Best classical music for funerals
Selecting the right music for the funeral of a loved one is never going to be an easy task. Oliver Condy chooses music that can provide moments of beauty amidst the sadness
There is a lot to think about when organising a funeral – readings, eulogy, mourners – and music may not be a priority. It does, however, form an important part of a church service. Here are suggestions of music that can provide moments of beauty amidst the sadness.
Best organ music for funerals
Should the funeral be taking place in a church, the chances are there will be an organ. If you can, talk to the organist about the options. Many will suggest improvising as the coffin is brought in, but consider the following:
Elgar: Nimrod from the Enigma Variations
There are a few arrangements for organ, including a superb one by WH Harris, the composer of the choral masterpiece Faire is the Heaven. It’s not an easy play, but worth spending time on, particularly in finessing the registration changes.
Elgar: Enigma Variations/Hallé Orchestra, Mark Elder
Bach: Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ, BWV 639
One of Bach’s most beautiful chorale preludes from the Orgelbüchlein, and supplicatory in tone, is Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ BWV 639. The words from the hymn that forms the foundation of the piece translate as ‘Lord, hear the voice of my complaint, To Thee I now commend me.’ It’s a short piece, and can be performed in its entirety at the start of a service.
Stephen Farr (organ)
Bach: O Mensch, bewein’ dein’ Sünde gross, BWV 622
Another exquisite gem by Bach which would be suitable for a funeral is O Mensch, bewein’ dein’ Sünde gross BWV 622, again from the Orgelbüchlein – this time, a longer work that will be perfect for the period before the service, or straight afterwards as mourners leave the building.
In terms of the larger works, head for the Prelude and Fugue in B minor, BWV 544, a work of great tragedy but considerable musical interest. Beware the fiddly fugue, with its intricate double subject towards the end. For the more ambitious, ask the organist about playing the Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor BWV 582, a work of great beauty imbued with a stately melancholy.
David Goode (organ)
Signum Classics SGCD 812
Ten more of the best pieces of organ music for funerals:
- Boellmann: Prière à Notre-Dame from Suite Gothique
- Widor: second movement from Symphonie gothique
- Vaughan Williams: Prelude on ‘Rhosymedre’
- Flor Peeters: Adagio from Suite Modale or his Aria
- Handel: Ombra mai fu from Serse
- Percy Whitlock: Folk Tune
- Mendelssohn: Allegretto from Sonata No. 4 in B flat
- Howells: Psalm Prelude, Set 1, Op. 32 No. 2
- De Grigny: Tierce en taille from Livre d’Orgue
- Brahms: O Welt, ich muss dich lassen Op. 122 No. 3
Best songs and choral works for funerals
If you have a singer, this could be a perfect choice, its beautiful melody set above a gentle, hypnotic arpeggio accompaniment.
Janet Baker (mezzo-soprano), Gerald Moore (piano)
Warner Classics 5862512
Fauré: Pie Jesu from the Requiem
Of all the Pie Jesu settings, Fauré’s is the simplest and most affecting. A beautiful choice for any part of the service.
Corydon Singers & English Chamber Orchestra/Matthew Best
Handel: He shall feed his flock from Messiah
Another simple and moving piece, beloved by so many, with a reassuring message.
Mozart or Elgar: Ave Verum
If you do have access to a choir at the church, both Elgar’s and Mozart’s settings are straightforward for most – perfect after a reading or eulogy.
The best hymns for a funeral
- Abide with me
- Lord of all hopefulness
- Love divine (tune by John Stainer)
- The Lord’s my shepherd
- Eternal ruler of the ceaseless round (tune by Gibbons)
- O God, our help in ages past
- An evening hymn (tune by Tallis)
- All my hope on God is founded (tune by Howells)
- My song is love unknown
- The King of love my shepherd is
- Lead us, heavenly Father
- The Church’s one foundation (tune by SS Wesley)
- Come down, O love divine
- There is a green hill far away
- Dear Lord and Father of mankind
- All things bright and beautiful
- Amazing Grace
- Nearer My God to Thee
You can find the lyrics to some of your favourite hymns here
Top image by Getty Images
Oliver Condy is the former Editor of BBC Music Magazine, a post he held for 17 years. His debut book, Symphonies of the Soul: Classical Music to Cure Any Ailment, will be released in November 2021 with Octopus Books. He is also a semi-professional organist, having previously given recitals in Bach’s churches across Germany.