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Love Songs

Love Songs

August 1, 2018

Love can completely transform us – for better or for worse. In this episode, we listen to musical songs (with and without words) that convey this transformative power of love. Featuring music by Gabriel Kahane, Richard Wagner, and Arnold Schoenberg.


[Music (violin, cello, piano): Schoenberg, Verklärte Nacht; performed by Caroline Goulding, Joshua Roman, David Fung]

DEVANNEY HARUTA (HOST): Love is elusive – it can be a tricky thing to put into words, but there’s no denying its powerful grip on our emotions. Love can bring us confusion or clarity. It can crush or lift our spirits. It can change how we feel, how we think, and how we act. We can use music to tap into our deepest emotions, and to help us understand how love so profoundly transforms us. When combined with poetry, music can be just what we need for a language of expression. But other times words can fall away, and the music says enough.

You’re listening to Tippet Snippets, a podcast that explores the music, art, and nature of Tippet Rise Art Center in Fishtail, MT. I’m Devanney Haruta, and in this podcast, we’ll explore different versions of musical songs – with and without words – that convey the transformative power of love.

[Music (solo piano): Kahane, Works on Paper - Veda; performed by Jeffrey Kahane]

Gabriel Kahane’s “Veda” is a song inspired by a mother-daughter relationship from the 1945 movie “Mildred Pierce.” The song features a tumultuous relationship between an adoring mother and an overly demanding daughter. The lyrics are from Mildred’s, the mother’s, point of view, as she sings to her daughter. “Take my blood and take my marrow,” she offers, “scrape the meal from my bones. Pierce my heart if you please with your arrow.” Mildred sacrifices her body and soul for her daughter, working tirelessly day and night in her restaurant. But her love is never reciprocated. Veda is ashamed of her mother’s low social status. Despite Mildred’s plentiful gifts and constant doting, Veda will never be satisfied.

In a paraphrase of his song for solo piano, Gabriel writes music that mirrors Mildred’s overwhelming and unrequited love for Veda. He instructs that the melody be played “clear and cold,” and “always singing.” Underneath the singing melody lurk chords that are wrought with tension. They wander in and out of dissonances, and ebb and flow with bursts of passion.

Despite their audible turmoil, the chords maintain a stubborn commitment to their rhythm. “Though you sneer and crack wise, I won’t waver,” promises Mildred in the song lyrics, “But Veda, my darling, come in, come in.”

Jeffrey Kahane, who is, incidentally, Gabriel’s father, performs this piece at a summer concert at Tippet Rise. As Jeffrey plays, he occasionally reaches into the piano to touch the strings. This is a technique that produces harmonics, which are notes that sound higher in pitch, softer in volume, and clearer in timbre than if he had used the keyboard to play that same note. The harmonics shimmer like stars above the dark and murky harmonies in the low bass.

[musical excerpt]

At the end of the song, Mildred acknowledges that her love for her daughter has transformed her life. It has become her ruling compass, at the expense of her own direction: “If I’ve lost my way, it was only to please you,” she confesses. She compromises anything and everything, including her own life, out of love for her daughter.

While Mildred’s love for Veda is one of her flesh and blood, the love portrayed in Richard Wagner’s opera “Tristan und Isolde” reaches beyond the limits of the physical world. This opera, which premiered in Munich, Germany in 1865, tells the story of Tristan and Isolde, two lovers who share a connection so powerful that it brings them together despite all obstacles.

[Music (solo piano): Wagner, Tristan und Isolde – Liebestod, arranged for piano by Liszt; performed by Pedja Muzijevic]

At the very end of the 4-hour drama, Tristan, who has been tragically wounded, lies dead at Isolde’s feet. Isolde stands over his body and closes the opera with this song.

[musical excerpt]

This song is known as Isolde’s “Liebestod,” which is a German term meaning “Love-Death.” The “Liebestod” is about a love that transcends body and earth, and is complete only in death. Though he lies unmoving on the stage, Tristan’s body becomes animated before Isolde’s eyes. “How softly and gently he smiles, how sweetly his eyes open,” observes Isolde. Just as Tristan’s body is transformed by their love, so, too, is Isolde’s. All of her senses are overwhelmed with a wash of color, light, touch, and sound. She hears a lamenting melody, she smells “billows of blissful fragrance,” and she feels waves that seethe and roar and surge around her. “Shall I give ear?” she asks, “Shall I drink of them, plunge beneath them? Breathe my life away in sweet scents?” Her mortal body longs for death, where she can finally experience these senses to the fullest, and immerse herself in the love that envelops her from all sides.

We may not hear the words that Isolde sings in this arrangement for solo piano, played by Pedja Muzijevic, but the music wonderfully captures the intensity and depth of the moment. Isolde’s soprano melody soars above the rolling chords in the bass, which churn with relentless harmonic tension. In fact, this tension has been building up over the course of the entire opera. Wagner intentionally avoids any strong cadences, so his phrases always sound somewhat unfinished, as if they are yearning for more. In the “Liebestod” this pattern continues. Harmonies build dramatically, only to be subverted and then start again with even more intensity. Isolde’s melody ascends gradually, getting higher and higher, as if the notes themselves are also seeking an escape, and a new plane of existence.

Only in death can Isolde and her music reach a complete and transcendent love. “To drown, to founder,” she sings, “Unconscious, utmost rapture!” With these words Isolde collapses in death. After a long 4 hours of tension, the music has reached its climax and is at last harmonically resolved. Isolde’s love is fulfilled.

In 1896, just 31 years after the premiere of “Tristan und Isolde,” writer Richard Dehmel published his poem “Verklärte Nacht,” or in English, “Transfigured Night.” This work, which tells of a romantic love that borders on spiritual, would later in 1899 influence Schoenberg’s musical composition of the same name.

[Music (violin, cello, piano): Schoenberg, Verklärte Nacht; performed by Caroline Goulding, Joshua Roman, David Fung]

In the poem, a man and a woman walk through a darkened wood beneath the bright light of the moon. The oak trees are black silhouettes against the cloudless sky. From listening to the couple’s voices, we overhear a secret revealed: the woman carries the child of another man. “I walk in sin beside you,” the woman confesses to her lover, “I have committed a great offense against myself.”

But love, as the poem reveals, can transfigure dark to light, conflict to resolution, and sin to forgiveness. “Just see how brightly the universe is gleaming!” exclaims the man. “There’s a glow around everything… a special warmth flickers from you into me, from me into you.” The couple’s love transcends the darkness and unites them in a bond that seems to originate from some larger, external presence.

In the musical adaptation for string trio, performed at Tippet Rise by Caroline Goulding on violin, Joshua Roman on cello, and David Fung on piano, Schoenberg’s music achieves yet another level of transfiguration, transforming Dehmel’s poetic expressions into musical ones. In this excerpt from the beginning of the piece, we hear the trio playing in the dark key of D minor.

[musical excerpt]

But now in this excerpt, at end of the piece, the trio has transitioned into the brighter key of D Major.

[musical excerpt]

At the end of the poem, human and universe have reached a consonance. The couple’s “breath kisses in the breeze,” writes Dehmel, and here, love has united them with nature. The music shines with its own glow that radiates out into the audience.

Love, whether familial, romantic, or even spiritual, is a powerful emotion that can transform the human body and mind. When unreciprocated, it can tear us to pieces. When shared, it can fill us with the utmost joy. In all forms, it takes us through transformative experiences that sometimes only music can effectively convey.

I’m Devanney Haruta, and I’d like to thank you for listening to this podcast of Tippet Snippets, brought to you from Tippet Rise Art Center in Fishtail, Montana. If you liked what you heard, please visit to hear full recordings of the featured music. And remember to join us next month with another episode of Tippet Snippets.

Featured music:

Gabriel Kahane: Works on Paper – Veda (Paraphrase)
Performed by Jeffrey Kahane

Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde – Liebestod
Arranged for piano by Franz Liszt
Performed by Pedja Muzijevic

Arnold Schoenberg: Verklärte Nacht
Performed by Caroline Goulding, Joshua Roman, David Fung