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Romance In the Air

piano keyboard with flowers
David Holifield
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Romance for Piano and Flowers

If you go purely by the definitions in music dictionaries, a “Romance” is simply a lyrical piece without lyrics. That’s it. Despite the modern-day application of the word to romantic movies (looking at you, Hallmark Channel) and romance novels, classical composers didn’t necessarily write Romances to convey a hearts and flowers holiday. They sometimes wrote Romances as simply a movement in larger works, and sometimes as stand-alone pieces.

Since February is seen as a “romantic” month, what with Valentine’s Day, (and ok, can we just admit the basic need to cuddle with someone just to keep warm?), I thought it would be an appropriate time to share some of my favorite Romances with you.

Going to have to start with one of the most romantic of the Romances, which had a very non-romantic origin. Antonín Dvořák was asked by Joseph Markus, the head of a theater in Prague, to write a piece for violin and orchestra. Markus premiered the Romance in F minor, Op. 11, in December of 1877, two years before the piece was published in two forms, the original with violin and orchestra, and another version for violin and piano. Here are violinist Itzhak Perlman and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Daniel Barenboim.

It could have easily been the soundtrack to a romantic movie, even though movies hadn’t even been invented when Dvořák wrote it.

Just as famous as Dvořák’s, Camille Saint-Saëns’s Romance in D-flat, Op. 37, tells a beautiful story, too, although this one feels more atmospheric than earthly. And like the Dvořák above, there’s nothing “romantic” behind the origins. The Franco-Prussian War ended and the Armistice of Versailles was signed in early 1871. Due to the on-going political unrest, however, Saint-Saëns feared for his safety and fled France for London soon after.

While there, he wrote this Romance and dedicated it to a well-known French flutist of the day. Amédée de Vroye loved it but also had to premiere the piece outside of France, traveling to Baden-Baden, Germany, in mid-1871. The flutist Emmanuel Pahud plays it with the Chamber Orchestra of Paris, conducted by François Leleux.

Lest you think the Europeans had cornered the market on Romances, American composer Amy Beach also wrote a Romance that gained a lot of favorable attention. The Romance for Violin and Piano, Op. 23, was composed in 1893 and dedicated to a leading female violinist of the day, Maud Powell. The two women premiered the piece later that year at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, which had a Women’s Music Congress to highlight the talents of women musicians. Both women also presented papers there.

We stay closer to home to hear two women perform the piece. Violinist Enchi Chang and pianist Saejin Yoo perform here under the auspices of the Longwood Symphony Orchestra.

The story goes that, after the first performance of the piece, the audience was so enthusiastic, they forced an immediate second complete performance.

One of the great classical music love stories was the legendary relationship between Robert Schumann and Clara Weick, who eventually became husband and wife (after they sued her father to let them marry). Sounds like another romantic movie, right? It is true that Schumann wrote his Three Romances for Oboe and Piano, Op. 94, in December of 1849 and gave them to his wife as a Christmas gift.

But (and here’s where the romantic notion ends), the piece wasn’t dedicated to his beloved Clara, but rather to a famous conductor-musicologist of the day, Wilhelm Wasielewski. Although the pieces are transcribed for violin and for flute soloists, here they are played as Schumann envisioned, with oboist Christoph Hartmann and pianist Kathryn Stott.

Clara Schumann, in turn, wrote a series of Romances, too. Her Three Romances for Violin and Piano, Op. 22, just whisk you away to another place. These also were not dedicated to her spouse, but rather to a good friend of the couple who was the outstanding violinist of the day, Joseph Joachim. Clara toured with him, presenting this piece to great acclaim. I found you a wonderful and unusual performance with the great violinist Augustin Hadelich playing both the violin part and the piano part in Romance No. 1.

Clara Schumann’s Romances were among the final things she composed. Her husband died in 1853, after which she gave up composing and instead concentrated on performing her husband’s works for piano.

There are numerous other Romances for you to discover, including lovely pieces by Fauré, William Grant Still, Beethoven, Frederic Delius, Richard Strauss, and Ralph Vaughan Williams. The wonderful thing is that there is always a little Romance in the air.

CODA: One of the most familiar Romances is often referred to as the “Anonymous Romance,” (Romance Anonimo). While some have credited this 19th century Romance to Francisco Tárrega, Fernando Sor, and other Spaniards, the truth is that no one really knows who composed it. Christopher Parkening plays it here.