What is a funeral march?

A funeral march is a slow, stately piece of music, usually in a minor key, and duple or quadruple time, that imitates the feel and pace of a funeral procession. Designed to be used as part of a real procession, the earliest funeral marches were simple in character, accompanied by a steady beat on a large drum.

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Since then the genre has evolved in terms of both harmonic and rhythmic complexity, with many funeral marches forming part of a large-scale work written to be performed in the concert hall. But these, too, often make their way into funerals. Here are some of the most famous examples.

Mendelssohn’s Funeral March

Mendelssohn wrote this piece in May 1836 for the funeral of his friend, the German composer Norbert Burgmüller who, earlier that month, had been found drowned in a bathtub - probably as the result of an epileptic fit. Written for wind ensemble, it is a grandiose piece that builds to a towering climax.

Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 – Marcia funebre: Adagio assai

Moments of sunshine and hope mingle with intense solemnity in the second movement of the Eroica, which features a majestic threnody, juxtaposed with imitation drum rolls in the strings. Inspired by the grand funeral marches composed for public occasions during the French Revolution, this piece is one of Beethoven's most imposing musical statements.

Chopin's Piano Sonata No. 2 – Marche funebre

Composed at least two years before the rest of the work, the third movement of Chopin's Piano Sonata No.2 is one of the composer's most popular works. With its intensely elegiac atmosphere, it has become the go-to musical piece to accompany the subject of death, and has been played at numerous funerals, not least those of John F. Kennedy, Sir Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher, as well as Chopin himself.

Mahler's Symphony No. 1 – Feierlich und gemessen, ohne zu schleppen

Inspired by a woodcut by Moritz von Schwind on which forest animals lead a funeral procession in honour of a fallen hunter, Mahler's funeral march is intended as a parody – but a desperately sad one. We hear a solemn march based on a minor-key version of the popular round 'Frère Jacques'. Then, without warning, the mood changes, and Mahler uses cymbal, bass drum, oboes, clarinets and a trumpet duo to produce the sound of a small klezmer band, before returning, with equal suddenness to a mood of lamentation. It's all very typical of the composer who famously juxtaposed comedy and tragedy to shockingly abrupt effect.

Brahms – Ein deutsches Requiem

Possibly inspired by his mother's death in 1865, Brahms's great choral work is one of the most grandiose and solemn works in the canon. Its second movement, in particular, is centred on the heavy rhythms of a funeral-march, with the chorus proclaiming the inevitability of man’s fate, ‘Denn alles Fleisch es ist wie Gras’ (Behold, all flesh is as the grass).

Elgar's Symphony No. 2 – Larghetto

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This piece was dedicated to Edward VII, after whose death it was written. But many also believe that it is more personal to Elgar, as he had lost his close friends August Johannes Jaeger and Alfred Edward Rodewald around the time he was working on the symphony. Beginning with a dreamlike introduction, it descends into an outpouring of grief, complete with slow drum taps and heavy brass chords. The mood lightens for a while, with an episode of near-bucolic tranquility, before the music takes on an elegiac character that grows steadily more intense.

Authors

Hannah Nepilova is a regular contributor to BBC Music Magazine. She has also written for The Financial Times, The Times, The Strad, Gramophone, Opera Now, Opera, the BBC Proms and the Philharmonia, and runs The Cusp, an online magazine exploring the boundaries between art forms. Born to Czech parents, she has a strong interest in Czech music and culture.