If Ludwig van Beethoven’s longing for love was not completely fulfilled in his life, except through the great music he left us, there were other composers who were perhaps a bit luckier in love during their lifetimes.
Johann Sebastian Bach’s music runs the gamut of human emotions, from the joy and exuberance of the Brandenburg Concertos, the meditative and reflective movements of the Cello Suites or Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, to the depths of despair presented so achingly in the St. Matthew Passion. While we know less about Bach’s romantic life than Beethoven’s, there is some information that may give us some clues.
Bach seems to have been happily married—twice, in fact. But that’s not without tragedy, too. He suffered great personal loss.
Bach married the love of his life, Maria Barbara Bach, a distant cousin, when he was 22. They had 13 happy years together.
Then in 1720, she died suddenly from an acute illness while Bach was away from home for a month, serving as Kapellmeister for his employer, the Duke of Kothen, who was staying at the Carlsbad spa for his health. Bach found out that his wife was dead and already buried by the time he returned. He was devastated. They had seven children together, three of whom died young.
The set of six Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin was completed in 1720, and it is tempting to wonder if some of the deeper moments from this remarkable music, as in the famous “Chaconne” from Partita No. 2 in d Minor, reflect something of Bach’s anguish:
Bach seems to have gotten a second chance at a fulfilling emotional life when, 17 months later, he married Anna Magdalena Wilcke, who outlived Bach by 10 years. They had 13 children together, but sadly, seven of them died at a young age.
Anna Magdalena Bach was a fine singer, acted as a copyist for some of her husband’s music and may have even written some of the music attributed to Johann Sebastian, but there is scholarly controversy about that.
It does appear, however, that their shared interest in music contributed much to Bach’s happiness and musical productivity in the remaining years of his life. A year after their marriage, they moved to Leipzig, Germany, where Bach would continue to write great music, most of it for four churches in the city, including the Cantor of the Lutheran Thomasschule at the Thomaskirche.
The organ works, the cantatas, along with the St. John and St. Matthew Passions, are a remarkable testament to Bach’s unceasing creativity. Mass in b Minor, which would not have been used in its complete form in a Lutheran service, stands as one of the greatest-of-all choral masterpieces.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart also seems to have been luckier in love than some great composers. He also married a singer, Constanze Weber. He initially fell for her sister Aloysia, but she rejected him.
When Mozart married Weber in 1782 in Vienna, his father back in Salzburg, Austria, was much opposed to their marriage, and that cast a chill over the relationship between Mozart and his father, Leopold.
Constanze outlived Mozart by half a century, dying in 1842. She remarried and ultimately became financially secure through the publication of her first husband’s music. She had six children with Mozart, but only two survived to adulthood. One of them, Franz Xaver Mozart, was also a composer.
It’s well-known that Mozart didn’t have much patience for mediocrity in music. So Constanze must have been a pretty good singer because he wrote the soprano solo of his Great Mass in c Minor for her. She sang at the 1783 premiere in Salzburg, and the work was described as a love offering for her.
Mozart’s operas repeatedly examine the nature of love and passion, and the way people deceive others and themselves in the quest for love. Erotic passion without love and its consequences is a main theme of Don Giovanni. Seducer that he is, the Don can be charming and enticing to a young country girl, as in this duet from the opera:
The happiness, excitement and anticipation of a couple planning to be married is wonderfully and playfully expressed in the opening of The Marriage of Figaro by Figaro and Susanna:
Sigmund Freud said that losing love is one of our deepest fears. It’s remarkable how much longing and vulnerability is expressed by the contessa in The Marriage of Figaro when her husband’s interest turns to a younger woman, the maid Susanna, who is to be married to the count’s servant Figaro. She laments her lost youth and vanished love …
… and the pain of her husband’s infidelity:
Even though there were surely many ups and downs in their marriage, with such a remarkably energetic and creative composer as Mozart and a fiery temper in his wife Constanze, an artist as well, we must wonder how much of the feelings expressed in some of his operas come from real life.
Of course it’s only speculation. But in the end—in art, anyway—reconciliation and forgiveness seem to triumph, as in the finale of The Marriage of Figaro: