Dreamy French impressionist harmonies, powerful Romantic orchestral music and mournful melodies will move even the coldest heart of any listener. This list of sad yet beautiful classical music is some of the best the genre has to offer and could even be a starting point to discover more from these great composers.
Debussy – Clair de Lune
A classic piece of solo piano that everyone seems to know. Cropping up in all sorts of soundtracks and ‘chill’ playlists shouldn’t detract from Debussy’s impressionist harmony that has inspired so many. Hopefully not to be enjoyed in isolation, Debussy’s Livres de Preludes offer similar dreamlike piano music.
Samuel Barber – Adagio for strings
Samuel Barber’s 1936 full string orchestra arrangement of his adagio from his String Quartet, Op.11 has certainly been helped to the top of countless lists of saddest classical music by its use on occasions like the deaths of John F. Kennedy and franklin Roosevelt and also to commemorate victims of the 9/11 and Charlie Hebdo attacks.
Ravel – Pavane pour une infante defunte
Originally written for solo piano while studying, the subsequent success of this work led Ravel to arrange it for orchestra, and both versions can often be heard today. The beautiful simplicity of the piano part allows the tune, surely familiar to so many, to shine over the top.
Prokofiev – Juliet’s death, from Romeo and Juliet ballet
A ballet score to the most romantic story ever penned would surely give forth some heart melting music. At the end of two and a half hours of vibrant ballet music soars forth one of the most gorgeous melodies in all classical music, accompanying Juliet’s funeral on stage.
Rachmaninov – Piano Concerto No. 2
A pop classic constantly reinterpreted on stage and on disc, this is the doorway to Rachmaninov’s characteristically romantic music. The piece contains plenty of memorable romantic melodies before building to a typically powerful Rachmaninovian climax.
Wagner – Tristan & Isolde, Prelude and Liebestod
A piece so significant in the development of 20th century classical music harmony is also quite simply twenty minutes of beautiful music by a man well known for crazy, passsionate and volatile love affairs himself. This popular interpretation is a more accessible combination of the prelude and very end of a famously romantic four hour-long opera, maybe a bit heavy until you’re a true Wagnerite.
Liszt – Liebestraum no. 3
Liszt’s set of Liebestraume translates as ‘Dreams of Love’. The piece’s expansive tune and fast passionate arpeggios make it a typically tricky Lisztian work for pianists, but a few minutes of pure escapism for the listener.
Reynaldo Hahn – L’heure exquise
The many people who would steer clear of all classical singing might try giving it a second chance here. The fine clear female voice floating over the gentle piano accompaniment can surely be savoured by anyone.
Chopin – Nocturne in C sharp minor, Op. Posth
Perhaps recognisable to some as the music that drifts through the desolated streets of Warsaw on the soundtrack to Roman Polanski’s film The Pianist, this melancholy nocturne is a great introduction to the expanse of Chopin’s piano music.
Khatchaturian – Adagio from Spartacus
From his ballet Spartacus, this is one of the classic love themes. Building slowly to full orchestral power, the rumbling power of the orchestra has surely brought a tear to many eyes in the past.