The Sound of Love: An Exploration of Slow Music
As I began to craft a list similar to the “10 Underrated Pieces of Classical Music for Christmas” for Valentine’s Day, having the subject be pieces about love instead, I began to realize a pattern: all the music I selected was slow. One after another, Brahms’ Op. 118 (movements 2, 5, and 6), Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony (2nd movement), any middle movement from Mozart or Mahler, all of this music was slow. This led me to wonder why the music of love has always been slow.
Some may contend that romantic dance music (tango, swing, salsa, etc.) is all fast, and I would agree with them, it is; but, it is not love being conveyed in that music, instead it is sexual desire, or as Stephen Fry puts it, “dancing is a magnificent communal way of enjoying yourselves together, for the purposes of getting off your tits and having sex.” Passion is not a permanent moment, it needs to be gratified now, and the quicker the music, the quicker the passion can ensue.
Love instead invites contemplation and stillness. The music of love has to be slow for the same reason a lover would not look speedily at his beloved. Anyone who has been in love will understand this phenomenon of wanting a momentary glimpse to last forever. It never does, but he drags it out as much as he is able because love loves to linger. The adagietto of Mahler’s 5th Symphony for example: at its fastest, is about 8 ½ minutes, at its longest, almost 13. This movement was intended as a wedding present for his soon to be wife, Alma, and may seem a short amount of time for our fast paced world; but imagine for a second the intense concentration of a man sitting in a small hut in the Austrian countryside, armed only with a pencil and piano, meticulously choosing each instrument and crafting each melodic line, and you will begin to understand why conductors have constantly tried to extend the piece to the limits of listenability, making slower and slower recordings of this piece.
“So,” one might say, “you can only write slow, pretty music to express love?” Well, yes and no. There are countless ways love has been expressed in poetry, art, and music. In the opening lines of Sonnet 43 Elizabeth Browning asks “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” For Browning, in fact for all true artists, it is not enough to simply say “I love you,” but instead the artist has to contemplate, calculate, and create, to fully express what it means to be in love, since there are a thousand ways to say it, each of which is entirely unique. Pianist Robert Levin noted something similar about the slow movements of Mozart’s Piano Sonatas saying that “there is no formula for a Mozart slow movement,” and I would say that’s because there is no formula to express love. The second sonata deals with love lost in its slow movement (4:15) with its vacillation between major and minor keys, showing the depths of despair while fondly remembering the love that was. None of this is pretty; it is heart wrenching. Yet if the tempo were fast it would sound more of anger and less of loss. Mozart though was such a versatile composer that he was able to describe nearly every facet of love in his music. To name just a few: parental love in his d-minor concerto, love regained in the Countess’ aria from The Marriage of Figaro, and love at peace in his Clarinet Concerto (12:26). Again though, all of these have a pattern, their tempi. It is not necessarily that these pieces are “pretty” that we say they deal with love, instead it comes from a human knowledge of love that we instinctively know what love sounds like. One may contend snarkily “well this piece is slow, it's not about love, its about being at peace,” or calm, or whatever silly adjective you choose, yet the question still remains, to what or about what is this peace, calm, contemplation aims at. The peace, serenity, calmness must necessarily stem from an other. Whether that source is man or God, it remains true that peace can only come from love and stillness is its manifestation. St. Paul reminds us of this when he says in 1 Corinthians, that “love is patient, love is kind.” Patience can only come from stillness and kindness can only come from love.
So maybe this Valentine’s Day, ruminate on this truth of the stillness of love expressed in music with a loved one. Listen to Mahler, Mozart, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and learn how to love by their example.