The Supreme Inspiration III: Lovers

Harriet Smithson (1800-54)
In 1827, Berlioz saw Hamlet performed by an English company in which Harriet Smithson was Ophelia. Immediately he fell for the poetry of the bard and the beauty of the actress – ‘The impression made on my heart and mind by her extraordinary talent was only equalled by the havoc wrought in me by the poet she so nobly interpreted.’ He relentlessly followed Harriet, to whom he referred as his Ophelia, seeking reciprocation of his ardour. His emotional tension was released somewhat in Symphonie fantastique, the story of a man seeking his beloved in an opium-induced dream. Berlioz eventually married his muse in 1833, though reality was far different to his idealised scenario and the two parted. While she only really inspired one work, the fervour of Berlioz’s preoccupation with Harriet was indicative of her role as the ultimate muse.

Clara Schumann (1819-96)
By the age of 16 Clara Wieck was hailed as child prodigy, admired by Mendelssohn, Chopin, Paganini and Robert Schumann, whom she married in 1840. She undoubtedly inspired Schumann’s piano output – he dedicated his F sharp minor sonata to her and composed variations on themes which she wrote. It is also said some of his music contains coded references which only he and Clara understood.

Schumann’s deteriorating mental condition led to a developing triangle between him, Clara and Brahms, 14 years younger than her, from which much intimate correspondence was destroyed. Brahm’s passion for Clara was deep, lasting for over four years.

Sir Peter Pears (1919-86)
Pears met Britten in the 1930s and they fell in love almost instantly. All Britten’s operas apart from Paul Bunyan and most of his song cycles were written with Pears in mind and his compositional style was shaped by the instrumental quality of Pears’s voice. Walton wrote Anon in Love for tenor, guitar and orchestra for Pears.

Katherina Cavalieri (1760-1801)
Cavalieri, an Austrian soprano, was mistress of Salieri and sang in two of his operas. More notably, Mozart wrote the majority of his soprano operatic roles for her, as well as individual arias, and speculation has always surrounded their relationship.

Mathilde Wesendonck (1828-1902)
Lover of Wagner and dedicatee (and author) of his Wesendonck Lieder, Wesendonck also inspired his Tristan & Isolde. Most of Tristan was written at her husband’s Swiss home, where catastrophically Wagner’s wife found a letter Richard had written to Mathilde, forcing him to leave.

Classic CD magazine, 1996


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