Elgar, Grieg and Borodin all turned to their art to express their affection, in a more literal take on their movement
Romantic is the term used to describe the music written when the classical framework was abandoned in favour of a more free-flowing style inspired by emotions, the impact of people, places, events even.
Tchaikovsky springs immediately to mind. So, too, those other giants of the 19th century — Schubert, Mendelssohn, Brahms.
But, of course, the term romantic also applies to those pieces that were written with amorous intent. There’s no better place to start in a consideration of those than with Edward Elgar’s Salut d’Amour.
The year was 1886. Elgar was finding his way as a musician in the English city of Worcester, doing his best to make a living at it and not always succeeding. He taught piano to help make ends meet.
Alice Roberts was the daughter of a well-off but by then deceased military veteran. Her time was taken up caring for her elderly mother in their sizeable home just outside town. By way of diversion, she signed up for lessons.
One thing led to another, and they eventually became engaged. She wrote him a poem. He wrote her Love’s Greeting — Salut d’Amour.
The Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg married his cousin, Nina Hagerup, a well-known soprano, in June 1867, just days before his 24th birthday. Their daughter Alexandra was born the following April. That summer was special for him. On holiday in Denmark, he composed his masterpiece, one of the great staples of the Romantic repertoire, his Piano Concerto in A Minor.
But tragedy wasn’t far away. Alexandra fell victim to meningitis in May 1869. She was their only child. Music may have brought Edvard and Nina together — he wrote songs for her to sing and marvelled at her interpretation of them — but it also drove them apart.
Nina had stepped back from her career after they married and struggled to come to terms with a life constrained by domesticity. Eventually, the stress took its toll and they separated for a time.
Their marriage really only stabilised when they built a villa in Bergen, the first permanent home of their own.
At Nina’s suggestion, they called the house overlooking the fjord Troldhaugen, or Hill of the Trolls, an unusual choice perhaps.
Grieg recalled their silver anniversary there in a piece for piano that he wrote as a present for Nina. He called it The Well-Wishers Are Coming, before deciding Wedding Day at Troldhaugen was a better choice. The old romantic had woven his spell.
Another who turned to his art to express his affection was the Russian composer Alexander Borodin. He and his wife, Ekaterina, were on holiday in the summer of 1881, exactly 20 years after they had become engaged. His second String Quartet, composed then, was his anniversary gift.
Borodin was a cellist so it is no surprise that it is a lilting cello to the fore as the most deliciously romantic melody unfolds. This nocturne — the quartet’s third movement — got another lease of life in the 1950s musical Kismet as the showstopper And This Is My Beloved.
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