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Rhapsodies of Love and Life

Text by: Amy Carpenter

Romance… It is a feeling of soaring and falling, of being lifted off our feet and flying through the clouds. It is an ache in the heart, a longing for the one we love, the impatience we experience as the clock ticks away until we can be with that person again. It is the passion of a kiss, the electricity of hands brushing together, the comfort of an arm around your shoulders. When you love someone, you would do anything for them. Their pain is your pain, their joy your joy. It is emotional connectivity. It is the blossoming of a more enduring love.

Throughout history, many have sought to express the intense emotions of romance and love through music. Music is the universal language of the heart. It obliterates all barriers, drawing people closer together, regardless of language or time, and expresses that which we could never put into words. Nowhere is the transcending power of music more evident than in the classic movie, Somewhere in Time.

As playwright Richard Collier receives applause and accolade for the successful debut of his premiere play, an elderly woman slowly makes her way to him. Leaning in closely, she places in his hand an old-fashioned gold pocket watch, whispering, “Come back to me.” Stunned by the impression she has left upon him, he makes it his mission to discover the identity of the mysterious old woman who would bestow upon him such an inexplicable gift.

Years later, through a series of fortuitous events, Richard discovers that the elusive woman from the opening night of his play is famed actress Elise McKenna, who was at the height of her career some 70 years before. He learns from a previous housekeeper of Miss McKenna’s that she never married. She lived a life of quiet solitude and often listened to her favorite piece of music, Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini, Variation 18” (which also happens to be Richard’s favorite piece) played by a beautiful music box carved into a replica of The Grand Hotel. After discovering many clues hinting that he’d somehow been at the hotel with Miss McKenna in her career’s prime, Richard resolves to cross the impossible boundaries of time and space to find his way back to Elise – back to 1912. Throughout this captivating romance, Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody” is woven into the most sentimental and passionate moments of Richard and Elise’s lives.

There is a phenomenon that occurs whenever we hear a certain song. When we hear the familiar melody, we recall certain moments with their accompanying emotions. The song attaches itself to our memories, and it becomes our “song.” In Somewhere in Time, “Rhapsody” is Richard and Elise’s “song.” Just listening to it sets the heart racing. Beginning with the delicate flourish of the right hand, the melody tugs and pulls against the chords of the left hand. Just as this simple song seems it will climax, the piano hushes the swelling. It continues with contrary chords as the strings of the orchestra take over the melody. The simple song gives way to a sweeping symphony. The music rises and falls, ever continuing its journey towards its epiphany of passion. This time, there is no holding back, and all emotional control is lost. The dam bursts. Waves of sound crash back and forth on the sands of the heart, pulling back at last to leave us basking in the peace and contentment of the piano’s simple solitude.

This passionate masterpiece springs from the minds of two brilliant composers who lived at opposite ends of the Romantic period, Rachmaninoff and Niccolo Paganini. The Romantic Period of music spanned the 19th century and included such composers as Beethoven, Schubert, and Chopin. Romantic composers sought to infuse traditional classical style (marked by strict adherence to rules of music) with more emotion, which is why the period earned the term “Romantic.” One of the most intense emotions of the human experience is love, so it’s easy to see why many have come to view the Romantic Period as the Period of Lovers.

Paganini was quite a lover himself. He was born in Italy in 1782. He was a womanizer, a gambler, and most of all, a virtuoso violinist. His playing was so passionate and technically impossible that audiences swooned in delirium, and many people conjectured he had made a pact with the devil. Paganini also loved a good challenge, and since the music of the time was not difficult enough for him, he wrote his own music. He composed 24 Caprices for violin. The last Caprice is the basis for Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody.”

Rachmaninoff was born in 1873 in Russia. His mother was wealthy, and his father gambled away her fortune, eventually abandoning the family when Rachmaninoff was nine-years-old. Rachmaninoff fell in love with his cousin, Natalia Satina, but was forbidden to marry her by the Russian Orthodox Church. Eventually, they were married by a military chaplain. Rachmaninoff and his family fled Russia during the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. Later, they immigrated to the United States where Rachmaninoff quit composing, instead performing piano to support his family. Rachmaninoff regained his muse when he built a summer home on Lake Lucerne in Switzerland, where he eventually composed “Rhapsody.” Although Rachmaninoff composed many memorable and beautiful pieces, “Rhapsody” stands out among them as the ultimate lovers’ song.

My husband and I also have a “song,” one just as schmaltzy and romantic as Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody.” One of my favorite Broadway productions (and operas) to sing is The Phantom of the Opera. My husband frequently asks me to sing songs from this tragically beautiful love story. Although our tastes in music sometimes differ, we have formed a strong connection through The Phantom of the Opera. Because of this connection, it is no surprise that one of the first shows we visited on our second honeymoon to Las Vegas was the Venetian’s production of Phantom. Afterwards, we snuggled in a gondola and went on a delectable shopping spree at Godiva Chocolates. It was the most romantic night of my life. My husband and I both heartily agree that Phantom’s “All I Ask of You” is now our song.

Songs also forge connections to our hearts in other, non-romantic relationships in our lives. My two-year-old son and I have a song. We love to sing “The Wheels on the Bus” together. It doesn’t sound like a very emotional song, but it has a special meaning for the two of us. My son is developmentally delayed in several areas. He started walking on his second birthday, and up until then, had only said three or four words. Recently, during a speech therapy appointment, we sang, “The wipers on the bus go swish, swish, swish.” After finishing the song, he astonishingly began singing “shish, shish, shish.” He had the intonation and timing right and even tried to make his hands imitate the motions of wipers going back and forth to show, “swish, swish, swish.” It was a major step for him, and we both now feel such joy, love, and triumph every time we sing that simple song. It will be etched on my heart as the first song with which my beautiful son took strides in his development along his path of life. “The Wheels on the Bus” is our song.

Songs are the rhapsodies of love and life, which add richness to our relationships and become the essence of memory and emotion. They are the echoes of life, which help us remember the moments of love that might otherwise become lost “Somewhere in Time.”

* Most composers used the original melody and just changed the tempo or the accompaniment. Rachmaninoff followed the same pattern until he wrote the 18th variation of “Rhapsody,” which is the one we hear in “Somewhere in Time.” Rachmaninoff flipped Paganini’s melody over, slowing down the tempo and adding lots of schmaltz. For example, if you had a song melody that went "CCGEDC," Rachmaninoff would have done, "GGCEFG.”