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Tear Jerker / Classical Music

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Music is not a new concept, and neither is sadness — so it should be of no surprise to anyone that Tear Jerkers can be found in classical music. Furthermore, it's not necessary for music to have lyrics in order to be sad.

  • "Albinoni's" Adagio in G minor (actually by 20th-century composer Remo Giazotto, but no less tearjerking for it).
  • Pick an "Ave Maria", any "Ave Maria" — some particularly noteworthy examples include Verdi's (from Otello), Yoko Kanno's (from Cowboy Bebop), and Schubert's.
    • Remember the cliché slogan "You don't have to be Jewish to enjoy (whatever)"? Well, "You don't have to be Christian" to be moved to tears by Schubert's "Ave". (Although technically Schubert originally wrote the music as a setting of an epic poem, only later re-setting it to fit the "Ave Maria".)
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  • The last, unfinished, fugue from Johann Sebastian Bach's 'Art of Fugue'.
  • Samuel Barber's "Adagio For Strings", almost universally considered the world's saddest piece of classical music ever.
    • It really doesn't help that this song is the song to play during funerals and other events of great tragedy (Franklin D. Roosevelt's funeral, 9/11, etc.).
    • The piece is used to great effect in Platoon. Makes the Vietnam War feel all the more ... you know ... tragic.
    • "Agnus Dei" (the choral arrangement) is used masterfully in Homeworld.
      • Also used well in Joss Whedon's comic Sugarshock.
      • It was also used in Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny, when Jables gets his first guitar. The scene is meant to be slightly silly, but that music is still...*sniff*
    • Samuel Barber is a master of the heart-wrenching. Besides "Adagio for Strings", there are also the lesser known but just as heart-rending 2nd movement of his Piano Concerto, as well as the Adagio from his First Symphony.
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    • Barber's choral masterwork The Prayers of Kierkegaard has a soaring soprano solo, which is already beautiful enough on its own, but when the motif returns in the climax... All those voices, in perfect synchronization, and the size and the scope of the music just... wow. The moment overwhelms.
  • Ludwig van Beethoven had a way with Tear Jerker pieces. Just to name some of the more well-known examples:
    • The second movement of his Symphony No. 7. He wrote the symphony just after he went completely deaf. Fans of The King's Speech will recognize this as the song played at the climax, letting you know that yes, it CAN be done!
    • His Three Equali, written for four trombones, is heart-rending for an all-brass work, even tearful if you know that it was played at his own funeral.
    • Piano Sonata No. 14 in C# minor (better known as the Moonlight Sonata) is one of the best-known pieces in classical music, and has been used in countless media to express sadness, longing, etc.
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    • The Adagio Cantabile of the Pathetique Sonata. Even more so if you're a Rurouni Kenshin fan, since this is the piano piece that plays during Yumi's death and Kenshin's first proper visit to Tomoe's grave in the Kyoto arc.
    • The final movement of Symphony No. 9. The whole symphony is amazing, but the final movement is one of the crowning achievements of Western classical music. (Just to make clear, this is more of a Tear Jerker combined with Awesome Music. The tears one may cry aren't of sorrow, but hope and joy at the idealism of the lyrics (look up a translation, you'll see).)
    • For that matter, read Beethoven's Heiligenstadt Testament, explaining in raw detail his feelings of near-suicidal despair when he discovered he was losing his hearing— and his eventual resolution to keep on composing anyway— and just try to keep a dry eye.
      "But what a humiliation for me when someone standing next to me heard a flute in the distance and I heard nothing, or someone heard a shepherd singing and again I heard nothing. Such incidents drove me almost to despair; a little more of that and I would have ended my lifeit was only my art that held me back."
  • Hector Berlioz's "Grande symphonie funèbre et triomphale" can make you shed buckets. It doesn't even help if you already know the event this was written for. The second movement trombone solo is a highlight.
  • Fernando de la Mora's rendition of Georges Bizet's "Je Crois Entendre Encore" from The Pearl Fishers is pretty much four solid minutes of pure melancholy.
  • Benjamin Britten's setting of John Donne's Holy Sonnets is heartwrenching, starting from "Since she whom I loved" and reaching a peak by the time it gets to "Death be not proud."
  • Many singers' voices go wobbly when singing "Auld Lang Syne". Another Robert Burns tearjerker is "John Anderson".
  • The motet Ne irascaris Domine, by the Elizabethan composer William Byrd. Byrd was a Catholic at a time when it was illegal to be Catholic in England, and this piece expresses that anguish beautifully (the most wrenching part is perhaps the switch from polyphony to chordal harmony at "Sion deserta facta sunt"). An English translation of the Latin text:
    Be not angry, O Lord,
    and remember our iniquity no more.
    Behold, we are all your people.
    Your holy city has become a wilderness.
    Zion has become a wilderness,
    Jerusalem has been made desolate.
  • Fryderyk Chopin's "Étude Op.10 No.3 in E major - Tristesse" is already beautifully melancholy, and it is used to heartbreakingly bittersweet effect in the score of the series finale of the 2003 anime adaptation of Fullmetal Alchemist. Chopin himself thought it was the loveliest melody he'd ever written.
    • Three of Chopin's own works were played at his funeral, each a tear jerker in its own way - the Preludes Op.28 No.4 in E minor and No.6 in B minor, and the third movement (Funeral March) from Piano Sonata No.2 in B-flat minor. Even though the last one is a Standard Snippet for funerals and other sombre scenes in media, it is no less depressing for it.
  • Aaron Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man". The power and majesty of this song attributed to the common man brings about tears not of sorrow, but of pride. Hope. The Common Man is awesome.
    • Aaron Copland wrote a lot of amazing music, but special mention must go to his opera, The Tender Land, especially the Act 2 love duet between Laurie and Martin. The simplicity of the music combined with the extremely real emotion of a good signer is just agh.
  • Debussy's "Clair de Lune" from the Suite bergamasque. It brings more tears of beauty than sadness, though.
  • Nimrod from the Enigma Variations by Edward Elgar as played at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sundays. Even more so when you consider who inspired it - the close friend of Elgar that convinced him not to give up on composing.
    • Elgar's Cello Concerto. Made even more heart-wrenching if you know Jacqueline du Pré's story. It is said that Elgar himself on his death-bed hummed the main theme to a friend and said: "If ever after I'm dead you hear someone whistling this tune on the Malvern Hills, don't be alarmed. It's only me".
  • Most of George Gershwin's opera Porgy and Bess, but particular offenders are "My Man's Gone Now," "Bess, You Is My Woman," and the finale, "Oh, Lawd, I'm On My Way." A really great Porgy will reduce anyone to a blubbering mess with his unfailing determination to find Bess in New York.
  • "Che Faro Senza Euridice" from Gluck's Orfeo et Euridice. A bad singer will turn it into Narm; a good one will break your heart.
  • Howard Goodall has his own share of heart-ripping pieces. One of them is his anthem set to Wendy Cope's poem Spared, written to commemorate the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Knowing where the composer himself was on that tragic day gushes even more tears.
  • Henryk Górecki's Symphony No. 3, particularly as the soloist comes to the end of her piece in the first movement... and the orchestra comes in hard.
    • Also, the entire second movement. The text came from an inscription found on the walls of a Polish Gestapo prison cell, written by an 18 year old girl. "O Mama, do not cry..."
    • Let's face it, there's a reason this symphony's subtitle is "The Symphony of Sorrowful Songs."
  • Graduation songs: Snoopy once remarked that "Pomp and Circumstance" had an effect on old grads. And don't think that you have to have gone to a Japanese high school for the song in Azumanga Daioh to work on you, although that may be part empathy for Chiyo.
  • "Solveig's Song" from Edvard Grieg's incidental music for Ibsen's play Peer Gynt. The title character is a total playboy and jerk who goes around having all these adventures while his wife, Solveig, stays at home loving him. In the play, it's more of a satire but in the music, it is one of the most touching pieces. An elderly Peer Gynt, now frail and broken from his travels, returns home to find Solveig still faithfully waiting for him.
  • George Frederic Handel: According to legend, certain ink smudges on G.F. Handel's original score for The Messiah were because Handel's tears were dripping onto the page. (The last page or so of "All We Like Sheep", for example.)
  • Certain hymns are likely to bring tears to the eyes of those who hear them. The best example is probably "Were You There?"note 
  • Leoš Janáček's String Quartet No. 2, called "Intimate Letters" by the composer. He wrote it for Kamila Stösslová, a married woman 40 years his junior who may have never loved him back. The third movement has been interpreted as a lullaby for the son she never bore him.
    • Heck, half of what Janáček wrote could probably fit in this category. His piano compositions Sonata 1. X. 1905, In the Mists, and On an Overgrown Path certainly qualify. The fact that Janáček was not a happy man is the reason we don't have the third movement of the Sonata — he ripped out the score and threw it into a fire during a fit of depression immediately following its first performance.
  • Josquin Des Prez's motet "Absalon, Fili Mi" vividly depicts the mourning of King David over the death of his son Absalom. "If only I had died instead of you! Therefore I will live no more, but go down to hell weeping."
  • Singers have been known to break down in tears while performing "Das Lied von der Erde." Composer Gustav Mahler himself wondered if audiences would commit suicide after hearing it; he did not live to see it performed.
    • Satirist Tom Lehrer made a joke about this on his album That Was the Year That Was, describing Mahler as "the writer of Das Lied von der Erde and other light classics".
    • The adagietto from Mahler's Fifth Symphony is also in this category. It was performed for the funeral of Robert Kennedy, among others.
    • Mahler's song cycle "Kindertotenlieder," or "Songs on the Death of Children," is every bit as heartbreaking as you would expect. Even worse, the piece later became Harsher in Hindsight for the composer when, tragically, his own four-year-old daughter died of scarlet fever. He said to a friend, "I placed myself in the situation that a child of mine had died. When I really lost my daughter, I could not have written these songs any more."
  • Reportedly, the tears shed during the singing of La Marseillaise (the French national anthem) during that one scene in Casablanca were genuine. It is possible that most patriotic songs can become these, under the right circumstances.
  • The Intermezzo Sinfonico from the opera Cavalleria Rusticana by Pietro Mascagni. This was used very effectively in the Rurouni Kenshin anime, the opening credits to Raging Bull and the ending of The Godfather Part III.
  • Jules Massenet's "Elegie", especially when played by Joshua Bell.
  • The 2nd Movement from Felix Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in E minor has one of the most beautiful, heartbreaking melodies written for violin. So much so that Andrew Lloyd Webber used it for "I Don't Know How To Love Him."
  • Ennio Morricone's Ballad of Sacco e Vanzetti, as performed not just by Morricone himself, but also by Joan Baez and George Moustaki. Now also available by Lisbeth Scott over the end credits of Metal Gear Solid 4. Yep, still a tearjerker.
  • The King on His Deathbed scene from Boris Godunov by Mussorgsky. The man is dying, and before he dies, he wants to impart some advice to his son.
  • One of the toppers - Pachelbel's Canon in D, when played right, or if the mood's right, will reduce people to tears. Even if it's part of a commercial.
  • Arvo Pärt's Spiegel im Spiegel. It's been used in several movies (Gerry, Wit, Heaven and Mother Night, among others). It's only a few notes being repeated and varied upon, but it's just so beautiful, it's hard not to feel melancholy.
    • Not to mention "Cantus In Memoriam Benjamin Britten", or a number of other works by Pärt. Especially when you find out it was, according to the first victims dying slowly of AIDS, the piece of music that best described their plight. Soul-Gouging.
  • So much Puccini.
    • Two words: Madame Butterfly. Two more: La Bohème. Dammit, Cio-cio-san and Mimi, WHY?!
    • The showstopper tune "Vissi d'arte" from Tosca, likewise. The anguish is unmistakable even if you don't know a lick of Italian.
  • "When I Am Laid in Earth" from Purcell's Dido and Aeneas is quite a downer. While singing before committing suicide is common in opera, Dido's swan song is much more melancholy than any Wagnerian heroine's... and, unlike most opera songs, it's in English.
  • Rachmaninoff's Prelude in B minor, Op.32 No.10. Soul-crushing.note  Not that the rest of Rach's music is uplifting... the moderato from Piano Concerto No.2 and the Intermezzo from Piano Concerto No.3 are just as heart-rending.
  • Maurice Ravel's Pavane pour une infante defunte (Pavane for a Dead Princess). Ironically, this isn't meant to be a tear-jerker at all; its status as one is based on a misunderstanding of the title. It was meant not as an elegy for a deceased princess, but rather to evoke a dance that would have been danced by a princess from an earlier age, while she was alive (the pavane being a popular dance among nobility during the Renaissance). Ravel himself admitted that he only used the words "infante defunte" because he liked the alliteration. He also intended the piece to be played extremely slowly – more slowly than almost any modern interpretation, according to his biographer Benjamin Ivry.
  • Requiems in general (after all, Masses for the dead are not going to be cheerful affairs), particularly Brahms's German Requiem (especially the first and second movements) and Mozart's (Lacrimosa, whether it's accompanied by its use in Amadeus or not).
    • Also Fauré's, particularly the Pie Jesu.
    • Benjamin Britten's War Requiem is absolutely shattering. It's the traditional Requiem mass interspersed with settings of Wilfred Owen's war poetry (which is Tear Jerker all by itself). The ending, which features a mournful, eerie setting of Owen's Strange Meeting, segues into a quiet, gentle finale, with the last line of the poem ("Let us sleep now..." sung over the boy choir and the main choir singing "In paradisum" (Into Paradise lead them) and then Requiescat in Pace, Amen. Heartbreakingly beautiful, at the end of a tumultuous, dark, stormy work.
  • You're lying if you don't get a lump in your throat just listening to Max Richter's "On The Nature of Daylight". Context is unnecessary. It's just a rip-your-heart-out piece, through and through.
  • "God Save the Tsar!", the former Russian national anthem, is a pretty melancholy-sounding piece already, but considering all that has happened since, it becomes heartbreaking.
    • While we're on the Russians, the Soviet anthem is absolutely horrifying when you think of the millions of people inspired to march to their deaths, and then read the bright and cheery lyrics.
    • "The Cranes," a song based on the legend that soldiers who die on the battlefield turn into white cranes.
  • "The Swan" from Saint-Saëns' "Carnival of the Animals" can make one shed tears from the sheer beauty of the cello's solo.
  • Erik Satie's Gymnopedie No.1 is a very beautiful piece with a very nostalgic and somewhat sad atmosphere, reminiscent of the passage of seasons. Just...listen...
  • Schubert's "Litanei auf das Fest Allerseelen" — especially if you know what the words mean.
    • More than that, Schubert's Winterreise is one of the most depressing pieces of music ever written, especially if you know the words. It may rank only behind Górecki's Third Symphony in terms of sheer, devastating effect. In the final song of Winterreise, "Der Leiermann", the singer describes an old organ-grinder, wandering through the world alone playing music while holding an empty begging-bowl and being shunned by the people around him. Still he keeps on playing. The singer wonders if he is meant to go with the organ-grinder and if the organ-grinder will ever play one of his songs. The kicker? This is the very last song Schubert ever composed, and he finished revising the proofs on his deathbed. This is what was going through Schubert's mind about his own music when he died.
    • His Fantasie in F minor, D.940 for four hands shows that music doesn't need lyrics to be packed full of emotion.
    • Not to mention his last three piano sonatas. Actually, almost everything in Schubert's late works qualifies for this — even the ones that sound happy the first time you hear them.
  • Träumerei from Robert Schumann's Scenes From Childhood. It's impossible to listen to without thinking of lost opportunities and past mistakes.
  • Shostakovich wrote much tear-jerking music, but special mention should go to his String Quartet No.15 in E-flat minor - six movements, played without break, all in minor keys and all marked Adagio or, in one case, Adagio molto. A very depressing work, not least because Shostakovich wrote it while his health was failing, at a time when he knew death was not far off.
    • Several of his 24 Preludes and Fugues, Op.87 also fall under this category; perhaps most notable are those in B-flat minor, F minor, C minor, and G minor. Even though the first three all have fugues which end on extended major resolutions (even the preludes in F minor and C minor resolve into major, the only ones in the set to do so), the bleakness of what has come before simply makes the major resolutions more poignant, particularly in the B-flat minor fugue (the slowest of the four).
  • The Sibelius violin concerto. Ida Haendel played it with the Montreal Symphony, and tears were running down her face. The composer himself said that it was his favourite rendition.
    • His Romance, Op. 24, No. 9 can bring one to tears purely for the beauty of the melody, never mind emotions.
    • "The Swan of Tuonela".
  • Friedrich Silcher's arrangement of Ludwig Uhland's 1825 poem "Der gute Kamerad" ("The Good Comrade") is one of the saddest laments around. Notably, it has been played at the funerals of Germany's soldiers pretty much continuously since it's composition, remaining a constant in Germany's armies through the Imperial period, the Weimar Republic, the Third Reich, the DDR, and the modern Federal Republic. It is also played in the Austrian armed forces and fire brigades, the Chilean Army, the Swiss Armed Forces and the French Foreign Legion. A version without words.
  • The final trio from Der Rosenkavalier by Richard Strauss. It was performed at the composer's funeral, and the sopranos couldn't make it through without stopping to cry.
    • On the topic of Strauss, "Allerseelen" is absolutely heart-wrenching... especially after translating the text.
    • Continuing the Straussian theme: "Metamorphosen". A gut-wrenching 30 minute-long elegy for the destruction of German culture during the Second World War.
  • The Fire Bird Suite, Finale by Stravinsky is Tear-Jerking Awesome Music. The first part tugs at the heartstrings, but once the 7/4 meter kicks in, even the normally stone-hearted will be sobbing.
  • Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's Symphony No.5 in E minor, second movement, the French Horn solo.
    • Also the Piano Trio in A minor, which Tchaikovsky wrote after the death of his friend Nikolai Rubinstein. The solemn first movement is followed by a theme and eleven variations covering a broad spectrum of emotions, each variation depicting a memory of Rubinstein. After a brief pause, the A major finale picks up the theme from the variations in a very bright, upbeat style - only for things to suddenly turn very dark about seven minutes in, with the key reverting back to A minor as the musicians return to the theme from the first movement, the music becoming ever more heart-wrenching until finally it ends with a quiet funeral march.
    • And the Marche Slave, Serenade Melancolique, the finale of the Pathetique Symphony in B minor... there are plenty of Tchaikovsky pieces which qualify as Tear Jerkers.
  • Frank Ticheli's "An American Elegy", written in honor of the Columbine victims and their survivors.
  • Ralph Vaughan Williams's "Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis", considering the hymn it was based on. Used to sublime effect in Master and Commander.
  • Listen to this. It is "Sleep," composed by Eric Whitacre, and performed by Polyphony under the direction of Stephen Layton. Try not to cry. Tell us how you did.


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