert.

SIEGEL: Let's start with this Mahler piece that we're hearing. What do we know about it, and what exactly was Mahler trying to tell his bride?

HUIZENGA: Well, first of, Mahler was big on songs. He wrote dozens of them, even stuffed them into his huge symphonies. But this one that we're listening to right now - "If You Love for Beauty" - is really his only bona fide love song. And like you said, he presented it to Alma Schindler on their wedding day. She was somewhat younger, 20 years younger than Mahler. The text here is saying basically, Robert, if you love for beauty or you love for age or money, then don't bother loving me. But if you love for love, then love me always as I will always love you.


HUIZENGA: It's a beautiful mix of kind of soaring melodies, bittersweet harmonies, and it was actually kind of eerily prescient because little could have Mahler have known then when he wrote the song that he and Alma would eventually drift apart.

SIEGEL: A beautiful song. Well, let's move on to your second pick, Tom. This one is called "Intimate Letters."


HUIZENGA: Talk about love letters. Czech composer Leos Janacek wrote over 700 love letters. I'm talking pen-and-ink letters to this woman named Kamilla Stosslova. She was the wife of an antiques dealer. She was 27 when they met. Janacek was 62 and married, by the way. You know, Kamilla was never interested in Janacek romantically, but that really didn't stop him from composing music specifically fueled by this incredible passion that he had for her. She inspired a late career flood of pieces from him, including the "String Quartet No. 2," which he called "Intimate Letters."


HUIZENGA: The music is really incredible. We'll hear that little delicate scrim sound very soft, and then suddenly, like be careful if you're behind the wheel right now, there's a passionate scrim in the first violin, like a dagger through the heart, almost as if Janacek realizes his dream has been shattered.


SIEGEL: I don't know, Tom, almost a case of beautiful musical stalking here that you ran through...


SIEGEL: ...of Janacek. Finally, you've chosen a piece of music that is set to the poetry of Pablo Neruda.


HUIZENGA: Robert, it doesn't get much more profound I think than this musical love letter and its back story. The text here by Pablo Neruda starts off saying: My love, if I die and you don't, let's not give grief an even greater field. So composer Peter Lieberson stumbled across this book of Pablo Neruda's love sonnets. These are very sensual sonnets. He decided to set a number of them for his wife, the mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson.


HUIZENGA: Less than eight months after Lorraine Hunt Lieberson made this extraordinary recording, that would be in November of 2005, she would succumb to cancer at age 52. She was one of the most deeply thoughtful and passionate singers of her generation, a huge loss. And the music here with its warm, autumnal strings, a plaintive oboe we'll hear, it's the final song in this set, really kind of part lullaby, almost as if he's rocking her to sleep and part tribute to love everlasting. And then the final line, Neruda says: But this love has not ended, just as it never had a birth, it has no death. It's like a long river, only changing lands and changing lips.


SIEGEL: Three beautiful love songs for Valentine's Day - this one from Lieberson, earlier from Janacek and Mahler. You can find all of Tom Huizenga's picks and share your favorite musical love letters at Tom, thanks.

HUIZENGA: Thank you, Robert.


SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Most Popular