How fitting it was that Nae-il, the ebullient heroine of Cantabile Tomorrow, was introduced to the melody of Hungarian composer Franz Liszt’s Liebesträume No. 3! The piece starts with the soft and soothing A-flat major, a cool evening breeze gently blowing across a lake. The tune then takes on a more serious tone, the evening scene imbued with colors of the finest hues. The climax builds up, the key unexpectedly switches to a glorious B major, octave jumps come forth. A couple of times, the melody is interrupted by cadenzas that give glimpses of stars twinkling in the night sky and on the lake surface, so mesmerizing yet so far away, before gales stir up the water. Finally, the atmosphere relaxes, the winds calm down, and the work ends in sweet harmony. Set to the music is German writer Ferdinand Freiligrath’s poem “O lieb, so lang du lieben kannst! (O love, so long as you can!),” which, as its title suggests, extols the virtue of carpe diem (Latin for “seize the day”) in love.
Yet a subtle thread of melancholy runs through the piano solo. This sentiment is more apparent in the full poem, which reads:
Original Text: "O lieb, so lang du lieben kannst!" O lieb, so lang du lieben kannst! O lieb, so lang du lieben magst! Die Stunde kommt, die Stunde kommt, Wo du an Gräbern stehst und klagst! Und sorge, daß dein Herze glüht Und Liebe hegt und Liebe trägt, So lang ihm noch ein ander Herz In Liebe warm entgegen schlägt. Und wer dir seine Brust erschließt, O tu ihm, was du kannst, zulieb! Und mach ihm jede Stunde froh, Und mach ihm keine Stunde trüb. Und hüte deine Zunge wohl, Bald ist ein böses Wort gesagt! O Gott, es war nicht bös gemeint, - Der Andre aber geht und klagt. O lieb, so lang du lieben kannst! O lieb, so lang du lieben magst! Die Stunde kommt, die Stunde kommt, Wo du an Gräbern stehst und klagst! Dann kniest du nieder an der Gruft, Und birgst die Augen, trüb und naß - sie sehn den Andern nimmermehr - In's lange, feuchte Kirchhofsgras. Und sprichst: O schau auf mich herab Der hier an deinem Grabe weint! Vergib, daß ich gekränkt dich hab! O Gott, es war nicht bös gemeint! Er aber sieht und hört dich nicht, Kommt nicht, daß du ihn froh umfängst; Der Mund, der oft dich küßte, spricht Nie wieder: ich vergab dir längst! Er that's, vergab dir lange schon, Doch manche heiße Träne fiel Um dich und um dein herbes Wort - Doch still - er ruht, er ist am Ziel! O lieb, so lang du lieben kannst! O lieb, so lang du lieben magst! Die Stunde kommt, die Stunde kommt, wo du an Gräbern stehst und klagst!
English Translation: "O love, so long as you can!" O love, so long as you can! O love, so long as you may! The hour comes, the hour comes, When you will stand by the grave and weep! Be sure that your heart with ardour glows, Is full of love and cherishes love, As long as one other heart Beats with yours in tender love! If anyone opens his heart to you, Show him kindness whenever you can! And make his every hour happy, And never give him one hour of sadness. And guard well your tongue! A cruel word is quickly said. Oh God, it was not meant to hurt, - But the other one departs in grief. O love, so long as you can! O love, so long as you may! The hour comes, the hour comes, When you will stand by the grave and weep! Then you will kneel beside the grave And your eyes will be moist with sorrow, - never will you see the beloved again - In the graveyard's long, wet grass. You will say: O look at me from below, I who cry here beside your grave! Forgive me that I slighted you! O God, it was not meant to hurt! Yet he neither sees nor hears you, The dear one lies beyond your comfort; The lips that kissed you so often can no longer say: I forgave you long ago! And forgive you he did, But tears he would profusely shed, Over you and on your scathing word - Hush now! - he rests, he is part of the past. O love, so long as you can! O love, so long as you may! The hour comes, the hour comes, When you will stand by the grave and weep!
(Credit for the first stanza belongs to an unidentified translator, while the second to fourth stanzas have been reproduced from The Ivory Classics Foundation‘s booklet with the very kind permission of its director, Mr. Michael Davis. More classical piano works can be browsed and collected here.)
Just as nighttime lies perilously near the close of the day, the prospect of death looms over love in the poem. However, it is precisely this contrast between eternal separation and the saccharinity of love that enhances the aura of romanticism surrounding the literary masterpiece. Love is all the more precious to us when we are profoundly reminded of its finite duration.
Elusive love, in fact, characterizes much of romance literature and dramas alike. Relatively few lines, on paper or on screen, are spent on couples in stable relationships. Almost always, a seemingly insurmountable obstacle is placed in the lead couple’s path to everlasting happiness: a terminal illness, deeply-entrenched social class divisions, nefarious villains and, most recently, a physiologically compelled escape to outer space.
Such contrasts that highlight the ethereal qualities of love are, however, not as visible in ordinary domestic life. Even threats that belong well to the realm of reality and as commonplace as ageing-related deaths and estrangement do not present themselves that obviously in everyday living. People do not usually, for instance, consider the mortality of those around them until symptoms of some fatal condition emerge or until old age has indeed arrived. Relationship deterioration within families, meanwhile, often takes place like an insidious pathological disorder of its own kind, its devastating consequences becoming apparent only when the situation is barely salvageable.
The end result is that once the pursuit of love is over, lovers gradually begin to take each other for granted. A wife, as one Japanese drama character wryly observed, normally would not bother with the strenuous efforts needed to prepare an exquisite table setting, complete with wine and flowers, to welcome her husband’s arrival, unlike the case with boyfriends. If such is the case with hard-earned romantic love, what more can be expected for God-given relationships like those with parents and siblings? Indeed, quite a number of us may notice that, in a departure from the in-group favoritism theory (i.e. favoring members of one’s social group over outsiders), people tend to treat those outside their family unit more cordially than their loved ones. A man may adopt a genial and considerate persona in the outside world, according utmost care and respect to everyone from his co-workers to waitresses and right down to random beggars on the street, only to shed his mask in fatigue once he steps inside his home. It is thus not strangers with no blood ties or emotional connections to him who experience the worst of his vitriol, but his wife and children.
On one hand, this ability to drop defenses and be oneself signifies emotional closeness between two people in a relationship. In contrast, a need to appease the other party constantly and take great precautions to avoid hurting her feelings would put a person on tenterhooks for as long as the relationship lasts. The accommodation of harmless barbs and minor transgressions here and there lets someone serve as a shelter and source of solace to a loved one in a judgmental and complicated world.
On the other hand, emotional proximity does not quite confer emotional invulnerability or moral immunity. Understanding and acceptance do not always ease the pain of a thoughtless action, as Freiligrath noted. Moreover, perfect understanding and acceptance are not a given in close relationships. There is no way, after all, one individual can inhabit the mind of another, even for a split second. More fundamentally, the utilization of a human being as an outlet for emotional release violates her basic dignity and is antithetical to the very concept of love.
That is a simple principle widely understood by those who roam this Earth in this day and age, just as Freiligrath’s lines sound hackneyed to readers with modern-day sensibilities. Yet the writer was moved to compose the poem through a personal tragedy no less than his father‘s demise. Would appreciation of such pathos, which continue to evoke profound remorse in people to this date, come earlier if there were less of a disconnect between artistic sentiments and their influence on everyday perceptions?