We asked a few of our romantic musicologists and Con staff to share their favourite chansons d’amour to get you in the mood for St Valentine’s Day.
One of the earliest love songs of note is from Claudio Monteverdi’s Pur ti miro (I adore you) from L’incoronazione di Poppea (1642) (The Coronation of Poppea), first performed in 1643 in Venice. Dr Alan Maddox, Senior Lecturer in Musicology, chose this as his favourite love duet.
“Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppea is notorious as one of the few operas in which the bad guys win. Having disposed of his wife, the Roman emperor Nero sings this show-stopping love duet with his unscrupulous new squeeze, Poppea. Even though the duet probably isn’t by Monteverdi (it was likely added for a revival a few years later), it shows why opera went on to be one of the most passionate, sensual art forms in Western culture.”
Dr Maddox also chose Schubert’s lyrical Ständchen (Serenade) from the song cycle Swansong. “It is among the best loved and most ravishing songs ever written for voice and piano. Imagine having this sung beneath your window.”
Dr David Larkin, Senior Lecturer in Musicology, chose a number of his favourite love songs from the world of opera and the romantic period of music from the late 1700s.
“Long before Sinatra, Elvis or Taylor Swift wooed audiences with their love songs, classical composers had written gorgeous tunes exploring every facet of romance, from the first avowal to the last fond backward glance. Mozart’s Don Giovanni has had conquests all over Europe – 1003 in Spain alone – and one can understand why, when we listen to his meltingly simple serenade Deh vieni alla finestra (Come to the window), with which he aims to win his latest inamorata.
“Robert Schumann discovered a rich vein of song composition in 1840, the year in which he finally married his beloved Clara, in the teeth of her father’s wishes. The song Im wunderschönen Monat Mai (In the beautiful month of May), is a haunting lyric about a young poet who has summoned up the courage to declare his love; the song famously ends in an ‘unfinished’ fashion, a beautiful symbol of unfulfilled desire that leaves us to imagine the outcome.
“Giuseppe Verdi’s immortal pair of lovers, the ardent Alfredo and the world-weary courtesan Violetta, get off to a rocky start in La Traviata: he declares his passion, but she friendzones him in her coquettish response; nonetheless, she can’t get his song out of her head, and they soon get together.
“The story of Tristan and Isolde, the Cornish knight and Irish princess he is wooing on behalf of his uncle, is a famous tale of infidelity raised to sublime heights in Wagner’s operatic version: the excerpt here is taken from the heart of their extended love duet, where they celebrate the coming of the night when they can be together.
“Love is not always kind, of course: in the seductive opening number sung by Bizet’s heroine, Carmen emphasises her fickleness, and warns: ‘if you love me, look out for yourself’, which when combined with the habanera rhythm, makes her absolutely irresistible. And finally, in Tosca Puccini has given us an unforgettable vocal picture of a man, about to be executed, who recalls an encounter with his beloved, and yearns the more for the life he is leaving.”
Associate Professor Gerard Willems, a man never short of words (being a pianist) favours love songs without words. “Love needs no words.” He thinks Sergei Rachmanioff’s Vocalise is pure unadulterated love, particularly the performance by Evgeny Kissin (an apt name for a romantic musician). Willems also loves Robert Schumann’s Kinderszenen (Scene’s from Childhood), performed by Vladimir Horowitz. “This absolutely shows Robert Schumann’s love for his own children.”
Dr Jadey O’Regan, our new Scholarly Teaching Fellow in Contemporary Music, seemed the perfect choice to choose five more recent love songs to ease you into the international day of romance.
“God Only Knows (1966) is perhaps the Beach Boys’ most well-known love song (even Paul McCartney has said that it’s his favourite!). However, it is a complicated love song – after all, the opening line sings ‘I may not always love you’ before qualifying that she’ll ‘never need to doubt it’. The second verse is vulnerable and restless, admitting that without her, ‘the world would show nothing to me, so what good would living do me?’ Supporting the melody is Brian Wilson’s sparkling arrangement of horns, strings, pianos, organs and woven vocal parts, making the song rich and beautifully textured. Carl Wilson’s vocal so effortlessly combines the hopefulness of young love, and the loss of innocence as we grow into adulthood – a theme that carries through the rest of the Pet Sounds album.
“Talking Book’s opening track You are the Sunshine of My Life (1973) is one of Stevie Wonder’s most gentle and sweet declarations of love. While the lyrics celebrate the simplicity of new and giddy love, the music underneath showcases Wonder’s trademark of harmonic and melodic complexity. From the gentle percussion, the close-harmonies of the backing vocals, to the joyous leaping of the melody, You Are the Sunshine of my Life seamlessly combines sophistication and accessibility, and unsurprisingly, the song shot to #1 on the US Billboard charts.
“Weezer’s Buddy Holly (1994) is the perfect love song for nerds, and in 1995, Rivers Cuomo was essentially King of the Nerds in the world of alternative music. The song’s sweet nostalgia, crunchy guitars, and wry sense of humour is a perfect enmeshment of the sound of power pop in the mid-1990s. The song also features a cute and clever Spike Jonze film clip which sees the band insert themselves quite seamlessly into an episode of Happy Days – even The Fonz likes this song, so what higher praise do you need? This song was so infectious it broke through to the mainstream, reaching #17 on the US Billboard charts, and #12 on the UK singles chart.
“Beyoncé’s Love on Top (2011) is a love song that acknowledges both the work that goes into maintaining a relationship, while also celebrating the kindness and joy that comes with long-time love. The song’s sound is a loving pastiche of late 1980s/early 1990s R&B sounds, while also remaining quintessentially ‘Queen Bey’. The way Beyoncé uses her impressive vocals talents in this song makes it impossible for a listener not to feel the rising elation in her melodies, in part supported by the four dizzying key-changes as the choruses repeat. It may not be one of her biggest hits (reaching #20 on the US Billboard and Australian ARIA charts), but it is certainly one of her best love songs.
“While not as successful as the gloriously poptastic (that’s a proper academic term, right?) Call Me Maybe (2011), I Really Like You (2015) is a love song that explores the always giddy and often awkward stage between the crush and the relationship. The song uses all the hallmarks of clever top 40 pop – the slick production, the word repetition, the washy synths – and when combined with Jepsen’s coquettish vocals, makes for a sugar rush that’s as sweet as first love.”
Lauren Booker, who works in our PARADISEC Research Centre, names her favourite songs for lovers. “When thinking about my favourite love tunes I was going to offer a sweeping romantic duet from La Boheme, but then realised what truly gets me misty eyed and full of heart are the following songs. They range from musings on the precarious and elusive nature of love – to getting your heart completely demolished to being a sad and lovesick clown who makes some really bad inadvisable choices. We’ve all been there. La commedia è finita!”
- Wanda Jackson – Funnel of Love
- Bessie Smith – Baby won’t you please come home
- Billie Holiday – All of me
- Thelonious Monk – The man I love
- Karen Dalton – It hurts me too
- Lydia Mendoza – Mal hombre
- Chavela Vargas – La Llorona
- Ruggero Leoncavallo – Vesti la giubba from Pagliacci
Bonnie Tyler’s Total Eclipse of the Heart is a favourite of our Opera Coordinator Marrianne Carter. “It was the 1980s: a time of big hair and even bigger love.”
Our Research Manager Christa Jacenyik-Trawöger chose Tim Minchin’s If I Didn’t Have You as her favourite love song. “It’s such a weird song and an antidote to the saccharine of St Valentine’s Day love songs. Just brilliant.”
And if you want to hear the most heart-wrenching of all songs for a broken heart, listen to Henry Purcell’s lament When I Am Laid in Earth from Dido and Aeneas (late 1680s). Sung by Dido, after her betrayal by her lover Aeneas and just before she stabs herself, is a hands-down winner. (A personal favourite of the Con’s Webmaster, mainly due to the stunning singing of Andreas Scholl.) Swoon.