The first part of the title means “You are always in my heart” in Italian, and as the blissful season of Valentine’s Day approaches, many of us would hold these sweet words (in English, of course) dearly in our hearts. And perhaps there from our lips will escape so many classic love songs that we have grown up with and adored, such as “My Heart Will Go On” (Titanic), or “If I Never Knew You” (Pocahontas). But for someone like me who grew up with classical music, every time I listen to these modern romantic tunes I really appreciate how much we (as a society) have taken the musical expression of love for granted. The honest truth is that people of the Western World, such as ourselves, have not always enjoyed this freedom. Throughout most of our history so far music had been a tightly regulated art form, and so the profession of romance through song had likewise needed to follow strict standards.
But we know that music evolves, a process described so concisely and eloquently by the Russian pianist and composer Sergei Rachmaninoff: “All great composers and performers have built upon the ruins of conventions that they themselves have destroyed.” This Valentine’s season we shall pay homage to a selection of these courageous individuals, who represent a classical genre that I have always deeply treasured. Indeed, no other genre fits this time of the year better than opera. Looking back in time, we shall explore how four great composers took the operatic love scene in an evolutionary process through four historical periods. And by doing so they carried the love song to its limits, granting us the freedom today to express our romantic passion with unrestrained intoxication.
George Frideric Handel (1685-1759): “No no, I’ll take no less” from Semele (1744)
Whoever said that violent relationships cannot be of true love? Just imagine the eroticism when Semele, a mortal woman, forces the father of gods Jupiter to make love to her not disguised as a man, but with his full power unveiled (resulting eventually in fatal consequences). Now that’s true love! In many ways, Semele is typical of countless other Baroque operas during Handel’s time. It is based on Greek mythology, features a few number of lines repeated over and over again, and is decorated by notoriously convoluted melismas (a single word sung to at least two dozen notes). If you thought that was bad, recognize that Handel also had to work with an extremely sparse orchestra—probably no more than twenty musicians. With the added obligation to follow draconian guidelines on regular phrasing and proper harmonies, the German master really did not possess many tools to express himself. But he insightfully used what he had to imbue this aria with a new level of life. Taking advantage of the turbulent rhythm conventional in Baroque music, Handel makes the aria spark with the fire of tension and frustration. As the listener, you can almost feel as if you were there in the scene. And you desperately wish that you are not Jupiter, berated by the commanding lash of Semele’s melismas, which are so terrifying that they make your hairs stand on one end.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791): “Papageno, Papagena” from Die Zauberflöte (1791)
One of Mozart’s greatest ambitions was to depart from the traditional subject matters of opera, based largely on Greek mythology and classic history, and focus on down-to-earth topics that ordinary people could relate to. This is clearly exemplified in some of his best-known works, such as Die Entführung aus dem Serail, which tells of how a Spanish nobleman set out to rescue his wife who had been kidnapped by Turkish pirates, and Le nozze di Figaro, which recounts the love story of a soon-to-be servant couple and how it was almost ruined by the lustful eyes of the fiancée’s master (major breach of professionalism…). Similarly in Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), Mozart’s final opera, gone are the Olympian gods and Roman warriors of antiquity, replaced instead by a world of princes and magicians and bird-catchers. In “Papageno, Papagena”, the bird-catcher Papageno and his lover Papagena utter their inexpressible astonishment and joy upon reuniting, for they really had not expected to see each other again. One must appreciate how natural their conversation sounds compared to the overly poetic lines of Semele. And even more, Mozart takes the liberty of adding a tinge of playfulness to the dialogue. At the beginning of the duet, so caught by surprise is the couple that they stutter for two phrases (“Pa-pa-pa…”) before finally pronouncing each other’s names. And near the end, they joyfully proclaim a bright future with lots of children, a bunch of little Papagenos and Papagenas. The genius of Mozart lies in his ability to achieve all this in the context of a strict musical structure with regular phrases. But he was not able to do it perfectly, for some parts of the exchange indeed sounds rigid (you would probably not want to talk like this to your Valentine). During this period of operatic history, the text still needed to serve the music to a large degree.
Georges Bizet (1838-1875): “Parle-moi de ma mère” from Carmen (1875)
The significance of this duet is that it is the final glimpse of innocence we see before the storyline plunges into its tragic course of destruction; it is truly the rose before the fire. Here, the Spanish soldier Don José and his beautiful fiancée Micaëla longingly dream about their home in the village, and while the subject matter concerns almost entirely José’s mother, such topic creates a perfect setting, pastoral and romantic, for the expression of their unspoken love. In this Romantic Period of opera, compared to Mozart’s time, there is a shift of emphasis to the outpouring of emotions, characterized by major advances such as looser phrase structures, greater diversity of harmonies, and a larger orchestra (the orchestra in Carmen featured at least forty musicians). Indeed, we hear a wonderful marriage of poetry and poignancy with a sensible flow and simplicity in “Parle-moi de ma mère”, a passionate duet decorated by lush figures in the strings. However, despite such revolutionary employment of the orchestra by Bizet in his final opera, it serves for the most part as merely an accompaniment, a supporting background. As we shall see in the next section, our psychological concept of the “freedom of romantic expression” cannot be complete without a complete lack of musical restraint, which entails releasing the orchestra itself from its cage, in which it arduously struggles to be set free.
Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924): Love Duet from Madama Butterfly (1904)
The great Italian composer Giacomo Puccini actually began his compositional career producing music for the church, but not long after turned to opera. Puccini probably realized early on that he could never fulfill the modest and reserved conventions of church music. We see this all too clearly in Madama Butterfly, an opera telling of the ill-fated love between an American captain and an innocent little Japanese girl. Indeed, the Love Duet which powerfully concludes Act I exhibits a complete absence of emotional control; here everything is unleashed. As the music enters our ears it splits open our mind and releases our subconscious, which tortures us with divine flames of catharsis. Oh how we cry and tremble! Within our heart an indescribable fear is realized, and yet we cannot tear ourselves away from the music, until it gradually consumes our soul. Aside from the chest-splitting vocal passages which Puccini is so well-known for, another major factor which gives Puccinian operas their unique feel is the extraordinary role that is performed by the orchestra. It is almost as if the orchestra itself is a narrator, recounting the story as the characters play it out in real time. At times it reinforces the plot, and at other times brings out subtle nuances and ominous foreshadows that the characters themselves do not even show. Finally, Puccini abandons the concept of absolute phrase structure with resolution. Every note, harmony, texture, timbre, every sound, exists to serve but one purpose: to portray the lovers’ fiery, single-minded passion for one another.
Here ends our journey, for now… On this tour through the history of the operatic love song we explored from the fiery turbulence of Handel, to the playful glee of Mozart, to the idyllic tenderness of Bizet, and finally to the passionate sensualism of Puccini. By their contributions the love song will never be the same. I sometimes wonder what romantic music would be like today had it not evolved from the Baroque times. Would we still be singing something like: “Oh my love, thou art like Venus (in other words, “sexy”). And I watch you, upon the heights of Mount Olympus (in other words, “from my balcony”)”? So this Valentine’s season, however you decide to express your passion musically for your significant other, whether through a soft, slow jazz CD or a guitar ballad that you wrote yourself, appreciate how much sweat and blood it cost those before you to buy you such privilege of free, uncensored expression. Remember the noble works of the great masters of opera.