What are the saddest pieces of classical music?
Which pieces of classical music are guaranteed to make you cry? The BBC Music Magazine team shares their favourite melancholic, weepy pieces, which always makes them emotional
Miserere Nostri by Tallis
Setting just three words – ‘Miserere nostri, Domine’ (‘Have pity on us, Lord’) – Tallis’s penitential anthem for seven voices is the arguably most perfectly crafted expression of grief ever set down on the musical stave.
Two upper parts soar in canon above four lower parts each of which reflects the same melody but at different tempos or in inversion (the seventh part, the tenor, is more freely composed), to create the most exquisitely, hauntingly doleful three minutes of music imaginable.
Though it was published in 1575, by which stage Tallis was enduring the misery of plying his trade as a Catholic composer during the fiercely Protestant era of Elizabeth I, Miserere Nostri may well in fact have been written several years earlier when the Catholic Mary I was on the throne, so we shouldn’t read too much into the composer’s own circumstances in shaping this most morose of works. Though, perhaps, even then he could see dark clouds on the horizon? Jeremy Pound (deputy editor)
Recommended recording: Stile Antico (Harmonia Mundi HMU807419)
Find out more about Tallis and his works here
Sospiri by Elgar
Some works express grief with great emotional outbursts, or achingly beautiful melodies. Here, in contrast, we one can imagine Elgar looking bleakly into the middle distance – there’s a sense of numbness to the sorrow. Meaning ‘sighs’ in Italian, Sospiri was originally intended by Elgar as a similarly light-hearted companion piece to his Salut d’amour, but it soon took on a very different character.
The orchestration – strings, harp and organ – is restrained, and there are no great contrasts in dynamic. It is, instead, the very lack of outward emotion that proves so devastatingly moving, the sighs of its title represented by resigned-sounding falling sevenths. The timing of its composition maybe also tells a story – it was premiered in August 1914, two weeks after the declaration of World War I. Jeremy Pound (deputy editor)
Recommended recording: BBC Symphony Orchestra/Andrew Davis (Warner Classics 9029540984)
Find out more about Elgar and his works here
Adagio for Strings by Barber
One of the most recognisable pieces of orchestral music, Samuel Barber’s Adagio is relatively straightforward in form, but has massive impact. That impact is due to the simplicity of the instrumentation and the work’s unhurried climb to what is an exhilarating emotional climax.
Originally written as the second movement of Barber’s 1936 String Quartet, Op. 11, the string arrangement was premiered by Toscanini and the NBC Symphony in 1938. Its fame grew thanks to its use in Oliver Stone’s Vietnam War film Platoon; originally meant as temporary score, to be replaced with original music by Georges Delerue, Stone opted to keep Barber’s music in the film, so perfect was it in underlining the utter futility of war. Michael Beek (reviews editor)
Recommended recording: Barber – Orchestral Works (Naxos)
Find out more about Barber and his works here
Theme from Schindler’s List by John Williams
Like the Barber, John Williams’s main theme for the 1993 Holocaust film Schindler’s List, is as beautiful as it is moving. Written for violin and orchestra, the composer had violinist Itzhak Perlman in mind when he first sketched it out, and Perlman performed on the original recording for the film. The violin solo is at once sweet and beautifully desolate, atop gentle woodwinds, strings and harp; there’s a great warmth to the music, too. The piece has taken on a life of its own in the 28 years since it was first heard on film and is a staple of the solo violin repertoire in concert and on recordings. Michael Beek (reviews editor)
We named the Theme from Schindler’s List one of the best pieces of violin music
In 1994 John William's won an Best Original Score Oscar for Schindler's List
We named John Williams one of the greatest film composers ever
Recommended recording: Schindler’s List – Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (MCA)
Find out more about John Williams and his works here
Dido’s Lament from Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas
‘Death is now a welcome guest’: this forlorn lyric ends the recitative before Dido’s final aria in Purcell’s opera, composed in the late 17th century. Her lament, ‘when I am laid in earth’, lyrically and melodically epitomises the tragedy of her love affair with Aeneas, which results in her ending her own life and lighting a funeral pyre for Aeneas to see as he sails away.
The descending chromaticism of the aria mirrors Dido’s descent towards death, driven to despair by Aeneas’s abandonment of her. The melancholy falling motif is then adopted by the chorus for the opera’s conclusion after Dido’s demise. Lucy Chaudhuri (web assistant)
Recommended recording: Janet Baker (mezzo-soprano); English Chamber Orchestra/Anthony Lewis (Decca)
Find out more about Purcell and his works here
Shostakovich Symphony No. 5
Written in 1937 at the height of Stalin’s communist regime, Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 was not only a response to the USSR’s oppression but was also subject to its scrutiny. By this point, Shostakovich had already had an opera deemed ‘inappropriate’ and was at risk of losing his life for his art, but refused to compose for the sake of government approval.
This work, his best-known symphony, captures the emotional turbulence of its environment and draws on the Russian Orthodox requiem as well as works of mourning by Shostakovich’s contemporaries. The haunting, evocative Largo movement is particularly noteworthy: it is said that, at the symphony’s first performance, audience members openly wept on hearing this expression of their country’s grief and fear. Lucy Chaudhuri (web assistant)
We named Shostakovich one of the greatest composers of all time
Recommended recording: Leningrad Philharmonic/Evgeny Mravinsky
Find out more about Shostakovich and his works here
The Drowned Lovers by Judith Bingham
Choral music can deliver a sucker punch to the gut better than almost any other musical form. Perhaps that's the power of the human voice.
Written as a response to Stanford's 'The Blue Bird', Judith Bingham's 'The Drowned Lovers' uses the same chords as Stanford, but with much more of a mournful, rippling soundworld, diving deep into the waters it describes as Stanford's rises above. Of course, the subject matter of this piece – two lovers drowning – is tragic in itself, but Bingham heightens the intensity with her nuanced choral writing.
It's fairly unusual to hear a mezzo-soprano taking the solo line in a choral work, something that's heard here and no doubt has an effect on the overall melancholy of the piece. The deep female voice carries the listener while the accompanying voices ebb and flow, creating the effect of waves lapping against the shore. Bingham uses melismas (groups of notes sung to one syllable of text) to create a mournful lilt.
'In the deepest reaches of the lake, I and my love do lie. I clung to him, and pulled him down and so we both did die’. Freya Parr, (digital editor and staff writer)
Recommended recording: Tenebrae/Nigel Short, from the album 'Music of the Spheres'
Finale from Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake
Is there any story more tragic than that of Odette, the princess who is turned into a swan by an evil sorcerer, and falls in love with Prince Siegfried? The spell on Odette can only be broken if someone who has never fallen in love before swears undying love to her.
The finale of Tchaikovsky's stunning ballet shows Odette left heartbroken after her beloved Siegfried is tricked into choosing another bride. She then knows she must remain a swan forever. The ballet ends with Odette and Siegfried dying in one another's arms, as the main theme returns with dramatic effect.
Often, a sad piece of music is characterised by muted colours and quiet moments of reflection. What's most impactful about the finale from Swan Lake is its rich intensity – it reaches fever pitch as the theme returns with a panicked desperation as Odette realises she must remain a swan forever. There is crashing percussion, rising melodic patterns in the wind section and a dramatic return of the main theme in a higher octave. Heartbreaking stuff. Freya Parr, (digital editor and staff writer)
We named Tchaikovsky one of the greatest ballet composers ever
Recommended recording: State Academy Symphony Orchestra of Russia/Vladimir Jurowski
Find out more about Tchaikovsky and his works here
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