The paradox of "secret love" in music: from Berg to Doris Day

Posted on Thu, 2014-01-16 16:32 by Opera Explorer

Ahead of tomorrow's concert at St David's Hall, songs of "secret love" have compromised their clandestine aims - and inspired audiences and musicians for centuries…

From the Classics to the present day, forbidden love has inspired some of the finest art, literature and music known to man. Doomed couples from the worlds of myth, theatre, history and opera, from Tristan and Isolde, Romeo and Juliet, Abelard and Heloise to Tosca and Cavaradossi, have moved audiences and readers to tears for centuries with the catharsis of their tragic fates. In the portrayal of forbidden love, far from merely drawing on their own amorous experiences, artists often use their creative talents with an ulterior motive: to directly (or rather, secretly) appeal to the object of their desire, be it with poetry, portraiture, or serenading their beloved in the early hours of the morning (this latter activity being a particularly risky pursuit that is often satirised in theatre and opera - for example, in Rostand's play, Cyrano de Bergerac, the large-nosed protagonist hides in the shadows, secretly wooing the beautiful Roxane on behalf of his tongue-tied, handsome friend). However, unlike a love letter or a portrait, whose secret message can be consumed, or deciphered by its intended recipient in private, there is something rather contradictory in the "secret" confession of love in music, which is intended to be heard by an audience. No matter how cryptically enciphered the sentiment, it is a public declaration of love, and perhaps all the more romantic for it.

In St David's Hall in Cardiff on Friday 17 January, the WNO Orchestra and soprano Emma Bell will launch our Fallen Women season in a concert of music inspired by unattainable women. The programme is a vivid testament to the creative impulse that unrequited and/or forbidden love can provide. When married composer Alban Berg met the 29-year-old Hannah Fuchs, he was plunged into a crisis, which, fortunately for audiences today, proved extremely inspiring. In his Lyric Suite for string orchestra, he used the musical alphabet to link and encrypt his initials with those of Hannah Fuchs (He used their initials translated into musical notation too). The secret message of the music is so abstract, aurally, that it wasnít detected until the 1970s, when American musicologist George Perle discovered a handful of letters from Berg to Hannah, as well as an annotated score in which his intensely personal declaration was made clear. Now we are all initiates into Berg's secret language of love; or at least, if we cannot immediately detect his "words", or musical cryptograms in performances, we are at least privy to the intense emotions that inform them.

The Wesendonck Songs represent a rare example of Wagner setting text that isn't his own, and considering the German composer's intensely controlling personality, this, if nothing else, is testament to the passion he felt for the wife of his benefactor, Otto Wesendonck. (The luscious, yearning melodies are also something of a giveaway ñ not to mention the fact that he later deployed the melodies of two of the songs - Im Treibhaus (In the greenhouse) and Träume (dreams) in Tristan and Isolde, arguably the most sensual of his operas, and which scandalized audiences with its celebration of carnal pleasure). Legend has it that the songs were used by Wagner to serenade his beloved Mathilde - and their mutual infatuation led to the breakup of Wagner's marriage. So however serene and calm Wagner's songs may sound, and however sublime the imagery Mathildeís poetry conjures up, we know that this was the soundtrack to an extremely turbulent love affair. Finally, Symphonie Fantastique by Berlioz. After several failed attempts at wooing Irish actress Harriet Smithson, French composer Hector Berlioz intended to win her over with this utterly bizarre, opium-fuelled homage, and, unbelievably, it succeeded! The composer and the "Ophelia" of his dreams married in 1833. One can't help but feel sorry for Harriet, the unsuspecting muse, who in Berlioz's programme notes to the symphony, is almost unmistakeable as the tormenting image that "disturbs the artist's peace of mind" everywhere he goes; from the country, to a grand ball, a macabre Witches' Sabbath. This unique work is perhaps the least subtly veiled attempt at seduction - and yet, the most successful: it is unknown whether the other "forbidden loves" of the programme were ever consummated, but they certainly inspired the composers to create some of their greatest works.

"Me and Mrs Wesendonck"

The ever-popular theme of the "secret" musical serenade shows no sign of stopping. The 1970s soul classic sung by Billy Paul, "Me and Mrs Jones" has been covered and sampled by numerous contemporary artists, including Robbie Williams and Michael Buble. (Mrs Wesendonck doesn't quite have the same ring to it, but I'm sure Wagner could have sympathised with Billy's sentiments, 120 years on!) The fantastically witty Neil Hannon, lead singer of The Divine Comedy, creates a spoof of the verbose-yet-cripplingly-shy lover in his song "Everybody Knows Except You". In the video to this song, Hannon plays a whimsical romantic poet-figure yearning for his beloved. As he describes the increasing numbers of those who know of his undying love, the situation takes on ludicrous proportions: "I told the passers by / I made a small boy cry / And I'll get through to you / If it's the last thing that I do. In the video which may all be a fantasy - the poet is, thankfully successful in his romantic aims, presumably dropping his campaign of awareness soon afterwards.

Without wishing to sound insensitive, we cannot underestimate the cultural benefits of a healthy dose of unrequited love, as you will hopefully see at St David's Hall on Friday! And on that note, perhaps it's best to leave you with the lovely Doris Day, who sings of her "Secret Love", and croons the paradox to perfection: "Now at last my heart's an open door /And my secret love's no secret any more!"

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