These are the pieces of classical music that will make you cry, according to our critics
BBC Music Magazine's critics name the pieces of classical music that will inexplicably bring them to tears every time they hear them
Some pieces – operas, in particular – set out to make you weep. It would take a stonyhearted listener not to well up at least a little as they have their heartstrings pulled by master manipulators such as Verdi in La traviata, Puccini in Madam Butterfly or Janáček’s Jenůfa. In these instances, the unfolding plot itself is enough to trigger the emotions.
But music also works on an altogether more subtle level. Sometimes we find ourself reaching for the handkerchief while listening to works that, on the face of it, have no tragic content whatsoever. Perhaps they trigger some recollection or association? Or maybe there’s something in the structure of the music itself that causes an emotional response? Plus, of course, tears are not always shed through sadness – joy, relief and fondness can also come into play.
Some works make us cry just the once, and that’s it, we’re done. Others, in contrast, turn on the taps every single time we hear them. We asked a dozen of our reviewers to tell us the pieces that are guaranteed to get the tears rolling…
What are the pieces of music that make our critics cry?
Humperdinck's 'Dream-Pantomime' from Hansel and Gretel
Nightfall, and the two children are lost in a forest. They sing their evening prayer and go to sleep. As they slumber, the orchestra depicts 14 angels coming down to watch over them. And the insanely gorgeous creation that is Humperdinck’s Dream-Pantomime from Hansel and Gretel reduces me every time to a blubbing puddle.
It ought really to classify as ‘mawkish Victorian sentimentality’, but no. Instead, perhaps it strikes a chord deep in the psyche, maybe (wild speculation) to do with childhood memories: our fear, aged two, of the dark, or of abandonment, or the eternal longing to feel there’s someone looking after us. I know countless people who are likewise affected. I’ve even seen musicians trooping out of the orchestra pit dabbing at their eyes after playing it.
Chosen by Jessica Duchen
Philharmonia Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan
Warner Classics 6407162
Mahler's Third Symphony: Finale
Some music seems almost calculated to set the tear ducts pricking – the introduction to the finale of Mozart’s G minor String Quintet, say. But tears of joy or of gratitute can be just as potent. The founding fathers of the Edinburgh Festival spoke of the ‘flowering of the human spirit’, and nowhere does it flower more exaltedly than in the finale of Mahler’s Third Symphony. After the questions, the fretting and Nietzschean warning comes a finale Mahler marks ‘Ruhevoll’ (peaceful); it’s a peace hard won, and unfolded over a span of abiding generosity. It opens hushed and reassuring, and reassurance always returns whenever anguish threatens or is given its head. From there the final act of reconciliation and transcendent apotheosis can begin – discharged in an extended close that blazes hope, affirmation and, yes, the human spirit in full flower.
Chosen by Paul Riley
Where did the Third Symphony appear in our list of Mahler symphonies, ranked worst to best?
Purcell's Evening Hymn
Few people remain unmoved by Purcell’s Evening Hymn – an elegiac setting of William Fuller’s poetic reflection on death: ‘Now that the sun hath veil’d his light, And bid the world goodnight; To the soft bed my body I dispose, But where shall my soul repose?’ Purcell’s hauntingly wistful melody floats over a hypnotic ground bass which, in turn, is an elaboration of the descending tetrachord whose inevitable and constant descent was a symbol of lamentation in Baroque music – and a poignant reminder of human mortality. Purcell’s subtle dissonances and harmonic shift on the words ‘can there be any so sweet security’ conveys at once the uncertainty of the sceptic and the optimism of the believer.
Chosen by Kate Bolton-Porciatti
Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio, has its flaws, but I love it for its idealism and for one transcendental five-minute passage that never fails to moisten the eyes. It’s the Act I quartet, where four characters each disclose to us their most cherished dreams – dreams so contradictory that you realise (though they don’t) that they can’t all come true. So there’s immediately that tension, inherent in life itself, between those destined to be winners and those who will end up losers. That’s sad enough.
But then there’s Beethoven’s astonishing musical response: the low strings’ hymn-like introduction, the poignant clarinet curling round the voice, and that limpid, exquisitely simple tune passed from voice to voice while the counterpoint around it (like the opera’s plot) becomes more and more entangled. ‘To live is to suffer,’ wrote Nietzsche. Beethoven shows that even suffering can be sublimely beautiful.
Chosen by Richard Morrison
We named the best recordings of Beethoven's Fidelio here.
Philharmonia Orchestra/Otto Klemperer
Warner Classics 2564695614
Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen
Music related to wildlife and the natural world regularly reduces me to tears. Despite the number of times I’ve listened to them, Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending and the Sea Interludes from Britten’s Peter Grimes invoke the same overwhelming wonder as a breathtaking landscape. There’s nothing more powerful than music – except when it is combined with thoughtful words. Laura Bowler’s Houses Rising, an oratorio about climate change recently premiered at the Southbank, left me unsettled for days. And the story and sound of Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen is certain to make me blub: our heroine is last seen on stage as a fur worn by the poacher’s wife, illuminated by an urgent, haunting score.
Chosen by Claire Jackson
Vienna Philharmonic/Charles Mackerras
Ravel’s Miroirs: ‘Vallée des cloches’
There’s one moment in Ravel’s ‘Vallée des cloches’, from the piano suite Miroirs, that never fails. The imagery, too, is always the same. I’m standing in a Mediterranean valley at sunset, looking down towards the sea. Distantly, all around, church bells are ringing. It’s peaceful, but slightly eerie. Then, about two minutes in, comes the twist to B flat minor (why is it always B flat minor?), and there it is again – loss. Tenderness, wonder, irrevocable pain – it’s all there; but it’s also so contained, so dignified, so exquisitely stoical – and that somehow makes it worse, and at the same time achingly beautiful. Sometimes just thinking about it is enough.
Chosen by Stephen Johnson
Linda Catlin Smith's Drifter
The American-born Canadian composer Linda Catlin Smith creates exquisite music with all sorts of instrument combinations. But there’s something especially moving about the subtlety she achieves in Drifter, a 20-minute piece composed in 2009 for the highly unusual pairing of guitar and piano. It’s all about listening: the musicians to each other and us to them, as they come together in gentle, mutual exploration of chords, timbres and melodic fragments. I imagine an itinerant guitarist finding an old bar off a dusty road where a lone pianist is softly pressing keys; this is their beautifully understated yet eloquent conversation. Their meeting has a quiet grace and wisdom, and a sweet melancholy that I find always invokes a tearful sense of release.
Chosen by Steph Power
Emma Richards (viola), Simon Limbrick (vibraphone), Philip Thomas (piano), Diego Castro Magas (guitar), Mira Benjamin (violin), Simon Limbrick (percussion), Anton Lukoszevieze (cello), Quatuor Bozzini
Another Timbre at105
Tibor Harsányi's Tale of the Little Tailor
A colleague, Vittorio Rieti, described the Paris-based Hungarian composer Tibor Harsányi (1898-1954) as ‘a very good musician, but rather shy and sad’. In the late 1930s, Harsányi wrote a jazz-and-Stravinsky-inspired score for the Grimm Brothers’ Tale of the Little Tailor, which includes a cue of particularly potent melancholy. The tailor, having defeated the wild boar and the two giants, suddenly baulks at his final task and longs for home. The following clarinet-led sotto voce lament is understated yet telling, its short-winded phrases reflecting our hero’s despair. In its central section, after a lugubrious solo cello phrase, a muted trumpet plays short-breathed wisps of child-like entreaty, ending in a despairing wail before the clarinet resumes. The major chord ending offers some consolation, at least.
Chosen by Daniel Jaffé
Elgar's Dream of Gerontius
Infra dig as it may be for an academic to admit it, my responses to music are as much about the heart as the head. I’m a sucker for anything that evokes nostalgia for times past, innocence lost or love thwarted: rousing hymns that transport me back to the school hall, anything sung by boy trebles, the most self-consciously heart-rending of operas. A particular personal tear-jerker is The Dream of Gerontius, not for any religious reason, but because of the sheer lushness of Elgar’s orchestral writing and the vocal music that is so expressive, so heart-on-sleeve that it seems simultaneously to encapsulate life’s highest joys and its ultimate fragility. When it comes to this piece, I could weep for England.
Chosen by Alexandra Wilson
We named Dream of Gerontius as one of the best works by Elgar.
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Adrian Boult
EMI 764 0152
Poulenc's Deux poèmes de Louis Aragon
In September 1943 Poulenc, in occupied France, received from Switzerland a printed copy of the Communist résistant Louis Aragon’s book of poems, Les Yeux d’Elsa. Within a week he had set two of them. ‘C’ is a lament for France’s defeat. The poet notes the links in French poetry between the popular and sophisticated styles – in line with Poulenc’s love of what he called ‘la délicieuse mauvaise musique’. The phrasing is popular (regular quavers, ten four-bar phrases, plus one bar for the final cadence); sophistication lies in the harmonies. My lachrymose moment comes on the heartbroken, heartbreaking cry ‘O ma France, ô ma délaissée’ – not just conquered, but abandoned, by the generals and their bizarre reliance on the Maginot Line
Chosen by Roger Nichols
Brahms's Piano Quartet No. 3: Andante
We don’t grieve less as we age, but we do grieve differently. Children can howl without restraint until exhausted, but as adults we must often measure our misery, shoe-horning it into busy days. The Andante from Brahms’s Piano Quartet Op. 60 perfectly captures that dignified sorrow – I can never hear it without a silent tear rolling down my cheek. The descending cello melody, pitched like a human voice, is steadied and supported by a calm, resolute piano part. When the other strings join in, their mutual companionship, depicted by the constant intertwining of their voices, evokes the most sympathetic friendship. This music always make me weep, but it offers reassurance and comfort too.
Chosen by Natasha Loges
We named this as one of the best Brahms recordings of all time.
Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde
There are tears and there is sobbing. I weep easily, most often at music and movies, but what finds me fumbling for my handkerchief to stifle the sobs is Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. Or, to be precise, it’s the final pages of the work when, in ‘Der Abschied’, the soloist reaches the lines that the composer added to Hans Bethge’s Chinese Poems – ‘Allüberall und ewig Blauen licht die Fernen! Ewig… ewig…’ (‘Everywhere and forever the distance shines bright and blue! Forever… forever…’). I think of Mahler’s sense of his own mortality. I think of Kathleen Ferrier and Alfreda Hodgson, both peerless soloists in Das Lied who died too young. And I remember Janet Baker at a BBC Prom when I was a callow 18 year old – the night the sobbing started!
Chosen by Christopher Cook
We named Das Lied von der Erde as one of the best works by Mahler.
Kathleen Ferrier, Julius Patzak; Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Bruno Walter
Alto ALC 1120
Freya Parr is BBC Music Magazine's Digital Editor and Staff Writer. She has also written for titles including the Guardian, Circus Journal, Frankie and Suitcase Magazine, and runs The Noiseletter, a fortnightly arts and culture publication. Freya's main areas of interest and research lie in 20th-century and contemporary music.