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Romantic Music
By Robert Greenberg,
Author of How to Listen to Great Music: A Guide to Its History, Culture, and Heart

Fresh flowers, chilled champagne and a candlelit dinner for two; the stereotypical trappings of a successful Valentine's Day evening. But the sensual menu is still incomplete: smell, taste, touch, and sight are covered, but proper sound is still wanting.

Yes indeed, music, the purported feast of the gods, the indispensable aural lubricant for romance, must be chosen and chosen well.


Guideline one: while the music suggested can be used as background music, it is not, in reality background music. True "background music" is just that, sonic wallpaper; an audio presence meant not to be noticed. There is no such "elevator muzak" on this list. So, while the music I've suggested can be listened to in the background, it will rise proudly to the surface during conversational lulls to delight and inform the ear, soothe the soul, and render the listeners susceptible to romantic intrigue.

Guideline two. If love is blind, then musical love is deaf. I grew up listening to Janis Joplin; her music helped define my sexual coming-of-age. To this day, I love Janis Joplin. However, the paper bag does not exist that she could sing (scream) her way out of. For many uninitiated listeners, her voice is simply unendurable. Thus, these lists are not about youthful favorites (which we all have), but about slick, sophisticated music that will have maximum appeal to the maximum number of listeners, age and background notwithstanding.

Guideline three. My selections are classics: concert compositions, performers and songs that have stood the test of time; there are no flavors-of-the-day here and no "sleepers" intended to show how clever I am. (Although I will admit that it hurt to leave out Jack Webb's rendition of Try a Little Tenderness.)

Guideline four. Obviously, my lists are not comprehensive and are based on my own limited knowledge of the repertoire. As such, the concert works suggested all come from the Western repertoire: there is no Chinese opera, North Indian raga or Bhutanese trumpet music in the bunch. Likewise, all the singers I've recommended are American and the individual songs are all in English. When it comes to their style, all the songs I've recommended come from the mainstream soul-rock-pop tradition. There is no Country Western, Zydeco, Tex-Mex, Ska, Cowpunk, Psychobilly, Toytown Techno, Glitch, Goregrind, Gangsta, Bubblegum, Pre-Grunge/Grunge/Post-Grunge, or Emo-Screamo on the list. My heartfelt apologies if I have offended by exclusion.

Ten Romantic Concert Works

While I am loath to recommend individual movements from longer works, I have done just that. I have suggested only instrumental works; opera and art song will have to stand aside for now. While hundreds (if not thousands) of works deserve to be on this list, I have so tacky as to list ten, with no more than two works by any single composer. In alphabetical order by composer:

1. Johann Sebastian Bach, Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D Major, movement two, "Air (on a G String)". The "G string" refers, of course, to the lowest string of the violin (on which much of principal melody is played) and not the vinyl undergarment worn by the conductor.

2. Ludwig (my friends call me Louis) van Beethoven, Piano Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp Minor, Op. 27, No. 2 (1801), "Moonlight", first movement. A bit melancholy but a singularly recognizable and very beautiful chunk of music. It's not particularly difficult to play, so extra romantic points if you can sit down at a piano and play it yourself.

3. Beethoven, Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op. 92 (1811), second movement. This movement caused such a sensation at the symphony's premiere in 1813 that it was encored on the spot.

4. Frederic Chopin, Ballade No. 1 for piano in G Minor, Op. 23 (1836). Incredible subtlety of expression and stunning compositional fluency are the hallmarks of Chopin's work, the great bulk of which was written for solo piano. His four ballades are among his longest solo piano works; this first one is the best known of the four.

5. Claude Debussy, Clair de Lune (1890) for piano. The last word in cocktail-classical piano, Clair de Lune (meaning "moonlight") can melt even a meter maid's heart.

6. Gustav Mahler, Symphony No. 5 (1902), movement four, "Adagietto". This exquisite movement -- scored for strings and harp -- was used in the soundtrack of Luchino Visconti's 1971 movie Death in Venice. The music was inspired by the 42 year-old Mahler's blushing and most pregnant bride Alma (23 years-old), whom he married in March of 1902. (The baby -- a daughter -- was seven months later.)

7. Wolfgang Mozart, Concerto for Flute and Harp in C Major (1778). Exquisite as only Mozart can be exquisite, this is the only piece Mozart ever wrote that calls for a harp.

8. Mozart, Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major (1785), movement two. Ethereal and dreamlike, this gorgeous movement was featured in the 1967 Swedish Film Elvira Madigan.

9. Sergei Rachmaninoff, Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 18 (1901) For pure, lush, artery-hardening musical marbling, it's tough to beat Rachmaninoff, and among his works, it's tough to beat his Piano Concerto No. 2. To be accompanied by a big, full bodied cab or burgundy.

10. Peter Tchaikovsky, Serenade for Strings in C Major, Op. 48 (1880). As a composer, Tchaikovsky combined his Russian expressive soul with a Mozart-like melodic elegance and grace. (Tchaikovsky was wont to refer to Mozart as "the Christ of music.") Scored for a large string orchestra, the Serenade is one of Tchaikovsky's greatest works.

Don't Shoot the Singer

For those whose romantic musical inclination leans more towards performers than repertoire, I would recommend the following vocalists (again, arbitrarily totaling ten). The list leans heavily towards jazz and standards singers because of the "romantic" repertoire they have recorded and because THEY ARE TERRIFIC SINGERS.

The Boys

Frank Sinatra (1915-1998). The Chairman of the Board needs no explanation from me, or anyone for that matter. No one sells a love song better than Blue Eyes; no one. (Someone commented to Bing Crosby that a voice like Sinatra's came along only once in a lifetime. Crosby's response: "Yes, but why did it have to be in my lifetime?")

Nat "King" Cole (1919-1965). A heck of a jazz piano player, too. Tremendous warmth and clarity marked his singing.

Tony Bennett (1926). The man is timeless and remains, in his mid-eighties, among the top singers of romantic standards.

Mel Torme (1925-1999). Known as "The Velvet Fog", Torme's baritone voice was as smooth as Brylcreem on a bowling alley. His performance of his own "The Christmas Song" ("chestnuts roasting . . .") could make a rabbi dress up as Santa.

Michael Feinstein (1956). With his sweet, gentle voice and wonderful piano playing, Feinstein has dedicated his career to unearthing and celebrating the very best in American popular song. His recordings of the songs of George Gershwin are revelatory.

The Girls

Ella Fitzgerald (1917-1996). Like Sinatra, a vocal no-brainer, utterly sui generis. Perhaps the definitive interpreter of 20th century American popular song, her recording career spanned 59 years during which she won 13 Grammys. Her albums with Louis Armstrong are MUST HAVES for any sentient Homo sapiens.

Billie Holiday (1915-1959). No voice is more instantly recognizable than Lady Day's. Her ability to sing a song clearly and honestly -- and break our hearts in the process -- remains almost unique.

Barbra Streisand (1942). Like buttah. When Babs sings My Man, clocks stop.

Dionne Warwick (1940). Warwick is the ultimate cross-over artist, having recorded everything from Gospel and R&B to pop, from great movie songs (Alfie) to the Burt Bacharach and Hal David songbook.

Sarah Vaughan (1924-1990). What a voice. In terms of dynamic range, tonal quality and sheer beauty Vaughan's voice is nearly operatic. Listening to her sing in her lower (what is called the "chest") register is like being wrapped in a warm blanket.

Desert Island Songs and their Singers

A few specific tunes: my personal shortlist of classic post-WWII romantic/love songs that no one can or should live without, arranged alphabetically by title. There are no Broadway/theater songs listed here, otherwise half the list would be songs by Frank Loesser and Stephen Sondheim. Twenty-one in all; it's a miracle I could stop there.

Ain't No Mountain High Enough, Marvin Gaye and Tammy Terrell
At Last, Etta James
Can't Take My Eyes Off You, Frankie Valli
I Will Always Love You, Dolly Parton (Parton wrote the song, which was later recorded by Whitney Houston)
Just the Way You Are, Billy Joel
Let's Stay Together, Al Green
Love Me Tender, Elvis Presley
Maybe I'm Amazed, Paul McCartney/Wings
Michelle, Beatles
My Girl, Temptations
Something, Beatles
The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, Roberta Flack
The Look of Love, Dusty Springfield
Time in a Bottle, Jim Croce
Unchained Melody, Righteous Brothers
When a Man Loves a Woman, Percy Sledge
Wonderful Tonight, Eric Clapton
Wouldn't it be Nice, Beach Boys
You are So Beautiful, Joe Cocker
You Are the Sunshine of My Life, Stevie Wonder
Your Song, Elton John

Me, I'd go with Sinatra on one of his Capitol recordings made between 1954 and 1962. Whatever you choose, may the romance be with you!

© 2012 Robert Greenberg, author of How to Listen to Great Music: A Guide to Its History, Culture, and Heart

Author Bio
Robert Greenberg, author of How to Listen to Great Music: A Guide to Its History, Culture, and Heart, is a speaker, pianist, and music historian. He has served on the faculties of UC Berkeley, California State University East Bay, and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where he was chairman of the Department of Music History and Literature and director of the Adult Extension Division. He is currently music historian-in-residence with San Francisco Performances and also serves as the resident composer and music historian to NPR's Weekend All Things Considered. Since 1993, he has recorded over 550 lectures for The Great Courses.

Founded in 1990, The Great Courses produces DVD and audio recordings of courses by top university professors in the country, which are sold through direct marketing. It is a nine-figure-a-year business and they distribute forty-eight million catalogs annually. They offer more than four hundred courses on topics including business and economics; fine arts and music; ancient, medieval, and modern history; literature and English language; philosophy and intellectual history; religion; social sciences; and science and mathematics.

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