…for when everything just gets a little bit too much…
Every now and then, it’s healthy to have a little cry. Maybe it’s because of an unrequited love, or maybe it’s the stress of everyday life, or maybe it is simply for no reason at all. But crying is healthy, right? No matter how bad life gets, we can always rely upon different mediums of art to relate to how we feel. In my opinion, classical music is one of the best ways to communicate our sadness. So, if you’re in need of that cathartic cry, pop in your headphones, sit back, and relax weep to our top ten classical music tear jerkers…
10. Tchaikovsky – Chanson Triste, Op. 40 No. 2
A true depiction of how a melody does not need to be elaborate in order to be effective Tchaikovsky’s ‘Chanson Triste’, or ‘sad song’, is a piece of beautiful simplicity whose end is where the true melancholy lies. Tchaikovsky’s song increases in softness and becomes so delicate that it leaves the listener feeling positively hollow. The piece is, however, more of an elegant silver trail of a single tear, rather than a song you can truly weep to.
9. Elgar – Nimrod
Used in cinema for depicting a number of emotions, Elgar’s ‘Nimrod’, with its sweeping orchestral motifs and exquisite falling melodic lines, is testimony to how music can evoke such outstanding emotion. The denouement holds a sense of bittersweet grandeur that very few pieces can successfully accomplish. This piece only slides in at number nine, however, as, although its bittersweet melody is a real earworm, it does not have the same heart-wrenching capacity of others, as we shall see…
8. Strauss – Metamorphosen
Strauss’ ‘Metamorphosen’ uses constant ascension and dissension of its melodic line to keep its listener constantly on an emotional rollercoaster. Scored for twenty-three strings, the harmonies of this piece constantly lead the listener to the precipice of vast emotion and leave them balancing there, teetering on the edge of teardrops. The music even delays its cathartic release until the final chord, allowing its audience to feel blissfully empty by its tragic end.
7. Mozart – Requiem in D minor
Mozart’s ‘Requiem’ is not only a harrowing piece in its own right, but it also holds a harrowing tale. Mozart’s final piece, finished by Franz Xaver Süssmayer, is rumoured to be one of the last things Mozart sang on his deathbed and, in a letter, Mozart wrote: “I’m writing this Requiem for myself.” Mozart’s demise is audible throughout this piece and can be heard in many of the sections, including the somber ‘Angus Dei’ and ‘Lacrimosa’.
6. Pergolesi – Stabat Mater Dolorosa, from Stabat Mater
Coming in at number 6, Pergolesi’s duet ‘Stabat Mater Dolorosa’ was also in fact written in the final weeks of its composer’s life. Portraying the death of Christ, this piece has a heart-rending intensity that can be heard not only in the vocal harmonies, but also in the way the strings seem to mimic the tears of Mary desperately falling to the ground. Pergolesi paints vivid images in this piece; the falling melodic line on the word ‘lacrimosa’ stunningly blends the lower and higher female voices, which makes for a chilling and truly lugubrious listening indeed.
5. Beethoven – Piano Sonata No.14, Op.27 No. 2, Movement 1 (‘Moonlight Sonata’)
Charmingly melancholic, this piece’s sadness lies in its profound ability to mix layers of melody and motif with a relentless and striking bassline. Indeed, the sonata remains curiously soft and sensitive as the bass part beats on, as heavy as a broken heart.
4. Bach – Komm, Susser Tod (‘Come, Sweet Death’)
This particularly stunning arrangement of Bach’s ‘Komm, Susser Tod’ makes use of powerful set of sorrowful strings before repeating the melody once more with a full blast of an orchestra. However, all arrangements of this poignant piece somehow manage to be beautifully blue. With its descending melodic line and hefty harmonies, this music is blissfully forlorn and brilliantly performed in this arrangement.
3. Puccini – Vissi d’Arte, from Tosca
Unlike many of the pieces in this selection, this tearjerker is strikingly passionate and filled with an unparalleled anguish that resonates with many. This ardent aria is from Puccini’s ‘Tosca’, in which the eponymous character mourns the loss of her former life and love, who is now in the hands of an evil baron. This impassioned piece creates a universal sadness, entirely relatable – a sadness caused by an inability to change a deep and desperate situation.
2. Purcell – Dido’s Lament (‘When I am laid in earth’) from Dido and Aeneas
Arguably one of the most heart-rending pieces in opera, Dido’s ‘Lament’ is a piece in which the protagonist poignantly discusses her imminent death and begs to be remembered after her tragic demise. Though the impassioned high notes of Puccini’s Tosca do rival those of Dido in this piece, it is the somber swansong that ultimately pushes Purcell up a notch to number 2. Nothing can beat a swansong when it comes to the Top 10 Tearjerkers. Except for…
1. Barber – Adagio for Strings
Quite possibly the most poignant and overwhelmingly sad piece of music ever written, Barber’s ‘Adagio for Strings’ has been used time and again in film to depict a feeling of sadness that simply breaks a person. For many, it represents the most dreadful forms of loss imaginable. Its desolating dissonance emerges out of a soft and sombre beginning, and climbs to a whole new level of sadness, both devastating and sublime. I challenge anybody not to weep at this ten-minute masterpiece, whose growth of theme and dynamic contrast allow a listener to become completely submerged. There is nothing light about this piece except for its delicate execution; its slow speed allows for the ear to truly revel in its dissonant harmonies with very little rest as the piece climbs to a higher and higher pitch. If this is not audible heartbreak, then I do not know what is.
NB: I have chosen this version of Barber’s ‘Adagio for Strings’ as I believe it is a brilliantly executed performance. This may be in part due to its context, as this piece was played on the 15th September 2001, on the Last Night of the Proms, as a sign of solidarity and shared grief to the United States after 9/11. Arguably, this also shows the power of this piece to acknowledge a sadness for whose gravity there are no words to describe.