During the holiday season of late November through December each year, I confess that I have a tendency to tune out Christmas music, i.e. Christmas carols that are played ad infinitum in public spaces. There is still some Christmas music, however, that has the power to move me. Stille Nacht (“Silent Night”) with its inherent stillness can give me goosebumps. I love it especially sung by a lyric tenor. Certain sections of Handel’s Messiah can also bring tears to my eyes. But that’s about it nowadays. I don’t know if it’s just the constant repetition, year in and year out during the holidays, or the fact that I performed all the holiday songs when I was growing up, whether in choirs or in an orchestra. I now have a tendency to avoid Christmas music.
Thinking about Christmas music sent my mind wandering down the path of music that is emotionally moving. All music is emotionally moving in some way since music is emotion in sound. But I’m thinking of that music that has just the right vibrational frequency or whatever it is that will bring tears to my eyes. When I was writing advertising copy for arts organizations, I remember one Marketing Director talking about the phrases and words that he would not approve in ad copy for describing music: “heart-wrenching,” “tear your heart out,” and so on. He thought that these words and phrases described death more than life. But poetically speaking, music moves the heart, sometimes violently, in different ways.
Here is a list of music that I find especially moving to my heart (sometimes wrenching it, too) and that I never tire of hearing:
Prokofiev Second Violin Concerto, Movement 2: This sweet, sublime melody played by the violin soloist over a pizzicato accompaniment always manages to take my breath away and concentrate my attention. There’s nothing else like it in the repertoire that I know of. If you’d like to listen for yourself, it’s here, and the second movement begins at 11:00.
Bruckner Symphony No. 8: This magnificent symphony is a deeply emotional sound journey for me. The first time I heard it was in concert with the Minnesota Orchestra, and it was like sitting on a beach with waves of sound rolling over me. While Bruckner is known for big brass moments and loud passages, he also wrote some extraordinarily lyrical and poignant moments. If you’d like to listen to this symphony, here’s quite a good recording here. The conductor in this video is Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, a renowned Bruckner conductor, who was also the Conductor Emeritus of the Minnesota Orchestra.
Bach Concerto for 2 Violins, Movement 2: I don’t think most people consider Bach when thinking about emotionally moving music, but he wrote some extraordinary music. This concerto is just one example, and the second movement is especially moving to me. In this recording, the second movement begins at 4:00. The two violins are like two voices intertwining.
Verdi’s Requiem: Verdi is best known as an opera composer, and this Requiem is operatic. To me, it is the best example of music capturing the stages of grief, with a Dies Irae that beautifully shows what anger sounds like. For me, though, it’s the final movement that can leave me sobbing. This final movement was the last music performed at Princess Diana’s funeral service. You can listen to the final movement here.
Elgar “Nimrod”: The British composer Edward Elgar is known for his Pomp and Circumstance marches and for his Enigma Variations in which he composed a series of variations on a theme that only he knew because he didn’t include it in the piece. Each variation is a musical portrait of a dear friend of Elgar’s. The “Nimrod” variation, often used in memorials especially for Brits, was written for Elgar’s friend Augustus Jaeger who supported and encouraged his music composition when Elgar, in depression, was in despair and thinking of giving it up. Here’s a lovely performance of it.
Brahms First Piano Concerto: The pianist Rudolf Serkin once commented that Brahms’ music was all about memory. I think of it as being about longing for something that can never be. This concerto begins with a tumultuous orchestral introduction as if Brahms was raging against something, but then it quiets. The piano comes in with the most sublime music, I think, in all of the piano repertoire, and continues throughout this concerto. The second movement is a perfect example of Brahms’ longing in his music. I recommend listening to the entire concerto here.
Classical music is full of “heart-wrenching” music. Perhaps you have your own list?