Music Inspired by Woman
There is an age old saying “Behind every great man there is a woman“. Nowhere perhaps is the saying more apt than in the realm of music. From times immemorial, great composers and their music have been influenced and inspired by women in varying degrees. Women figured in the romantic movement and during this period there was a profusion of music inspired by women carrying to a near point of madness the illustration of one cardinal principle of the romantic theory – not rule but direct reaction to impulse. That is the very spirit of romance and the romantic temper once aroused found ready and natural food in the various women that almost every composer of that period came into contact with.
Johann Sebastian Bach, it is sometimes said was the first romantic composer. In 1720, Bach’s first wife Maria Barbara died. He married again in 1721 and for the beautiful soprano voice of his second wife Anna Magdalena Wilcke, he wrote some of his most inspired arias. Besides bearing him 13 children, Anna Magdalena was a great help to Bach in all his work and her musical handwriting became almost indistinguishable from his own.Together, they created two separate books for Magdalena’s practice which are known today as the Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach. The most famous piece of music from the second notebook is the tender and reflective aria “Bist du bei mir” or “Be thou with me”. The song is sung today in a popular vein, more and more, with the sense of celebrating the joy of joining lives and of sharing with a loving partner. First and foremost, it is a hauntingly beautiful melody made grippingly memorable by the poem’s directly spoken words :
“When thou art near, I go with joy
To death and to my rest.
O how pleasant would my end be,
If your fair hands
Would close my faithful eyes.”
Among the great composers of the romantic period, Joseph (“Papa”) Haydn, the father of the modern symphony and string quartet and the Guru of Ludwig van Beethoven, was perhaps the one whose spirit was most at home in this world. He was filled with a healthy sensuousness. He loved beautiful women and their love was returned in perhaps greater measure even in his advanced years. In 1760,Haydn had married Maria Anne Keller, the daughter of a Viennese wig maker. But the marriage remained childless and ultimately ended in embitterment. On his second visit to England in 1794,Haydn fell madly in love with a brilliant piano virtuoso named Theresa Jansen Bartolozzi. For her he composed his last three piano sonatas and also three of his most beautiful piano trios. Of the three piano sonatas, the one in E Flat Major, the last that Haydn wrote in this form, has always been one of the composer’s most admired works. The third movement combines Bartolozzi’s enormous technical prowess with Haydn’s most imaginative and dashing style. Commenting on this movement, the noted American authority on Haydn’s music Howard Chandler Robbins Landon said “It is a great conclusion to half a century of piano compositions and opens up endless vistas for the future. From here to the world of Beethoven is scarcely a step.”
And now to the world of the great Ludwig van Beethoven, Haydn’s most distinguished pupil. Beethoven was highly susceptible to the appeal of women. He was strongly sexed, nearly always in love, equipped with somewhat loftier sexual ideals than most men, but clumsy, awkward and hasty as a wooer. He proposed marriage to a number of women all of whom prompted by a sound instinct rejected his proposals, for Beethoven was a man of violent and erratic temperament. After Beethoven’s death, his famous letter to the “Immortal Beloved” was discovered by chance in a secret drawer, but no one knows who the lady was or whether she ever received it. Beethoven was perhaps the loneliest composer that ever lived and received inspiration from only brief love episodes here and there. He once wrote in his journal – “Love alone – yes love alone can give you a happier life – Oh God – let me let me finally find one who will strengthen me in virtue who will lawfully be mine.”.At the time of composing his Fourth Symphony, for the first time as Beethoven said himself, “Love passionate love, crushed, ravished and tortured my soul.” He had fallen in love with his Hungarian pupil Countess Teréz Brunszvik de Korompa and for once Bethoven’s life seemed to be on the ascendant. The Fourth Symphony was a direct expression of Beethoven’s personal happiness and inspired by his ideals of love. The Symphony expresses more than a mere mood. It is in fact to quote John William Navin Sullivan, the noted authority on Beethoven – “an exquisite realisation of a state of mind that was possible to Beethoven for some years – a state of warm human happiness based on a confident and optimistic outlook on life.”
The great French composer Hector Berlioz was a Romantic from his birth. Berlioz’s love affairs are significant. At 14,he fell in love with a grown up lady in pink shoes. At 24, his imagination was suddenly gripped by the beauty and dramatic power of the Irish Shakespearian actress Harriet Smithson whom he saw for the first time as Opelia in Hamlet at the famed Odéon-Théâtre de l’Europe in Paris. He recorded that Shakespeare struck him like a thunderbolt and judging by the way he fell in love with her at first sight he experienced what the French say – the coupe de foudre. He sent her impassioned letters and moved heaven and earth to get a word with her but she would have none of him. He nearly went mad and once worn out with passion he slept for 5 hours on a cafe table to the dismay of waiters. Then he fell in love with a pianist of talent Marie Felicité Denise Moke, popularly known as Madame Pleyel. He got engaged to her, but winning the Prix de Rome he had to leave her to take up his residence at the Villa Medici in Rome. Soon the news came to him that Madame Pleyel had married another. Throwing up his scholarship, he bought woman’s clothes and a pistol at Florence intent on murder and suicide. At Nice, he cooled down, changed his purpose and returned to Rome. After almost 5 years, he found Harriet Smithson finally in Paris. At the age of 31 after incredible efforts, he broke down her resistance and married her. His Symphonie Fantastique is a musical expression of his love for Harriet who inspired the whole work. The symphony is the story of a young musician, unlucky in love, who takes an overdose of opium and is visited by dreams and nightmares.
The great Czech composer Frédéric Chopin’s intimacy with the French novelist Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin, better known by her literary pseudonymn George Sand, now calls for mention. She was introduced to Chopin by the Hungarian composer Franz Liszt. George Sand found Chopin a willing victim. Physically and mentally Chopin was a sick man and although at first he was repelled by her personality and even looks, he quickly succumbed to her onslaught. The affair that sprang up lasted 10 years and was then abruptly broken to the sorrow of both parties. In the winter of 1838-39,Chopin accompanied George and her children to the Spanish island of Majorca. They fled to escape bad weather and found worse. Everything turned out to be thoroughly uncomfortable and Chopin fell terribly ill. At last, Chopin spitting blood,had to be carried in a boat whose cargo consisted of odorous pigs to the French port of Marseilles where his health improved. The Majorca expedition was in every way disastrous and left a permanent mark on Chopin’s health. But, musically the Majorca expedition was a great success. It was at Majorca that Chopin wrote some of his most beautiful preludes. In these preludes, which bear the indelible stamp of George Sand, his greatness as a poet is revealed in his ability to express the subtleties of intimate emotions.
The father of Hungarian national music Franz Lizst was probably the first pianist to give one man shows playing himself in full view of the audience. Ladies in particular flocked to his recitals. So fervent was feminine admiration that if he dropped a handkerchief it was torn to pieces as souveniers and the legendary Russian novelist, playwright and philosopher Leo Tolstoy has written about one female admirer who removed, framed and hung on her wall a portion of the chair that had received the sacred pressure of Lizst. Lizst had many affairs with women but insofar as the influence of women on his music is concerned, his affair with the Polish Princess Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein was the most significant. Lizst once wrote to the Princess – “Without your love, I wish for neither earth nor heaven. Let us love one another my only and glorious well beloved in God and in our Lord Jesus Christ and let men never try to separate those whom God has joined for eternity.” Lizst and the Princess took their love seriously and the two of them settled down at Weimar in Germany where Lizst was appointed musical director by the Duke of Weimar. Lizst made Weimar the Mecca of musicians. The Princess urged him to great creative effort. She wrote for him his books and pressed him to push forward his compositions. She inspired what she herself described as “Music of the Future”.
Princess Wittgenstein inspired Music of the Future and Richard Wagner gave the term a confirmation by publishing his essay “The Art Work of the Future” in 1851.Wagner was then in Zurich where a romantic episode in Wagner’s life had a great influence on his life work. In 1857,Wagner and his wife Wilhelmina went to live on the estate of Otto Wessendonck, a wealthy banker and silk merchant. Wagner fell in love with his wife Mathilde and a woman came into Wagner’s life whose loving care and perfect understanding of his nature was to make the ensuing years a time of fullest blossoming. Dropping his work on Der Ring des Nibelungen or “The Ring of the Nibelung”, his cycle of four epic operas, he poured out his love for Mathilde in the libretto for Tristan und Isolde and in this work Mathilde’s tremendous influence on Wagner’s creative ability is unimpeachably established. In 1861,he wrote to her, ”That I wrote Tristan, I thank you from the depth of my soul forever and ever.” Tristan opened up a new world- the world of the music drama! Tristan and Isolde are in fact Richard and Mathilde. Everything centers on the one pair of lovers and the tumultuous sea of their passion, culminating in the death they desire with ardent clear sightedness.
And finally, I come to Johannes Brahms. Brahms was born in the neighbourhood of the red-light district of St. Pauli in Hamburg. At the age of 16, he started playing the piano in a waterfront night club whose principal patrons were prostitutes and their clients. Those half clad women, Brahms later said – “to make the men still wilder would take me on their laps and kiss and excite me between dances.” These early experiences with women left their permanent mark on Brahms. Unable to resist a pretty face or a beautiful voice, Brahms almost went to the alter with seven different women, but shied away from matrimony at the last moment. The great love of Brahms’s life was however the distinguished pianist Clara Schumann, wife of the great German composer Robert Alexander Schumann. Clara was 14 years older than Brahms and the mother of seven children which gave her the appeal of a mother figure. In a beautiful love letter that Brahms wrote to Clara he confessed , “I wish I could write to you as tenderly as I love you and tell you all the good things that I wish you. You are so infinitely dear to me, dearer than I can say.” The Schumanns and in particular Clara inspired some of Brahms’s greatest music. In Brahms’s monumental work Alto Rhapsody is an impassioned song entitled “Fullness of Love” set to words by the great German lawyer, writer, poet and statesman Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and clearly inspired by Clara.
“From the fullness of love?
First despised, now a despiser,
He secretly wastes away
His own worth
In fruitless egotism.
If on Thy Psaltery,
Father of love, there is a note,
Which can reach his ear,
So revive his heart!
Let clouds give forth rain
Above the thousand springs
Beside him who thirsts
In the wilderness.”
What greater music could have been inspired by a composer’s passionate love for a woman!
Advocate,Supreme Court of India
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