This is an essay I wrote for a class I took in the spring of 2017 titled “Art Song.” Since I’ve now got a bit of a tradition of posting my essays once the courses are over, I figured I may as well.
Love is an integral part of the human experience and a source of inspiration for a vast portion of all the music created by mankind. Love is almost always treated with positivity, but at times this positivity goes too far, and the loved one becomes less a person than an ideal, a concept that cannot exist in reality. The exact nature of this idealization, however, has changed over time, from the Renaissance poetry of Petrarch in which the beloved is perfect and untouchable to the Romantic poems of Heine and Hugo, when that perfection is acknowledged as fragile, ready to break with the lightest touch, and beyond that to a point when the idealized love has broken and twisted, as in Viardot’s “Hai Luli.”
Our examination begins in the 1300s, with Francesco Petrarca (anglicized as “Petrarch”), the most famous poet of the Italian Renaissance. A priest, Petrarch became famous, basically, for seeing a woman – Laura – attending church and falling deeply in love. His was a courtly love, a distant affair: she was married, and he was ordained to remain celibate. The poems that resulted from his infatuation have been set to music many times, but the most famous setting of them is Liszt’s song cycle, “Tre sonetti di Petrarca.” The poetry around which the first song is based describes the pain of separation that Petrarch felt; the second and third, however, focus on the positive side of that love.
In the second – “Benedetto sia ‘l giorno” (“Blessed be the day”) – Petrarch devoted the entirety of the first stanza to a gushing thankfulness, asking blessings for the ‘day, month, year, season, time, hour, and moment’ when he first saw his love, and beyond that, ‘the beautiful country and place where I first saw her eyes’ (paraphrasing from the Kline translation of the text). In keeping with this gushing feel, Liszt’s setting of the text moves through this portion quickly, leaving the singer only eighth-note-rest in which to take a fittingly quick breath. The third stanza, however, comes only after a long pause in the vocal line, and moves slower than the earlier portions of the song; Petrarch remembering once again that his love is a distant one, a saddened recall of “the sighs, and the tears.” In the fourth and final stanza, though, the pace picks up once again, sad thoughts replaced once more by adoration.
The third song in the cycle, however, is the most characteristic of this period of courtly love. The poetry sets the stage: “I saw angelic virtue on earth/ and heavenly beauty on terrestrial soil,” it begins, and continues to describe “two lovely eyes that . . . made the sun a thousand times jealous.” Petrarch describes his love not as a woman but as an angel, a work of art delivered from Heaven. She is no more real to him than a beautiful sunset is to any of us: something that can be seen from afar, but never reached, never touched.
As time went on, however, this ideal changed: the Renaissance ended, and, eventually, the Romantics rose to prominence. Some of this idea remained: the objects of their love were still just that – objects – but the distance, once insurmountable, had closed to something in a way too small. Take, for example, Liszt’s setting of Heine’s poem, “Du bist wie eine Blume” (“Thou art like a flower”). The text begins in a manner similar to the Petrarchian style, describing the unnamed beloved as ‘pure, fair, and kind.’ The twist is quick to begin, with the ‘sorrow in my heart,’ but the true point of interest is in what form that sorrow takes: ‘I must then pray that God may preserve thee/ as pure and fair as now,’ the poem ends. In Liszt’s setting of the text, the instrumentation serves to emphasize this moment: as the singer says “Gott erhalte” (“God keep/preserve (thee)”) the piano, for the first time in the piece, falls silent. That earlier perfection of the beloved, though still there, is no longer held as an immutable fact; it is something that must be protected, by both the beholder and by God himself.
And yet, we are not done. The Romantics had changed this idea further still, evidenced in Hugo’s “Oh, quand je doers, viens auprés de ma..” (“Oh! when I sleep”). Of interest to us here is the third stanza, in which the text reads “Then on my lips . . . place a kiss, and transform from angel into woman” (Ezust). This idea is a French addition to the concept of the distant romantic love, and would go on to define ‘courtly love’ as a new subcategory of that concept. In the transformation from angel to women, triggered by the kiss, we see the true twist of the concept of courtly love: not only is the beloved’s heavenly status fragile, it is the deed of acting upon the love that does the damage.
Again, Liszt’s setting follows the poem well: the first stanza is underlaid by a calm, rolling piano line, portraying the dreaming state of the speaker. In the second stanza, however, the music accelerates, the piano and vocal lines both bringing more excitement to match the dream as it “become[s] radiant”. For the third stanza, the peaceful quality of the first stanza is brought back, but the chords are arpeggiated more clearly, granting a purity of sound to match the “flash of love” that the poet describes as “pure”. Once again, Liszt makes use of a silence in the piano line to highlight the words of the poem: as the vocalist goes through the phrase “et d’ange de viens femme” – “from angel into woman” they are, for that moment, alone: Liszt’s recognition of the importance of this single moment. It is the kiss, the moment of contact between the love and the lover, that marks that most important change.
To truly love their distant ideal, then, is to deliberately maintain that distance; to protect the perfection by refusing to sully it with their own mortality.
There is, however, an interesting twist on this concept, made quite visible in Xavier de Maistre’s untitled poem, set to music by Pauline Viardot as Hai Luli: the ‘heavenly perfection’ is expected, required, only of the female love. Rather than an aspect of heaven, the (male) love in the text has failed the speaker, “Perhaps he betrays his oath to me/ Beside a new lover” (Bamberger). Though, of course, the lover has not, in actuality, betrayed the speaker: instead, the poem is more of a plan for “If one day he should abandon me” than it is a response to actual events. Nonetheless, the fact that the love is treated as even capable of such horrible deeds is a sharp contrast to the (feminine) descended angels of the other poetry.
The concept of the idealized love was so integral to the Romantic era of art that the term ‘romance’ has come, in colloquial usage, to refer to a moment of ideal love. That we need a specific term for that sort of love then implies that such an idea has fallen out of popular use; and, as the current state of popular music can attest, it has.
The manner in which humanity has idealized their distant loves has changed over time. At the beginning, there was an innocence to it: the beloved is something pure and holy, a stand-in for the most holy of women, the Virgin Mary. As time went on, though, the idealism shifted, and the perfection became something fragile, an eggshell-thin veneer of holiness which would be tarnished and broken by the slightest contact from the beholder. And then, finally, the concept broke entirely, and a poem that boils down to “he might leave me for another, and if he does, everybody burns” was penned: the love is utterly human, utterly fallible.
Anonymous translation of “Du bist wie eine Blume”