People often look to classical music for Valentine’s Day inspiration. Which is great, unless your inspiration is Carlo Gesualdo. While there are plenty of bad mixes (and one actually good classical music for sex playlist), looking directly into the private lives and letters of composers also offers a trove of possibilities for everyone from your eternal innamorata to your occasional “U up?” We at VAN have collected ten of the best, suitable for a myriad of occasions. (If you care to go…erm…deeper, we’ve also ranked the sex lives of 30 female composers.)
Ethel Smyth to Emmeline Pankhurst, 1913
“The thought of you is like a great lighthouse, visible through all the thousand miles of fog between us. And as one does with lighthouses my eyes are always wandering over to the beam.”
“An old woman of seventy-one has fallen in love with me,” wrote Virginia Woolf in 1930. “It is at once hideous and horrid and melancholy-sad. It is like being caught by a giant crab.” Woolf (who was 48 at the time) was referring to the composer Ethel Smyth, who took up a Kramer-like spot in the writer’s life and Bloomsbury circle.
Smyth had better luck 20 years earlier when she met the activist and British suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst in 1910. She would come to describe Pankhurst as “an even more astounding figure than Joan of Arc,” compose the official anthem of the Women’s Social and Political Union, and spend a couple of months in jail for a light bit of window-breaking.
“As with many close female ‘friendships’ from this era, it is difficult to definitively categorize the relationship that Smyth and Pankhurst shared during Smyth’s tenure with the WSPU,” writes Rachel Lumsden in a 2015 article for the journal Feminist Studies. However, when Smyth’s tenure with the WSPU came to an end in 2013, both viewed their separation as a “wrench.” The two maintained an epistolary relationship and, in the same year that Smyth wrote the above sign-off to her “dearest Em,” she also dedicated the song “Possession” to her.
Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky to Vladimir “Bob” Davydov, 1893
“If you do not want to write, at least spit on a piece of paper, put it in an envelope, and send it to me.”
Even with the continuous unearthing of letters that give us insight into Tchaikovsky’s sexuality and the effect it had on his life and standing in Russian society, it’s hard to pinpoint the exact coordinates of the composer’s relationship with his nephew, whom the family referred to as “Bob.” Timothy Jackson points to the composer’s Sixth Symphony as one where “his desperate longing for his nephew Bob Davydov proves fatal and he imagines his own Requiem, death and burial.”
Alexander Poznansky, who has written four books on Tchaikovsky, refutes the idea of Tchaikovsky’s sexuality as an outsized source of torture: “This image, which constantly lurked in the inflamed imagination of the lay audience, fails even remotely to resemble a real man with real concerns.” Poznansky posits, too, that Tchaikovsky’s relationship with his nephew—along with the rest of his family—was a source of emotional stability and fulfillment.
It’s likely that the truth lies somewhere in between these two extremes, as shown in a correspondence that demonstrates mutual affection and admiration—though not without conflict. Case in point: This missive from February of 1893, after Davydov had apparently left his uncle on read. Whatever the full scope of sentiment behind this sentence, it is, in a word, relatable.
The latest from VAN, delivered straight to your inbox
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to Constanze Mozart, 1789
“Arrange your dear sweet nest very daintily, for my little fellow deserves it indeed, he has really behaved himself very well and is only longing to possess your sweetest…”
In a move that would later be echoed in the film “Mamma Mia!,” Mozart allows his ellipses to fill in the object of his dangling participle’s desire in this note to his wife, sent while he was in Berlin at the tail-end of a trip that lasted several months and also took him through Dresden, Prague, and Leipzig. The series of letters he sent home during this time are a mix of the quotidian financial and business concerns of a freelance musician at the end of the 18th century, and pure, timeless lust.
Leoš Janáček to Kamila Stösslová, 1927
“I would cover your beautiful waves of the Otava with melodies, your legs as swift as pikes, your mouth like a little window into the sanctuary where things are burning. Into your womb I’d put the most beautiful things that would ever occur to me.”
Leoš Janáček was 62 when he met the 27-year-old Kamila Stösslová, the wife of an antiques dealer, in the summer of 1917. Janáček and his wife, Zdenka, were attempting to repair their marriage—which was coming apart like a snagged sweater thanks to his many infidelities—in the holiday town of Luhačovice, and Zdenka found a friend in Stösslová (and, as John Tyrrell describes it, “a useful ally against [Gabriela] Horvátová,” the most serious of her husband’s dalliances).
Unfortunately for Zdenka, Janáček was also taken by the younger woman and projected muse-like fantasies onto her. The heroines of “The Diary of One who Disappeared,” “Káťa Kabanová,” “The Cunning Little Vixen,” and “The Makropulos Case” all bear Kamila’s imprimatur, while his String Quartet No. 2, “Intimate Letters,” was explicitly inspired by their affair. The relationship was all but one-sided for the first ten years, deepening in 1927 when Janáček spent that Easter with the Stössels. Earlier works, Janáček said after their affair was consummated, had been “written only in hot ash.” Now, he said, they were being written “in fire.”
John Cage to Merce Cunningham, 1943
“Need you to lie next to me under, on top, inside, between, close, close.”
Much like Mozart’s letters, John Cage’s early valentines to choreographer Merce Cunningham are a mandala-view of both artists’ lives. A letter postmarked in July of 1943 was largely devoted to a joint venture between the two: translating Spanish medical articles into English for Cage’s father. After revealing that no Spanish medical dictionary exists and informing Cunningham that he would pay him $14.80 for “not quite 2,000 words” of work, Cage adds this, almost as a postscript:
“I am on open top bus writing.
Writing and dying.
Yr. joint letter beautiful.
Pull a pig tail for me.
Need you to lie next to me under, in top, inside, between, close, close.”
Ludwig van Beethoven to an unknown woman, 1812
“I can only live with you either completely, or not at all. Yes, I have decided to wander far and wide until I can fly into your arms and call myself entirely at home with you.”
If, like me, you’ve heard Beethoven’s declaration of love so many times you can recite it in your sleep (bonus points for doing so in Gary Oldman’s cadence), try revisiting it against the backdrop of Cage’s early letters to Cunningham (as collected in Laura Kuhn’s Love, Icebox). Beethoven’s metaphors of home are precursors for the same domestic imagery Cage turns to time and again. Both authors burn with an all-or-nothing desire (“such a full-fledged need,” as Cage put it).
While one composer was still in his bed, his thoughts rushing to his Immortal Beloved, the other admitted to his beloved choreographer: “I say I’m unsentimental but I’m sitting at one of our tables and looking in a mirror where you often were.” The dichotomy invoked by Beethoven in living with his mystery woman “either completely, or not at all” comes up again when Cage tells Cunningham: “I don’t know: this gravity elastic feeling to let go and fall together with you is one thing, but it is better to live exactly where you are with as many permanent emotions in you as you can muster. Talking to myself.”
Alma Mahler to Alexander Zemlinsky, 1901
“I want to be your sanctuary. Pour your abundance into me!”
“He’s dreadfully ugly, has almost no chin—yet I liked him exceptionally.” So went Alma Schindler’s first impressions of the composer Alexander Zemlinsky. The two met in the early weeks of 1900, and immediately bonded over a shared love of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde.” When Schindler realized she was speaking with a kindred spirit, she recalled: “He became truly handsome. Now we understood each other.”
Though the two saw plenty of each other, with Zemlinsky taking Schindler on as a pupil, it would be more than a year before they “kissed until their teeth hurt.” The affair would also be short-lived. Six weeks after Schindler proclaimed herself Zemlinsky’s sanctuary, the two parted ways. “A beautiful, beautiful love was buried today,” she wrote in her diary from December, 1901—less than three months before marrying Gustav Mahler. “Gustav, you have much to do in order to replace it.”
Alban Berg to Hanna Fuchs, 1925
“I maintain we do no wrong in loving each other eternally.”
“It goes against the grain, really, to have to ‘reassure’ you about me and Mopinka,” Alban Berg wrote to his wife, Helene, in 1925. He was in Prague for a performance of his “Wozzeck Fragments” and his friend, the Austro-Bohemian novelist Franz Fuchs, put him in touch with his sister, Hanna (aka Mopinka) and her husband, who were happy to have the composer as a houseguest. Berg assured his wife that “faithfulness is one of my main qualities,” adding: “May I die of distemper if I ever sin against faithfulness!”
We can see where this is going. Berg did, in fact, have an affair with Helene Fuchs, even going so far as to encode their initials in his “Lyric Suite.” They passed love letters to one another via couriers that included Alma Mahler and Theodor Adorno. Like Mahler and Zemlinsky, Berg likened this affair to “Tristan und Isolde.” In a direct reference to Beethoven, he referred to Fuchs as “my one and only glorious Immortal Beloved.” Berg died ten years after the affair began, not from distemper but an insect sting.
Claude Debussy to Emma Bardac, 1904
“I’d like to have you ‘on your own’ for once, without counterpoint or development.”
The wife of a Parisian banker, Emma Bardac had just ended an affair with Gabriel Fauré when she was introduced to Claude Debussy by one of his students—her son, Raoul (is there a phrase for a reverse-nepotism baby?). Debussy himself was married as well, to the model Rosalie Texier, and it was shortly after Bardac and Debussy had taken an extended rendez-vous in England that they decided to leave their respective spouses for each other. Emma’s first husband seemed to take the news well enough, but Rosalie responded by attempting to shoot herself. Both Bardac’s and Debussy’s divorces were finalized in England the following year; hers in May, his in August. They were back in Paris in time to give birth to their daughter, Chouchou, on October 30.
The Debussy house in Paris, situated on what was then known as the Avenue du Bois de Bologne, still stands today. However, as Volker Hagedorn discovered in 2021, it has become a gated oasis for the super-rich. A Saudi princess bought the house in 2006, staying in it only a few days a year. A shoulder-high gate was erected around the property in 2012. Much like its onetime occupants, the house now held “on its own,” without counterpoint or development.
Benjamin Britten to Peter Pears, 1942
“So sorry to have bothered you my darling—in fact I never seem to do anything but bother you do I? But I promise that when we’re living alone together that I really will behave outside as I feel inside about you—& need I say how that is?”
As private as Benjamin Britten was about his sexuality in public (and for good reason), there is no shortage of intimate letters he exchanged with Peter Pears during their life together. As poignant as many of these letters are, capturing the life that the couple built together while pursuing their own artistic careers, there is something even more touching about the documentation of their spats, arguments, quarrels, and passing grudges. (In one letter from around this time, Britten calls Pears a “blighter” for not being in for their phone date, complaining about both cutting a dinner short and wasting money on the pay phone.)
Ultimately, sustaining a great love requires an equally great amount of work. Perhaps the most disingenuous cliché about love is that it means never having to say you’re sorry. In this moment of tenderness, Britten shows Pears the soft-bellied turtle underneath the shell. Its sincerity is measured in the life they built together. Years later, just before his death in 1986, Pears would say that his greatest happiness had been “unquestionably, of course, my life with Ben.”
Bonus: Langston Hughes to Margaret Bonds, ca. 1960s
In this case, Bonds was the composer. Hughes, by his own admission, couldn’t carry a tune. The pair’s relationship was also patently platonic. But this literal valentine, part of Georgetown University’s collection of Margaret Bonds Papers and written in Hughes’s signature green ink, is indeed “too good to miss.” ¶
Subscribers keep VAN running!
VAN is proud to be an independent classical music magazine thanks to our subscribers. For just over 10 cents a day, you can enjoy unlimited access to over 800 articles in our archives—and get new ones delivered straight to your inbox each week.
Not ready to commit to a full year?
You can test-drive VAN for one month for the price of a coffee.