Friday, February 12, 2016

I Heard it in a Love Song - The Love Song in History

Even before the Biblical "Song of Solomon," love has been a major theme in poetry and song.   Throughout history some of the best musical works have been dedicated to one beloved lady (most composers and poets were men).

Middle Ages

Guillaume de Machaut (ca. 1300 - 1377) was an innovative poet and musician of  Fourteenth-Century France.  In the tradition of the troubadours and trouvères of the previous century, his songs lamented unrequited love or listed the admirable qualities of his lady love.  His artistry is considered the height of the courtly love tradition.  Some of his poetic forms were also used by his slightly younger contemporary, Geoffrey Chaucer.

18th Century

Opera, staged plays with music, reached its maturity in the 18th Century with the operas of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791).  His most popular operas portrayed love relationships amid comic circumstances, including mistaken identity and the mischief of jealous rivals.

  • Così fan tutte:  Two sisters are tricked into believing their lovers are away at war.
  • Don Giovanni:  Don Juan toys with the affections of the wrong father's daughter.
  • The Marriage of Figaro (Le Nozze di Figaro):  Figaro's upcoming marriage is endangered by the machinations of jealous rivals and mistaken identity.

19th Century

Love-themed operas continued to be popular, but in the 19th Century they usually end with the death of at least one of the star-crossed lovers, sometimes from consumption, (tuberculosis), the scourge of 19th-Century Europe.  Somehow the soprano heroine manages to sing lovely arias right up until her final moments while suffering from the deadly lung disease!  Songs (arias) from these operas became popular songs of the day.

La Traviata, an opera by Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) features Violetta, a high-class Parisian prostitute, who falls in love with a wealthy suitor, Alfredo. Alfredo's father interferes, and the couple are separated until just before her death from consumption.

La Bohème, an opera by Giacomo Puccini, shows another side of Parisian life:  In the Latin Quarter, starving artists fall in love amid the perils of poverty.  Sadly, the soprano, Mimi, also dies from consumption.

Lucia di Lammermoor, (1797-1848) by Gaetano Donizetti, portrays another doomed soprano.  This time Lucia, having been forced into a loveless marriage, goes insane during opera's most famous "mad scene."

On the lighter side, operetta gave audiences more light-hearted stories with happy endings.  The masters of operetta were Gilbert & Sullivan of England.  The stories are in the same vein as some of the classic Mozart operas: comic misadventures, sometimes with biting social commentary, got in the way of true love, but by the end all was well.

Popular songs in the 19th Century (sometimes called "parlor songs") looked at every aspect of society, including war, slavery, religion, and sentimental feelings of home and family.   Every middle class home had a piano, and songs were published by the hundreds.  Traveling troupes popularized songs that would be performed at home by amateurs on upright pianos.  The most famous songster of the 19th Century was Stephen Foster (1826 - 1864), whose "Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair" is still well known today.

20th Century

In classical music, all kinds of topics could be sung about: politics, history, and of course, love.  For memorable love songs, a new genre would displace opera as the staged love story:  musical theatre.   Broadway musicals almost always have a happy ending, with the soprano and tenor overcoming whatever obstacles the alto and baritone threw their way.  Teams such as Rodgers & Hammerstein and Lerner & Loewe penned memorable songs for Broadway hit musicals.

Musicals from Hollywood also portrayed themes of love, and like Broadway musicals the lead singers are joined in love at the end.  At the height of the genre, 1930s and 1940s musicals helped a struggling populace forget about their worries in The Great Depression and World War 2.

More modern musicals usually also have a love theme, though it is no longer a given that there will be a happy ending.

21st Century
The Love Song is alive and well in the 21st Century.  Some of the best singers of the new century have made their fortunes singing about love. Modern-day crooners include Bruno Mars ("Just the Way You Are" and "Grenade," from Doo-Wops & Hooligans),  Michael Bublé  (To Be Loved), Adele.

The Music Collection has these compact discs and many of Billboard's Top 50 Love Songs of All Time.

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