Classical Music Couples Throughout History : Deceptive Cadence Just in time for Valentine's Day, commentator Miles Hoffman highlights the most notable of classical music couples.

Classical Music's Greatest Love Stories, On And Offstage

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Classical music is filled with great love stories, including this one.


MARTIN: This is the "Romeo And Juliet" overture by Tchaikovsky. Their romance was fictional. But for Valentine's Day we have asked music commentator Miles Hoffman to tell us about some real-life love stories from the world of classical music.

Good morning, Miles.

MILES HOFFMAN, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: All right. So what is the best, most beautiful musical love story you can think of? No pressure.

HOFFMAN: (Laughter) No pressure. It's a tough choice. There are so many. You know, the thing about fictional love stories in music is that - especially in opera - most of them very badly, you know, with the lovers singing heart-rending arias just before they die. But in...

MARTIN: Right. Someone takes poison. Someone kills himself.

HOFFMAN: Yeah, yeah. And then they sing...

MARTIN: (Laughter).

HOFFMAN: But in real life...


HOFFMAN: But in real life, there have been tons of musical couples who have fallen in love and lived happily ever after - at least happily for a long while. I suppose my No. 1 couple, historically, would have to be Robert and Clara Schumann.



HOFFMAN: "You, my soul - you, my heart - you, my rapture - oh, you, my pain. You, my world in which I live - my heaven, you, to which I aspire."

That was Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau singing the song "Widmung," or "Dedication", which is one of a set of songs that Robert Schumann wrote as a wedding present for his wife Clara.

MARTIN: That was pretty good - pretty good present. Did it stop after the honeymoon, or did he keep writing inspired by her?

HOFFMAN: No, no, no, no. First of all, in that year, the year they were married, Robert Schumann wrote over 130 songs, almost all of them inspired by his feelings for Clara.

MARTIN: We should note - Clara herself was a talented musician. Right?

HOFFMAN: She was a great musician. She was, by all accounts, one of the greatest pianists of the 19th century. She was also a first-rate composer. And when she wasn't on tour, playing lots and lots of concerts, she managed to have eight children and to take care of all the family business and financial matters. So she was kind of a superwoman, Rachel.

MARTIN: Right.

HOFFMAN: The bad news, I'm afraid, is that the Schumanns didn't live happily ever after. Robert had suffered attacks of mental illness for many years. And after he attempted suicide in 1854, he was committed to a mental institution, and that's where he stayed for the last two years of his life.

MARTIN: OK - So not exactly a happy ending. But just for variety's sake, is there a famous musical couple whose story you could share - some folks who may have had a happier love story?

HOFFMAN: I - yeah. The composer Benjamin Britten and the great English tenor Peter Pears met in 1937, and they remained life partners and musical partners for almost 40 years, until Britten's death in 1976.


PETER PEARS: (Singing in Italian).

HOFFMAN: That's an excerpt from a set of songs called the "Michelangelo Sonnets" (ph). Benjamin Britten wrote the songs in 1940 for his partner Peter Pears, and that was Pears we just heard singing...


HOFFMAN: ...With Britten at the piano in fact, yeah.

MARTIN: And did Britten write other music for him - for Pears?

HOFFMAN: That would be putting it mildly (laughter). Peter Pears was Britten's great love, but he was also his great inspiration. Britten wrote many songs for Pears, and he wrote leading roles for Peter Pears in at least 10 of his operas, including "Peter Grimes," "Death In Venice," "Albert Herring," "Billy Budd," and on and on. It was also for Pears that Britten wrote the tenor part in one of - what I think is one of his most moving works, and that was the great "War Requiem."

MARTIN: So this amazing personal love story and also a musical partnership.

HOFFMAN: Yeah. And the Britten "War Requiem" - that piece actually provides a thread running through our conversation today.

MARTIN: OK. How so?

HOFFMAN: Britten wrote the tenor part in the "War Requiem" for Peter Pears. He wrote the baritone part in the requiem for Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, whom we heard singing the Schumann song a few moments ago.


HOFFMAN: He wrote the soprano part for the Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya. And Vishnevskaya is one half of the next musical couple I was going to mention for our Valentine's Day celebration...

MARTIN: Oh, well, look at you, Miles, with the throughline.

HOFFMAN: (Laughter).

MARTIN: All right. Let's listen.


GALINA VISHNEVSKAYA: (Singing in Latin).

HOFFMAN: That's Galina Vishnevskaya - just a brief snippet from Benjamin Britten's "War Requiem."

MARTIN: Is there a love story there? Who was the great love of Vishnevskaya's life?

HOFFMAN: That would be the great Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, my old boss. Rostropovich and Vishnevskaya met in 1955 when Vishnevskaya was a star with the Bolshoi Theatre, which was the top opera company in the Soviet Union. Four days after they met, Rachel, they got married.


HOFFMAN: And they stayed married - yeah. Vishnevskaya said that Rostropovich tried to seduce her for four days endlessly and that he was successful.

MARTIN: And she caved after four days? Wow.

HOFFMAN: (Laughter).

MARTIN: Some serious...

HOFFMAN: They stayed married for 52 years. They had two children, and they stayed married until Rostropovich died in 2007. And I can tell you from personal observation that it wasn't always the calmest or the most peaceful of marriages, but I don't think they could live without each other.

MARTIN: So theirs was a personal love story, obviously. Did they ever play together? Did they ever make music together?

HOFFMAN: They did. Let's listen.


VISHNEVSKAYA: (Singing in Russian).

MARTIN: Great love stories that turned into great music.

HOFFMAN: Yeah. That's Galina Vishnevskaya singing the music of Sergei Rachmaninoff, "Mournful Waters" (ph) and the pianist in the recording is her husband Mstislav Rostropovich. Rostropovich may have been the world's greatest cellist, but he was also a wonderful pianist. And he accompanied Vishnevskaya in countless recitals over the years. They were quite a couple.

MARTIN: Miles Hoffman is the founder and violist of the American Chamber Players and the distinguished visiting professor of chamber music at the Schwob School of Music in Columbus, Ga.

Miles, thanks as always.

HOFFMAN: Thank you, Rachel.


Copyright © 2018 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.