Heart-wrenching classical music?
April 2, 2010 2:02 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for some hardcore heart-wrenching classical music. My current selection includes Vocalise by Rachmaninoff, Ständchen from Schwanengesang by Schubert, Shostakovich's 5th Symphony, first movement (because of that haunting ending!), and Prelude in C minor by Chopin. Suggestions?

I don't want just "sad" or "tragic" music, but the kind that leaves you totally emotionally drained. I'm more interested in Romantic pieces, but all suggestions are welcome.

As an aside, do you guys know of any good classical music discussion forums, preferably populated by mostly 20+ year olds?
posted by archagon to Media & Arts (62 answers total) 129 users marked this as a favorite
• Mozart's Requiem
• Barber's Adagio for Strings
• Arvo Pärt's Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten
• Olivier Messiaen's Vingt regards sur l'Enfant Jésus
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:30 AM on April 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Beethoven's 7th Symphony, Second movement (Allegretto)
posted by TheOtherGuy at 2:39 AM on April 2, 2010

Khachaturian - Adagio of Spartacus and Phrygia
posted by jonnyploy at 3:09 AM on April 2, 2010

Tchaikovsky 6th symphony, esp. toward the end.
Brahms 1st piano concerto, first movement.
Almost anything by Beethoven which is written in the sonata form, in the development section (try the first movement of the Third Symphony, for example. I Also had some sort of key experience with the Third Piano concerto once). Apart from that, a secret tip is the slow movement of the 'Hammerklavier' sonata op. 106. Needs some settling in (slow movement and all that), but what he does - emotionally - with this sad little melody is really quite astounding, and it goes on forever.
Mozart is a good tip. His light-hearted major-mode-persona is very much a disguise. If you dive a little deeper into the dramatic points of, say, Don Giovanni, (or any minor movement elsewhere, really), you'll probably find what you're looking for. (It very much depends on whether the musicians found it for themselves, however. The a-minor piano sonata is an extremely emotional piece, but people play it like an exercise all the time...).
(Otherwise Bruckner, Mahler, I guess...).
posted by Namlit at 3:12 AM on April 2, 2010

Shostakovich's String Quartet No. 8 is unrelentingly hardcore.
posted by Ljubljana at 3:13 AM on April 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Something like Elgar's Variations on an Original Theme for orchestra Op.36 (Enigma Variations) "Nimrod"?
posted by misozaki at 3:15 AM on April 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Tchaikovsky's None But The Lonely Heart (on iTunes, try the version arranged for violin rather than for Frank Sinatra). Heart-wrenching in a lovely Victorian melodrama kind of a way.
posted by dontjumplarry at 3:20 AM on April 2, 2010

... also Arvo Pärt's Tabula Rasa. And Schubert's Winterreise.
posted by dontjumplarry at 3:26 AM on April 2, 2010

The last movement of Mahler's ninth symphony. Actually, all of it. Also his Kindertotenlieder.

If you've got Schwanengesang, there's plenty in it that I find a lot more heart-wrenching than Ständchen - Am Meer, Ihr Bild and Doppelgänger for a start.
posted by Gilbert Osmond at 3:36 AM on April 2, 2010

Bruch Kol Nidrei -- Cello w/orchestra.
posted by thorny at 3:41 AM on April 2, 2010

I've always been partial to Ravel's Pavane pour une infante defunte, especially when arranged for just solo piano and violin.
posted by saladin at 3:57 AM on April 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Gabriel Fauré's Requiem (sample) has been twisting my innards since I was a kid.
posted by itstheclamsname at 4:00 AM on April 2, 2010

posted by saladin at 4:02 AM on April 2, 2010

The andantino in Shostakovich's 4th string quartet, and the adagio from the 10th. Also his 2nd piano trio.
posted by misteraitch at 4:08 AM on April 2, 2010

The last movement of Mahler's ninth symphony.

No, no, his sixth! All of it! The one-CD Bernstein version!

  • Britten's Curlew River or War Requiem
  • La Traviata
  • Schubert's Winterreise
  • Takemitsu Toru's Requiem for Strings or Interrupted Rests
  • Ifukube Akira's Ballata Sinfonica (Nosaka Keiko and Komiya Mizuyo's two-koto arrangement on Camerata is fantastic)
  • Kodaly's Sonata for Solo Cello

posted by No-sword at 4:12 AM on April 2, 2010

I have to second Brahms first piano concerto first movement.
Also Schuberts string quartet, der Tod und das Mädchen gets me every time.
posted by charles kaapjes at 4:27 AM on April 2, 2010

Górecki's Symphony # 3 is usually mentioned at times like these and with good reason.
posted by pasici at 4:36 AM on April 2, 2010 [5 favorites]

Adagio in G Minor by Tomaso Giovanni Albinoni Remo Giazzato
posted by jammy at 4:55 AM on April 2, 2010

Mahler's Symphonies #2 and #5.
posted by fremen at 4:59 AM on April 2, 2010

Also, maybe the Romance from Prokofiev's Lieutenant Kije Suite?
posted by saladin at 5:13 AM on April 2, 2010

i find many of Max Richter's pieces to be pretty heart-wrenching

- On the Nature of Daylight
- The Trees (opens with a bit of spoken word)
- Sarajevo
- Autumn 2

great... now i'm crying
posted by jammy at 5:24 AM on April 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

You mentioned Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony, but there's some draining and grueling stuff in his other symphonies. I would particularly suggest his Eighth, Tenth, and Eleventh symphonies, along with the second movement of his Fifteenth.

Other suggestions:
  • Messaien, Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum
  • R. Strauss, Ein Alpensinfonie
  • Prokofiev, "Ala and Lolly" Scythian Suite
  • Hindemith, Sinfonie Mathis der Maler
  • Berlioz, Grande Messe des Morts (Requiem)

posted by Johnny Assay at 5:41 AM on April 2, 2010

Concerto de Aranjuez, the second movement.
posted by Go Banana at 6:00 AM on April 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

If you don't mind a little opera...

Nessun Dorma from Puccini's Turandot
Vesti la Giubba from Ruggero Leoncavallo's Pagliacci
posted by geekchic at 6:24 AM on April 2, 2010

Arvo Part, Da Pacem Domine (Lamentate). Five and a half minutes of heart-rending beauty.
posted by googly at 6:39 AM on April 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Elgar's Cello Concerto in E Minor, as performed by Jacqueline du Pré. No one does hardcore heart-wrenching like her.
posted by castlebravo at 6:44 AM on April 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

J. S. Bach, Mache Dich from St. Matthew's Passion. Maybe the saddest thing ever written in a major key.

(Warning: Lovely Tom Koopman recording, awful fan-video featuring Jesus-with-unicorns-on-black-velvet aesthetic)
posted by range at 6:51 AM on April 2, 2010

Beethoven's late string quartets.
posted by useyourmachinegunarm at 7:12 AM on April 2, 2010

The first movement of Handel's organ concerto in d minor makes me want to rend my clothes in grief.
posted by Commander Rachek at 7:19 AM on April 2, 2010

Richard Strauss's Four Last Songs is the epitome of heart-wrenching.
posted by matildaben at 7:21 AM on April 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

Seconding the Gorecki's Third.
I snuck it in my second book during the slow death of a major character because it was so sad and heartrending. Haunting would also be a good word to describe it.
posted by willmize at 7:28 AM on April 2, 2010

Seconding Tchaikovsky 6th symphony, "Pathetique".
posted by hermitosis at 7:40 AM on April 2, 2010

The Chaccone/Ciaccona from Bach's Partita No. 2 in D Minor. Not just emotionally draining, but well-known as being physically draining for the violinist. Stick with the violin. I've heard it played on the piano and guitar too, but doesn't compare to the violin.
posted by kkokkodalk at 7:56 AM on April 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Brahms Piano Quartet in C minor Opus 60, aka the Werther Quartet. It is intensely dramatic and romantic, full of pathos, and maybe the most verbal piece of non-vocal music I've ever heard. The lines are so clear that it gives the impression of a fundamental truth that was discovered, rather than a piece that was written.

The music "dates from a period in which Brahms' mentor Schumann was confined to a madhouse and Brahms rushed to the side of Clara Schumann, who he loved but could not approach out of loyalty to Robert." (link). Some say the piece was his way of telling Clara that he loved her, and that when she heard it she understood. You will, too.
posted by alms at 8:08 AM on April 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Specifically among Beethoven's late quartets, I'll nominate No. 13 in B flat minor—with its original finale, the Grosse Fuge, which was so weird and extreme for its time that he voluntarily replaced it with an alternative finale that's almost comically light in comparison; modern performances include one or the other, but make sure to check out the original.
posted by abcde at 8:14 AM on April 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Seconding Strauss' Four Last Songs. I fervently recommend the Jessye Norman recording.

But what instantly came to mind was the second movement of Schubert's Piano Trio No. 1 in B-flat, D. 898. It's almost unbearably poignant.
posted by Joe Beese at 8:20 AM on April 2, 2010

There are a couple of recommendations for Brahms' first piano concerto. I have to second them, but to me Brahms' finest piece, and one which I think fits your request even better, is his Ein deutsches Requiem.
posted by koeselitz at 9:27 AM on April 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've always been particularly moved by the third movement of Rimsky-Korsakoff's Scheherazade.
posted by norm at 9:35 AM on April 2, 2010

Symphonie fantastique by Berlioz. It comes with a swell little programme: 'An Episode in the Life of an Artist' (see the link). My heart skips when that heavy chord descends in the first movement.

Also: last movement of Mahler's 5th.
posted by ovvl at 9:36 AM on April 2, 2010

Schönberg Verklärte Nacht
Bartok's quartets are both harrowing and thrilling to me (not exactly Romantic…) A sample
Holst's Songs from the Rig Veda are quite stunning, I think; An example. Another.
posted by dpcoffin at 9:47 AM on April 2, 2010

I like the Renee Fleming/Christoph Eschenbach version of the Four Last Songs myself, but Jessye isn't bad at all. Other favorites previously mentioned are the Barber Adagio (the string version in quartet or orchestra, not the "Agnus Dei" for choir -- the voices don't have the same range as the strings), Deutsches requiem (I like the John Eliot Gardner version), Gorecki,

Mahler's Ruckertlieder is great, specifically "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen."

"Pleurez, pleurez mes yeux" from Le Cid by Massenet.

Puccini just kills me. "Un bel di" from Madama Butterfly. "La mamma morta" from Andrea Chenier. "Nessun dorma" from Turandot. (Liu's arias from Turandot are also good, as is "In questa reggia" which is where Turandot explains why she's such an icy bitch.)

Trio finale from Der Rosenkavalier.

Finale from Candide ("Make Our Garden Grow") by Bernstein.

Schumann's Dichterliebe is all about a really depressed poet. He's describing all of these lovely things about the month of May and the accompaniment is... not agreeing with him. I love Ian Bostridge's version; Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau is also pretty good (though a bit drier). My favorite is "Ich grolle nicht" -- "No, I'm not complaining, even though YOU'RE A HORRIBLE PERSON... no, I'm not complaining..."

Also Schubert -- "Du bist die ruh" -- either Renee Fleming or Ian Bostridge. That last high note just kills me.
posted by Madamina at 11:00 AM on April 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Dvorak's New World Symphony.
Stravinsky's Firebird Suite.
Barber's Adagio for Strings -- it's been used so often it's almost a cliche, but see if you can find it in the original string quartet version and really listen to it
Beethoven's Ninth. See above re: cliche, but I perform this piece every year and every year it thrills and moves me beyond words.
Verdi's Requiem. Particularly if you know the Holocaust story that goes along with it.
posted by KathrynT at 11:05 AM on April 2, 2010

The Andante movement from Shostakovich's Piano Concerto No. 2 in F major. (Nice to see so much love for him in here!)
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 11:28 AM on April 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Wow. Great question (I hear you on the Shostakovich 5) and plenty terrific answers.

Here's a different one: the Credo from Palestrina's Missa Papae Marcelli, especially the section starting with Crucifixus etiam pro nobis, which kills me every time. And I'm not even Catholic!
posted by lex mercatoria at 11:45 AM on April 2, 2010

Mozart's Rondo for Piano (KV 414) is a simple piece that travels through a range of emotions; also note there is some controversy whether Mozart actually composed this rondo.

Schubert's Fantasy in F minor (D940) is a four-hand piano work that is quite haunting---though when badly played it can sound schmaltzy, or harsh (as in banging on the keys). Please also note that in a number of Schubert's famous piano sonatas, a sunny melody in the right hand will be followed with a very dark undercurrent in the left hand. Very beautiful.
posted by Napoleonic Terrier at 1:12 PM on April 2, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks for all the suggestions! Here are a few more of mine, in case anyone else finds this question interesting:

"Kommt, ihr Töchter, helft mir klagen..." from St. Matthew Passion – J.S. Bach
Concerto No. 2 in E major, second movement – J.S. Bach
"Moonlight" Sonata – Beethoven
Symphony No. 5, third movement – Beethoven
Symphony No. 7, second movement – Beethoven
"Der Müller und der Bach" – Schubert
Impromptus, D 899 No. 4 in A-flat major – Schubert
"Gute Nacht" from Winterreise – Schubert
"Ah, proshlo to vremya..." from Rusalka – Dargomyzhsky
Prelude in E minor, Op. 28 – Chopin
Adagio – "Albinoni" (actually Remo Giazotto)

Oh, and I just gotta add:
"Vincent" by Don McLean
posted by archagon at 2:24 PM on April 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Solveig's Song from Peer Gynt has been covered many times, more or less succesfully. I don't really like how it sounds in English, but it's heartbreakingly lovely in German:

posted by Freyja at 3:01 PM on April 2, 2010

Messiaen's Turangalîla-Symphonie will strip the skin off your bones, guaranteed.
posted by invitapriore at 4:07 PM on April 2, 2010

lesser known perhaps, but immensely beautiful:

"Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, Op 41: Hymn of the Cherubim" by Tchaikovsky
posted by seawallrunner at 4:27 PM on April 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'd like to add another Samuel Barber piece, the Violin Concerto.
posted by angiep at 5:22 PM on April 2, 2010

My BFF who is a classical musicology wonk says that the alto aria from the Prokofiev score to Alexander Nevsky is definitely up your alley, as is the Auschwitz Oratorio by Penderecki. For so heartwrenching as to be almost unlistenable, check out Penderecki's Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, a piece so unsettlingly evocative of its subject matter that it can set a mood for days.

She also says, "I personally find the slow movement of Beethoven's Third to be the most wrenching of the symphony slow movements. And the Shostakovich. . . 6?. . . has some of the loneliest music I've ever come across."
posted by KathrynT at 6:06 PM on April 2, 2010

- 2nd Movement of Beethoven's 16th String Quartet
- seconding the Beethoven "Hammerklavier" Sonata. definitely worth the 25 minute listen.
- 2nd Movement of Brahms Violin Concerto
- Third Movement of Bruckner's 8th Symphony. Really all of Bruckner's symphonies (4th, 7th, 8th, and 9th are my favorite) are emotionally draining not only because they're loooong but because they're incredible. youtube doesn't do them justice though so if you're going to buy one i would get the 8th with Pierre Boulez conducting.
- Mahler's "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen"
- The Adagietto from Mahler's 5th symphony (the whole thing is even better)
- Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet. for example
- Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No. 2
posted by lachnessmonster at 7:12 PM on April 2, 2010

ehhh that would be Rachmaninov Piano Trio No. 2. but i'm sure if he wrote a piano concerto it would have been heart wrenching as well
posted by lachnessmonster at 7:14 PM on April 2, 2010

Massenet's "Meditation" from Thais (it's so beautiful, it gives me chills)
posted by Mael Oui at 8:21 PM on April 2, 2010

Late to the party, but none of these have gotten any love yet.

Schumann's 'Traumerei' is a short meditation on dreams of youth written by a man who jumped into the Seine and jumped in again when they pulled him out, here played by a pianist at the end of his life.

Janacek's 'Intimate Letters' string quartet is dedicated to Janacek's correspondence with a young woman who didn't respond to Janacek's love. A couple of his major works are explicitly about her. This actually sounds like frustrated desire, with the short, elegant motifs that are Janacek's trademark repeating over and over again as other elements of the quartet try to twist away from them.

Gesualdo's madrigal 'Moro, lasso, al mio duolo', or "I die, alas, in my suffering", is an impotent pleading to fate, here characterized as female, and, like a lot of Gesualdo's works, it creaks and sighs with a level of agonizing (and titillating) dissonance that you usually don't hear from the 16th century. Gesualdo knew from madness and suffering: He caught his wife with a lover and murdered them both and strung them up outside his home.

Penderecki's 'Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima' actually wasn't originally dedicated to Hiroshima, but it became so after Penderecki was emotionally overcome by his own work at the premiere. When I went to see performed this a couple of months ago I was positioned to look out over the audience, and you would have thought that they were on the Enola Gay themselves, watching the explosion shrink in the distance.
posted by voronoi at 4:48 PM on April 3, 2010

Wow, no love for Ralph Vaughan Williams yet? His Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis is quite an emotional ride.
posted by somanyamys at 7:26 PM on April 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


Brahms has an Intermezzo in A Major, Andante Teneramente, Op. 118 No. 2 which is the most absolutely gorgeous piece of music in existence for piano.

Also, the girlfriend has suggested Josquin des Prez's Nymphes des Bois/Le Deploration de Ockeghem. Also, Mille Regretz.
posted by lizarrd at 8:51 PM on April 3, 2010

I just recently found this: Song of India (Song of the Indian Guest) from Sadko by Rimsky-Korsakov.

Really beautiful.
posted by phrygius at 11:28 AM on April 5, 2010

The Tannhauser Overture, even if you normally have no interest in Wagner.

Erik Satie's Gymnopedie no. 1

The Air from Bach's Orchestral Suites no. 3.

A lot of Handel's Messiah, particularly this and this.
posted by colfax at 12:37 AM on April 15, 2010

Brahms Symphony no. 4, particularly the first and last movements
Mahler Symphony no. 9, last movement
Tchakovsky Serenade for Strings, opening of first movement
Holst Planets, Jupiter, middle section

You already have a lot to choose from, but thought I'd add to the list all the same. Also, I personally prefer the original piano version of Ravel's Pavane for a dead princess.
posted by Busoni at 8:40 AM on May 1, 2010

Wow, I missed the boat on this.

Other than Richter, no love for the moderns? Gavin Bryars' Sinking of the Titanic is gorgeous and heartrending: a simple musical motif revisited and revisited, but each time slightly differently, and with greater distance and distortion. You “hear” the ship sink, doomed musicians on board continuing to play, impossibly, as it disappears deeper and deeper into the dark and unforgiving ocean. Musical excerpt (and fanmade video) here.

Also Bryars: Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet, a classical composition based on a snippet of audio from a documentary Bryars did audio for -- a ruined tramp singing a bit of a half-remembered hymn. Bryars loops it, introducing and removing different string themes. It's off-putting at first, but haunting and unforgettable. Bryars succumbs to a star turn at the end, throwing Tom Waits in the mix, and I love Tom Waits but have mixed feelings about it.

It's probably outside the scope of classical, but Basinski's Disintegration Loops are -- well, here's a bit of a review of the albums from Pitchfork, also linked to in the YouTube link:
William Basinski's Disintegration Loops are a step toward that understanding-- the music itself is not so much composed as it is this force of nature, this inevitable decay of all things, from memory to physical matter, made manifest in music.
In essence, Basinski is improvising using nothing so much as the passage of time as his instrument, and the result is the most amazing piece of process music I've ever heard, an encompassing soundworld as lulling as it is apocalyptic. A piece may begin bold, a striking, slow-motion slur of ecstatic drone, and in the first minute, you will notice no change. But as the tape winds on over the capstans, fragments are lost or dulled, and the music becomes a ghost of itself, tiny gasps of full-bodied chords groaning to life amid pits of near-silence. Some decay more quickly and violently than others, surviving barely 15 minutes before being subsumed by silence and warping, while the longest endures for well over an hour, fading into a far-off, barely perceptible glow.
It's heartwrenching material, and pretty much my favourite headphone music when I want to just, well, feel like shit but in a good way.
posted by Shepherd at 9:06 AM on June 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

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