Top Five Romantic Clichés in Classical Music

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

While lovelorn couples profess their devotion on Valentine's Day, there’s no doubt more than a few will be declaring their affections while a few classical themes complete the romantic sentiments. While music might be the food of love, here are five pieces that may just make our hearts sick because they’ve become clichés.

1. Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture

More than a few characters from TV and film have fallen head over heels to the sound of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture. (Often the two passionate parties are running, arms extending, toward each other through a field of flowers). The theme, has accompanied Cher in Clueless, Garth in Wayne’s World, and just about every Looney Tune who’s ever been in love.

2. Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody On A Theme of Paganini

When Christopher Reeve travels back in time to meet a young Jane Seymour in the 1980s flick Somewhere in Time, their physics-defying relationship requires an equally over-the-top expressive theme: Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody On A Theme of Paganini (naturally the 18th variation).  It wasn’t a particularly fantastical choice to pair with such an unusual affair; Vincente Minnelli and Gottfried Reinhardt had already the tune in their 1954 The Story of Three Loves.

3. Liszt’s Liebestraum

The third swoon-worthy serenade on our list doesn’t just appear on the soundtrack for films; it inspired movies. Liszt’s Liebestraum (which is German for "dreams of love") provided material for a 1970 Hungarian film called the Loves of Liszt and a 1991 indie film set in upstate New York. Even though the opus is comprised of three solo piano works, the first two are usually skipped for the more famous third (or infamous, according to Victor Borge, who’d play the work at double time to get through it).

4. Wagner's "Liebestod"

Though Tristan and Isolde’s love was doomed from the start, Isolde’s “Liebestod,” or love’s death, has had a second life in film and TV. The familiar tune usually comes across the speakers whenever someone’s about to die for the sake love. It sends Juliet to her death in Bas Lurhmann’s Romeo + Juliet. The familiar theme also accompanies another young couple to their joint suicide in the 1987 movie Aria.

5. Puccini's "Un bel di"

Practically any Puccini aria—“O soave fanciulla,” “Nessun dorma,” to name a few—could be put in this fifth slot. But for sheer heartbreaking oomph, moviemakers tend to select to Madame Butterfly’sUn bel di vedremo.” The aria is so overtly romantic, it has been used as a wink of sorts to its status as a romantic cliché. The Simpsons resident alcoholic Barney Gumble uses Cio-Cio San’s song to score his art film, “Pukahontas,” and it helps set a creepy mood the Michael Douglas–Glenn Close thriller Fatal Attraction.

 Weigh in: What piece do you think is the most overexposed?

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Comments [13]

Martin from Flushing, NY

I object to the labeling of this music as cliched. It is musical snobbery. The fact that these pieces are so popular is a tribute to their effectiveness and accessibility. These pieces have stood the test of time and their beauty and pathos should not be mocked. It is true that there are myriad works that need to be played, heard and broadcast, but to call an undeniable masterpiece a cliche and devalue it is not the answer to that need. You seem to be rather confused as to your mission. Lately you have been touting WQXR and classical music as a soporific or tranquilizer but the emotions and effects of these "cliches"are more complex than that and you should know better.

Feb. 05 2015 05:25 PM
slgreene3 from UWS

UPDATE: In the recent (July, 2012) episode of "PBS Masterpiece Mystery" called "Endeavor" (a prequel to the Inspector Morse mysteries), the murderer turns out to be (spoiler alert!) a soprano who is taken into custody backstage just after singing "Un bel di" to great acclaim from the audience at a triumphant recital.

Jul. 22 2012 10:32 PM
Ruth Shoenthal

I, too, have to vote for the Romeo and Juliette Fantasy Overture as most exposed. But I'd rather hear it than listen to Pachabel's Canon in D. Aagh!

Feb. 17 2012 11:11 AM
Frank D from Madison NJ

What purpose does this article serve other than to celebrate the author's sophomoric sophistication (pretentiously or superficially wise)? A few years ago I went to see the NYC Ballet do Prokofiev's R&J on Saturday and then to Tanglewood on Sunday to hear the Boston do Tchaikovsky's R&J. Both performances were a delight and I spent no time worrying that someone would consider my musical taste lowbrow.

Feb. 17 2012 10:59 AM
Bernie from UWS

I'll be blunt, I really find the Tchaikovsky Romeo & Juliet nauseating. It conveys the worst of the composer, in my opinion - saccharine, schmaltzy and bereft of subtlety. I like some Tchaikovsky too - his First and Fourth Symphonies, the Nutcracker, the Souvenir of Florence. But here he really shows no mercy on listeners. I don't know why filmmakers ever latched onto that piece.

Feb. 16 2012 07:17 PM
bardboy from New York City

The best use of Tchaikovsky's overbearing (I am being kind) Romeo and Juliet was an episode on the The Mary Tyler Moore Show. It was the background music to a riotous scene in Betty White's bedroom, which in context made it almost tolerable.

Feb. 16 2012 07:04 PM
Andrea Becker from Manhattan

It may be overexposed, but when WQXR asked us to name the most romantic pieces for Valentine's Day, th Tchaikovsky leaped first to mind. Tchaikovsky somehow had his finger on the pulse of love, not just in this piece, but also in melodies from "Swan Lake," "Sleeping Beauty," and even in the nostalgic, "Memories of a Dear Place," which could be a remembrance of a dear person as well as a place.

However, there are two other classic cinematic themes that are often used, though the first is far less aired: Henry Mancini's "Romeo & Juliet," and then "Tara's Theme" from "Gone with the Wind." I'm sure there are lots more, but those will incarnate "romance" for me always.

Feb. 16 2012 06:27 PM
Mary M. from Pelham

I don't think of Liebestod as trite or overused, but as a masterpiece which exudes sensuality.

Feb. 16 2012 06:16 PM
kayk from Morristown

I agree with Robert. It amazes me that "Bolero" remains popular with anyone other than randy college boys. I was surprised to see it make the "good romantic music" list!

Feb. 16 2012 01:28 PM
James G from Eastchester

Most definately, of the 5 you have listed, the Romeo and Juliet theme is overused and has become a cliche for "Love at first sight". My personal favorite is the theme from Sophie's Choice. I know that it is a morose story, but the music is really exquisite! Turn the lights down, see what happens.

Feb. 16 2012 09:19 AM
XYZ from New England

Undoubtedly, the first movement of Mozart's "Eine Kleine Nachtbusik" is another example. I hope to God they will leave his clarinet concerto, his late piano concertos and symphonies alone.

Feb. 15 2012 01:00 PM

I'm surprised Ravel's Bolero is not on the list of most overexposed classical pieces. Plus anything by Vivaldi.

Feb. 15 2012 10:13 AM
Constantine from New York

We don't all become overexposed to the same pieces or at the same rate. And many pieces are overexposed precisely because they are so good. (Would anyone complain because we hear Beethoven's Fifth so often?) Of the above, I would certainly put at least the Liebestod in that category.

Feb. 14 2012 08:22 PM

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