Love, in all of its glorious forms – triumphant, passionate, fragile, unrequited, tragic – is every artist’s muse. To celebrate Valentine’s Day we’ve handpicked some of the best classical romantic music masterpieces straight from the hearts of the composers. So whether you’re trying to impress your significant other, or planning a grand, over-the-top gesture of your own, discover our selection of the best pieces of classical romantic music we’re confident would bring tears to the eyes of Cupid himself.
Best Classical Romantic Music: Top 20 Pieces for Valentine’s Day
20: Pachelbel: Canon in D
A piece inextricably associated with love and marriage is Pachelbel’s Canon. Exactly how this 17th century piece came to be ubiquitous in 21st century wedding ceremonies remains something of a mystery. This canon is not, strictly speaking, a bridal march. However, with the steady, regular pulse of the cello, radiant harmonies and soaring melodies, it’s easy to see why brides the world over choose this special piece of music to accompany their walk down the aisle.
19: Chopin: Nocturne No.2 in E flat
Of all Chopin’s nocturnes this one really sticks in the mind. In its first iteration the tender main theme is enchanting in its simplicity. With every repetition Chopin ornaments this theme more and more until the melody falls, tumbles and dances. Many pianists drench this piece in rubato, giving it a wistful, dreamy quality. Just perfect for a romantic evening.
18: Offenbach: ‘Barcolle’ from The Tales of Hoffman
‘Oh beautiful night, oh night of love’ begins Offenbach’s famous ‘Barcolle’. This piece from Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffman, probably one of the most popular duets in opera, opens the third act of the opera which is set in Venice. Traditionally a ‘barcolle’ is a folk song sung by gondoliers. Its characteristic, lilting 6/8 time signature gives the impression of the gondola gently gliding through the water and the beautiful soprano and mezzo soprano melody emphasise this swirling, watery quality. Opera, Venice, gondolas – what could be more romantic?
17: Tchaikovsky: Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture
The famous ‘love theme’ from Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Overture delivers oodles of euphoria, bliss and romance. This melody undulates and twists like an emotional rollercoaster: it begins, with soaring, passionate strings, before plunging into despair, with touches of minor tonality, before recovering, stronger and more passionate than before. Perhaps foreshadowing the story of the star-crossed lovers, or perhaps suggesting that love, after everything, conquers all.
16: Puccini: ‘O Soave Fanciulla’ from La Bohéme
Nothing says romance quite like opera and Puccini was quite the grand master of the genre. This particular moment, ‘Oh Lovely Girl’ from La Bohème concludes the first act and is one of the most romantic duets in the repertoire. For protagonists Mimi and Rodolfo, this is their epiphany, the shining moment of realisation that each loves the other. They leave the stage singing ‘Amour! Amour!’
15: Mascagni: ‘Intermezzo Sinfonica’ from Cavalleria Rusticana
Mascagni’s ‘Intermezzo Sinfonica’, one of the best pieces of classical romantic music, is the perfect mood-setter for Valentine’s Day. Cavalleria Rusticana was a seminal opera that marked the birth of verismo, an aesthetic which presented relationships in sensationalised, and often crudest, forms. The plot sees a complex web of love, deceit and betrayal. Amidst this gritty subject matter, the ‘Intermezzo Sinfonica’ provides a brief interlude, a poignant moment of reflection with a beautiful, tender melody soaring over a thick haze of schmaltzy strings.
14: Elgar: Salut d’Amour
What could be more romantic than Elgar’s Salut d’Amour, the musical love letter he presented to his wife, Caroline Alice Roberts as an engagement present. Originally scored for violin and piano, the sweeping melody exudes grace and elegance. There are no pyrotechnics, grand orchestra or over-the-top gestures in this piece: it is the embodiment of simple, uncomplicated, joyful love. There are now many different arrangements and manifestations of Salut d’Amour, demonstrating perfectly the universality of music as a language of love.
13: Shostakovich: ‘Romance’ from The Gadfly
Shostakovich is hardly renowned for his light, sentimental touch, but this ‘Romance’ from his score for the 1955 film The Gadfly is a happy departure from his usual, powerful style. Soft harmonies accompany a delicate violin melody, not dissimilar to ‘Meditation’ from Massenet’s Thais (see No.10). The ‘Romance’ is widely performed today as a totally charming concert suite.
12: Fauré: Après un Rêve
Fauré’s Après un Rêve (After a Dream) is a song about devotion and passion. The dreamer yearns for the return of her dreams, in which she met her love: ‘In sleep made sweet by a vision of you’. Accompanied only by warm, unwavering piano, this song feels intimate and personal, a glimpse into the innermost thoughts of this besotted singer.
11: Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 2, Second Movement, ‘Adagio sostenuto’
Brooding, emotional and passionate, there’s a reason why Rachmaninov’s mighty second Piano Concerto is the score of choice for the born romantics and pianists up for a serious challenge. This piano concerto, one of the best pieces of classical romantic music, is familiar to many: it famously featured in the 1945 film Brief Encounter, directed by David Lean. Rachmaninov’s swelling, emotional theme lends itself perfectly to the film’s romantic moments.
10: Massenet: ‘Méditation’ from Thaïs
‘Méditation’ originally provided a moment of quiet, introspective reflection during a scene change in Massenet’s opera Thaïs. The music is so sweet, so rousing, that it has come to be appreciated as a concert piece in its own right. The silky violin solo dips and dives, floating high above gentle orchestral accompaniment. A more impassioned, perhaps even anguished, middle section points to a darker, more desperate kind of love, foreshadowing the misfortune that will befall the lovers, Thaïs and Athanaël, in the final act of the opera.
9: Rachmaninov: Symphony No. 2, Third Movement
An incredibly rich and tender movement nestled in the midst of an otherwise dramatic and powerful symphony. Rachmaninov displays restrained yet tangible passion in this gorgeously understated movement. Lyrical, expansive melodies sweep up the listener in a warm, dreamy feeling, whilst gentle surges in dynamics give the music an ethereal, blissful quality. Close your eyes and melt away with one of the best pieces of classical romantic music.
8: Beethoven: Piano Concerto No.3, Second Movement, ‘Largo’
A name synonymous with romanticism, Beethoven’s oeuvre is littered with beautiful, heartfelt pieces – many of which would be perfectly placed on a Valentine’s playlist. We’ve picked the ‘Largo’ from his third piano concerto. It’s the tenderness of the piano part, which oscillates between sweetness and nostalgia, that sets this piece apart for us. Good, old-fashioned romance – you simply can’t go wrong.
7: Puccini: ‘O Mio Babbino Caro’ from Gianni Schicchi
Back to Puccini who, of course, wrote many beautiful, emotional melodies for star-crossed lovers. In the deeply moving aria ‘O Mio Babbino Caro’, one of the best pieces of classical romantic music, a lovesick soprano implores her father to help her to marry the man she so desperately loves. Her anguish is real, brought to life with glossy strings, sweeping vocal acrobatics and just the right amount of bittersweet harmony to bring a tear to your eye.
6: Wagner: ‘Liebestod’ from Tristan Und Isolde
The embodiment of German Romanticism, Wagner’s music is pure fire – passion on steroids. His opera Tristan Und Isolde is typically intense and indulgent, focussing on themes of doomed, impossible love. These themes are weaved into the very fabric of the music: unresolved harmonic progressions, unfinished melodic phrases, and unfettered orchestral forces, create an unending feeling of yearning and insatiable desire. The finale of the four-hour-long opera, the ‘Liebestod’ (literally translated as ‘love-death’) does just this and more. A tidal wave of emotion.
5: Debussy: La Fille Aux Cheveux De Lin
La Fille aux Cheveux de Lin is a gem from Debussy’s vast and stunning oeuvre of solo piano pieces. The beauty of this piece lies in its elegant simplicity: lilting, delicate melodies shine and tumble happily over one another, enveloped by the soft, luminous harmonies emanating from the spread chord accompaniment beneath. The liberating feeling of weightlessness and freedom of spirit Debussy achieves here sounds a little like how love should feel.
4: Mahler: Symphony No.5, Fourth Movement ‘Adagietto’
It is widely accepted that this astounding symphony tells the story of Mahler’s love affair with his future wife, Alma: indeed the fourth movement is often referred to as a love letter from composer to muse. Sumptuously soft and glossy, the ‘Adagietto’ is almost un-Mahler-like in its vastly reduced orchestral forces and lack of pyrotechnics, with only soulful strings and gentle harp. From the first few bars, it is abundantly clear to the listener that this movement is not like any of Mahler’s other works: this is his heart.
3: Pärt: Spiegel Im Spiegel
Sensitive, hypnotic, poignant. Avro Pärt’s minimalistic approach to composition in this well-known piece strips back the layers, leaving raw, fragile emotion. The solo violin (or cello in some recordings) takes unsteady breaths, with the bow only just making contact with the string, whilst the circling piano creates a feeling of stasis and complete contentment. It’s not until the final note that you realise you’ve been holding your breath.
2: Vaughan Williams: ‘Romance’ from Serenade in A minor
Vaughan Williams’ music never fails to stir up all those warm, gooey emotions; somehow, it feels like coming home. Take a listen to this ‘Romance’ – rich, earthy strings and soaring woodwind slowly evolve into a musical picture of idyllic, pastoral bliss. Endlessly sentimental, bursting with sunlight and joyful nostalgia.
1: Tchaikovsky: ‘Sugarplum Pas De Deux’ from The Nutcracker
Tchaikovsky’s music for his classic ballet is the epitome of musical romance. The Nutcracker is the ultimate fairytale love story, and this exquisite pas de deux is danced by the Sugar Plum Fairy and her prince. The famous cascading theme is first presented by the cellos, accompaniment by magical harp arpeggios, before it slowly builds and builds, tugging harder and harder on those heart strings.