When Bo Derek, in the movie "10," described making love to the accompaniment of Ravel's "Bolero," record sales of this recently neglected piece skyrocketed. Which proves that, even in the era of rock and raunch, classical music effectively remains this Valentine's Day the tastiest food of love.
This symbiotic relationship between music and desire was recognized -- and warned against -- long before Tipper Gore and the Parents Music Research Center (PMRC) took aim at pornographic record jackets and steamy lyrics. More than 2,300 years ago, Aristotle sternly criticized the popularity of what was then called the Lydian mode (roughly equivalent to our major scale), arguing that its sound encouraged lewdness and led to dissipation.
The modern lover, however, bombarded with aural chewing gum by everything from Muzak to TV commercials, has become desensitized to the decadent sensuality lurking in our major scale, and is hard-pressed to find music to inspire moments of intimacy and rapture. Pop artists like George Michael and Madonna sing about sex constantly, and perhaps because of this, their music lacks the subtlety essential for seductiveness. On the other end of the spectrum, "easy listening" favorites like Lionel Richie and Kenny Rogers, while pleasant enough, have so saturated supermarkets and dentists' offices that their music has grown too mundane for amorous occasions.
In desperation, some would-be Romeos and Juliets search their FM dials for the classical stations they usually avoid, but this too is usually of little avail. Hoping to find music to complement candlelight and champagne, the lover too often finds only prim baroque concertos, grim liturgical works or late-romantic symphonic circuses.
Happily, however, the classical music section of your local record store abounds with music perfect for every intimate occasion, from first date to proposals of marriage, from chaste kisses to an erotic pas de deux. Standard Opening Lines First, there are the familiar, and hence overused, romantic standards of classical music. Vying for first place in this category are Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" and the Pachelbel Canon in D Major. "The Four Seasons" well deserves its popularity; it was revolutionary in its own time and continues to delight and surprise today. But its shifts in mood and tempo make it unsuitable for all but schizophrenic love play, and the "Winter" concerto can chill even the most heated ardors.
The piece also is a little too familiar. The ideal should be to find music that brings something special and unknown to the first sweet shivers of intimacy. This rule of thumb unfortunately rules out the Pachelbel Canon, which by no fault of its own has been used to hawk everything from BMWs to bathroom tissue. With all these mundane associations, it may be preferable to leave this piece to the material world that captured it.
Other works have briefly caught the public's ear as great romantic themes, without being absorbed into the gristmills of Madison Avenue and Muzak Inc. The slow movement of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major gathered a devoted following as the theme to the film "Elvira Madigan." This movement, like many Mozart piano concerto second movements, combines spacious textures, chromatically undulating harmonies and playfully embellished melodic lines. The result is music both powerful and serene. Also of note from Mozart's pen is the adagio from his Wind Serenade No. 10 in D Flat, immortalized in the film "Amadeus" by Salieri's worshipful description: "Such longing ... such unfulfillable longing!"
Three other composers whose works rarely play in elevators are Chopin, Beethoven and J.S. Bach.
Chopin, who carried on a notorious affair with female novelist George Sand until his early death from tuberculosis, wrote music that well matched his brief, tempestuous life. His Ballade in G Minor alternates between explosive flurries of runs and arpeggios, and sustained, elegiac melodies.
The Chopin Preludes for Piano are tantalizing musical bonbons, each one rich and complete, each one leaving the listener hungry for another taste.
If you are similarly skilled, the Preludes provide ample inspiration, especially accompanied with an assortment of your beloved's favorite chocolates.
Serious Moonlight Beethoven sometimes is thought of as, in Debussy's words, "a man so unsociable that he went deaf just so he could compose his late string quartets." However, those who think of Ludwig solely as the stern dictator of the "Grosse Fuge" and "Hammerklavier" Sonata forget that even he had an Immortal Beloved once, and was in his early years considered an embarrassingly passionate, frivolous composer. Sort of like Prince, without the dance moves or sequins.
Beethoven's "Pathe'tique" Sonata, Op. 13, is turgid with youthful passion and yearning, as is the almost-too-familiar "Moonlight" Sonata, Op. 27, No. 2. These pieces transform an ordinary evening into a hot, still night, waiting for some stray spark to ignite a wild, all-consuming blaze. Be prepared: Both of these sonatas burst into musical flames without warning while you and your beloved may still be just gently smoldering.
The slow third movement from Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 in D Minor ("Choral") is so sincerely beautiful that it provides a perfect touchstone: If your partner remains unmoved, you may rest assured that little love courses through that heart. On the other hand, this piece also can give rise to confessions and declarations that shouldn't be taken too seriously.
Stirring Passion in a Saint J.S. Bach, according to cellist Pablo Casals, was a "volcano"; this at least partly explains how Bach could have sired 21 children in his lifetime. Bach was a composer of many passions, and not only those spiritual Passions of St. Matthew and St. John. His orchestral suites are brimming with languorous slow movements, including the famous Air for the G String, which has to be the most explicit title in music.
Bach's "Goldberg Variations," originally composed to cure a patron's insomnia, have been reported to produce an entirely opposite effect among ardent sweethearts. Glenn Gould's piano interpretation of the Variations, rerecorded shortly before the eccentric performer's death, is particularly tender; on the compact disc release, however, Gould's infamous random humming is distractingly audible.
Another Bach performance indispensable to any modern lover's secret collection is Frans Bru ggen's reading of the Trio Sonata for Two Flutes, BWV 1039. The performance uses original baroque flutes, flavoring the piece with the breathy, expressive tone quality of these early instruments. Finding Romance in Romanticism After romanticism came to full bloom in the 19th century, and sex was confronted openly in the music of the 20th century, the subtle fun of musical seduction and innuendo was greatly diminished. Much of the music from this era vacillates between silly hyperbole and neurotic "expressionism." Sex became a metaphor for the dialectic of man versus nature, good versus evil, the Industrial Revolution and all that other rubbish.
Among the happy exceptions: Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scheherazade." This once-staunch warhorse of the symphonic repertoire recently has fallen into disuse, as conductors tackle more "serious" modern works. This represents a windfall for lovers in search of music untainted by familiarity. Read from "The Ruba'iya't" of Omar Khayya'm and bask in "Scheherazade's" orchestral opulence, its exoticism and its magnificent intensity.
Wagner's heroic opera "Tristan und Isolde," also from this era, is virtually the definitive musical statement on emotional and physical love. This superhuman masterpiece sustains harmonic tensions without release or respite for its entire 3 1/2-hour duration. Should you not be up to the formidable physical demands of such a performance, you may opt for a recording of only the Prelude and Liebestod ("Love-Death": get the picture?).
"Tristan und Isolde" will swirl you in shimmering orchestrations, overpowering melodies and restless, churning chromaticism. There is a particularly breathtaking moment near the end, when the heroine Isolde, swallowed up by her surging, killing passion, is literally drowned out (almost unknown for a Wagnerian soprano) by torrential waves of symphonic sound. This is rapture that few can withstand.
Killing Me Loudly With His Song If love just bores you unless it has an invigorating accent of obsession and self-destructiveness, steep yourself and your lover in the sonic depredations of Mahler's 10th Symphony, especially the adagio first movement. Mahler composed this anguished work after discovering that his wife was philandering with Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius (may you be more fortunate). Leonard Bernstein conducts the Israeli Philharmonic through a powerfully affecting performance of the adagio movement, together with Janet Baker's rendition of Mahler's "Kindertotenlieder," on Columbia Records. Just add stark shadows, unfiltered cigarettes and plenty of angst.
Or, if you're obsessed, self-destructive and alone, excellent wallowing music may be found in Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6 in B Minor (the so-called "Pathe'tique"), or in almost any piece by Tchaikovsky in a minor key, for that matter. Stare at the image of your beloved, have lots of handkerchiefs on hand, and mortify yourself to plaintive woodwinds, sorrowful strings and blubbering brass. Should you become moved by some emotion more noble than self-pity, listen to Tchaikovsky's rhapsodic tone poem "Romeo and Juliet."
Those who prefer depravity to depression will find no better accompaniment for bacchanals than Stravinsky's revolutionary ballet "Le Sacre du Printemps" (The Rite of Spring). This compelling paean to sacrificial orgies begins sweetly enough, with a comely bassoon call in high register, but quickly descends into feverish revelry, punctuated by thick chords in the strings, intensified by chattering woodwinds and lusty horns.
For gentler lovemaking or romantic contemplation, the evocative piano music of Debussy and Satie provides a tender counterpoint. Satie's "Gymnopedies," inspired by Grecian vase paintings, and Debussy's "Arabesques" are elegant, cool and melodically sensuous pieces, perfect for late weekend afternoons. Debussy was an early proponent of the subtle eroticism found in Japanese ukiyo-e prints; and the artistic values expressed in those prints are clearly audible in Debussy compositions such as "L'apres-midi d'un faune" and "Pelle'as et Me'lisande."
Songs From Love's Golden Age Though all of the works mentioned above surely will delight and satisfy, the rarest and most finely crafted gems of romantic music were cut long ago, in the courtly love tradition of the late medieval and Renaissance periods. From this time come some of the most sublime, tender expressions of earthly passion to be found anywhere in our Western cultural heritage.
Guillaume de Machaut, revered as both a great lyric poet and a masterly composer of chansons (one- to four-part songs), led a life from which great chivalrous legends are made. At the age of 70, reinvigorated by his idealized love for an ethereally beautiful young lady, Machaut reached his creative zenith, dedicating volumes of finely wrought chansons to his beloved.
Even if you don't understand medieval French, the sweet ardor of the words is palpably expressed in the musical settings: lilting melodies, carefree contrapuntal lines, playful ornamentation and an emphasis on the physical beauty of the human voice. And what ardor there is! Savor the words to Machaut's "Comment qu'a moy":
No matter how far you are from me, my lady love, you are still near me in my thoughts both night and day. For memory brings me constantly your sovereign beauty, your graceful dress, your proud bearing, and the fresh hue of your skin ... these I see before me eternally.
They don't write 'em like that anymore.
Songs by Machaut and his contemporaries are imaginatively and appealingly presented in "The Art of Courtly Love," a medieval music primer performed by the Early Music Consort of London (EMI SLS 863). Other fine medieval chanson collections include "Douce Dame" by the Waverly Consort (Vanguard VSD 71179) and the "Romance of Medieval France" by New York Pro Musica (Decca DL 79431).
Raunch in the Renaissance In contrast to the chivalrous, almost ritualized love glorified in medieval song, pure physical pleasure is the driving force behind the words and music of the Renaissance. Consider the text of Monteverdi's madrigal, "Si ch'io vorrei morire":
Yes, I should like to die, now that I kiss, oh love, the beautiful mouth of my beloved one. Ah! dear sweet tongue, give me such moisture as will make me die ... Press me close to your white breast until I faint. Ah, mouth! ah, kisses! ah, tongue! I say again: yes, I should like to die.
If you consider that, during the Renaissance, "to die" was an extremely intimate way of saying "to have an orgasm," you realize that the Parents Music Research Center has very little to complain about regarding today's vapidly suggestive lyrics. In fact, many other Renaissance texts simply are unprintable here.
Not only are the words forthright and bawdy, but the musical underpinnings only intensify the sexual message of these songs. Languorous dissonances, violent shifts in texture, throbbing low-register chords and an endless variety of descriptive musical effects are expertly manipulated by composers like Monteverdi, Lassus and de Wert to aggravate the carnal longings of their listeners.
If this sounds good to you, you will find many lusty performances of Monteverdi's madrigals and other Renaissance secular pieces, such as "Love and Dalliance in Renaissance France" (Turnabout Tv-S 34380), "Pleasures of the Royal Courts" (Nonesuch H-71326), "Amorous Dialogues of the Renaissance" (Nonesuch H-71272), Monteverdi: "Madrigali Erotici" (Oiseau-Lyre DSDL 703) and the wonderfully titled "Kissing, Drinking, and Insect Songs" (Turnabout 34485). Drink tawny port, share thick-crusted bread, and kiss, oh love, the beautiful mouth of your beloved.
Note that almost nothing has been said here about today's music. It is a shame, really, that so little music written today inspires real romance and sensuality, beyond the pallid encounters of prom might slow dances and singles bar one-night stands.
What most popular songs lack is subtlety. Lyrics veer between mawkish sentimentality and barked-out sex commands. The music, composed with little care or delight, is propped up with glassy synthesizer overlays or punishing guitar riffs. It may vent hostility or usefully voice alienation, but it has little to do with love.
The sadness in this is that so little refuge remains from the world of "getting and spending"; we expect art (including music) to give us that refuge. Inevitably, these days, in the limited time we devote to emotional and physical communion with another, we must seek our refuge with music from long ago, from a world entirely different from our own.
Steven Law holds a bachelor's degree in music composition from the University of California at Davis, and a law degree from Columbia. He currently works as a legislative staffer in the U.S. Senate, and owns Prometheus Music Inc., a recording and publishing company "devoted to promoting modern music with beauty and passion."