Love Songs, Classical


What would popular music be without songs about the ups and downs of love and romance?The same question can be pondered in the world of classical music, whether it be songs dating back to the 1400s or operas that are enjoyed by audiences around the world. In this Active Minds program, we'll journey through the years, sampling just a few of the endless songs and arias that trace the joys and pitfalls of that crazy old thing called love (as Freddie Mercury of  Queen used to sing).


Here's an image for you: A young man (with a lute or guitar) serenading his beloved in a heart-felt tune sung with words that he hopes will express the wave of emotions that have overtaken him each time he gazes into her eyes … and all that mushy stuff that crops up in love songs. This corny, clichéd picture in fact was a common sight back in the 15th Century, as dozens of troubadours wandered the European continent, armed with a bundle of amorous poems turned into song, created with the goal of winning the hand of a young damsel – or entertaining a crowd of villagers who've gathered to enjoy a show by the lute-player and his band of jugglers, gymnasts, storytellers and dancers. Troubadours would occasionally find work as entertainers in royal courts, as did composers and formally trained instrumentalists and singers. As the Baroque Era began in the early 1600s, such extravagant entertainments as opera and ballet were born, sagas inspired by the perils of love. They were usually built on ancient mythological fairy tales inevitably centered around the faithful and faithless. Even Bach, that old stuffed wig (as his sons playfully called him) got in the act, creating a work that mocked a bumbling pair of flirting peasants. Near the end of the 1700s, Mozart wrote comic operas that similarly poked fun at lovers, including that ill-fated champion of the romantic chase, Don Juan. Through most of the 19th Century, composers such as Schubert, Schumann, Beethoven and Brahms crafted songs for voice and piano, using texts by contemporary poets. Most of their verse dealt either with the magic of love or the beauty of nature. As the 20th Century approached, opera composers such as Puccini wrote glorious love duets for the central characters (usually the soprano and tenor), capturing the sheer wonder of love among humans.

Exploration Questions

  • Who were the greatest of the 19th Century German poets, whose works were set to music?
  • What were the literary sources used by Puccini in his great operas La Bohéme, Tosca and Madama Butterfly?
  • What was “verismo” and how did that movement impact operatic love stories?

Reflective Questions

  • Which do you prefer: joyful love songs or ones mourning lost love?
  • Was their a pop/rock song or two that echoed one of your experiences with love?

More to Explore

Books For Further Reading

  • Gioia, Ted. Love Songs – The Hidden History. Oxford University Press. 2015. 336 pages. Yes, it has a curious sub-title, and, unfortunately, this interesting book does often try to force the subject matter into controversial and heavily opinionated concepts, but this is a well-researched, far-reaching survey of love songs and their power to influence our thinking and feeling about love and its complex emotions – from the days of ancient Rome to the present era of YouTube videos and rap songs with off-color lyrics.
    Click here to order