10 Melancholic Classical Music Compositions You Probably Haven’t Heard

There are a lot of tear-jerkers composed in all periods of Western European classical music history. While many of them are very well-known (for example Bach’s Chaconne, Albinoni’s Adagio, Mozart’s Requiem etc.), there are still chances, that you missed couple of them. Here is my selection of melancholic compositions which you probably haven’t listened to yet.

1. Johannes Brahms – Chorale Prelude Op.122 No.10 “Herzlich tut mich verlangen”

As the winter of 1895–96 drew to a close, it became increasingly clear to Brahms that a severe blow was about to befall him: he was soon to lose his dearest friend and muse, Clara Schumann. The great pianist was now in her seventy-seventh year and, although her musical intellect remained undiminished, her health was failing. On 20 May Clara Schumann breathed her last. After attending her funeral in Bonn, Brahms performed a few of the Chorale Preludes for an intimate group of friends gathered at Hagerhof bei Honnef am Rhein, before returning to his summer lodgings in Bad Ischl, where he completed the first seven of his eleven Chorale Preludes op. post. 122. The remaining four Preludes in op. post. 122, nos. 8–11, were all probably composed in June 1896. Brahms’s choice of the Chorales is particularly poignant, made, as it was, at the time when he first came to realize that his own days were numbered. To his friends, he dismissed his sallow complexion as merely the result of a case of jaundice, but he surely recognized this alarming symptom of cancer of the liver. All attempts at treatment were inevitably in vain, and on 3 April 1897, Johannes Brahms died, leaving his final musical essays for organ unpublished. (© Henle Verlag)

2. Giulio Caccini – “Amarilli mia bella”

“Amarilli, mia bella” (“My lovely Amaryllis”) was one of the first of Caccini’s songs to be disseminated widely through Italy and Europe, and its distinction is reflected in its frequent appearance in vocal anthologies up to the present day. But the song is far from being a straightforward example of Caccini’s style. (© Cambridge University Press)

3. Franz Schubert – Lob der Tränen

Lob der Tränen was the first out of the seven volumes, immediately after the three great cycles, Erlkönig, Gretchen am Spinnrade, Heidenröslein, and Der Wanderer; that is, it was, back then, one of Schubert’s best-known songs. Nowadays, the popularity of a lied is no longer measured by the edition of the scores but by the recordings. And we can hardly find recordings of Lob der Tränen, beyond those of the complete or extensive editions. (© liederabend.cat)

4. Richard Wagner – Tristan und Isolde. Prelude to Act 3

Wagner’s operas are among the most complex and challenging in the entire repertoire. For most of its five-hour length, there is little, if any, action onstage. And, its ultimate message seems to be that love is a curse only resolved by death. The main reason for Tristan’s enduring popularity, of course, is the music, which remains some of the most intoxicating and evocative ever written. (© feastofmusic.com)

5. Ludwig van Beethoven – String Quartet No.15, Op.132

Beethoven was at the end of his life when he wrote the A minor quartet, also known as the “Heiliger Dankgesang” quartet, one of his several late quartets. It was composed in 1825, just two years before Beethoven’s death.
Nearly half of the expanse of Opus 132 is given over to the slow movement. At its head the composer writes “Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart” (Holy Song of Thanksgiving from a Convalescent to the Divinity, in the Lydian Mode). The Lydian mode—we might call it a key that is neither major nor minor—yields an impression of austerity and purity; it is at least part of what lends this movement its character of private meditation.
This is a profound and deeply personal utterance, rooted certainly in biographical fact, but perhaps in metaphysical metaphor as well. (© stringsmagazine.com / brentanoquartet.com / sfsymphony.org)

One of the inspirations for Beethoven during this late period was his constantly deepening admiration for the music of J. S. Bach, and next on this list we have two Works by Bach.

6. Johann Sebastian Bach – Cantata Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis [BWV 21]

Cantata I had much grief was the last of Bach’s pre-Weimar cantatas, and may have been written in 1713 as his audition for a position in Halle. Portions of the cantata may have been composed for the funeral of the wife of a high court official in October 1713. (© bach.org)

7. Johann Sebastian Bach – Prelude and Fugue in B-flat minor [BWV 867]

Throughout the Well-Tempered Clavier, published in 1722, Bach explores all 24 major and minor keys, each of which comes with its distinct atmosphere. B-flat minor, with its five flats, exudes a darkly-veiled warmth and melancholy. The prelude is filled with a sense of deep longing. From the opening bars, one can listen to the wrenching, dissonant tension in the harmony. This is followed by a rare five-voice fugue—there are only two in the entire Well-Tempered Clavier. The fugue subject includes a stunning, upward-leaping minor ninth. In the final moments, the five voices enter into a thrilling hyperstretto in which only one note separates each statement of the fugue subject. The voices seem to pile on top of each other, bringing this sublime, contrapuntal drama to a close. (© thelistenersclub.com)

8. Enrique Granados – Danza española No. 5 “Andaluza”

Perhaps more than any other works, Granados’s twelve Danzas españolas, together with Isaac Albéniz’s Suite espagnole, helped to define what was regarded as “typically” Spanish music at the end of the 19th century. Granados died tragically on 1916 . A delay in New York, incurred by accepting a recital invitation, caused him to miss his boat back to Spain. Instead, he took a ship to England, where he boarded the passenger ferry SS Sussex for Dieppe, France. On the way across the English Channel, the Sussex was torpedoed by a German U-boat, as part of the German World War I policy of unrestricted submarine warfare. A survivor of that torpedo attack recognised Spanish composer Granados in a lifeboat, his wife in the water. Granados dived in to save her and perished. (© Henle Verlag / Wikipedia) On this recording you can hear Granados performing his Andaluza himself.

9. Anton Bruckner – Symphony No. 4 – IV: Finale. Bewegt, doch nicht zu schnell

Anton Bruckner is known as a deeply religious composer whose Catholic spirituality is prominent in his music, particularly his later symphonies. However, his Symphony No. 4 in E-flat major is one of his most secular, most influenced by nature and most popular works.
It is often called the “Romantic”, a nickname that Bruckner himself used, most probably in reference to the literary genre of the medieval romance, rather than to the concept of romantic love. (© referencerecordings.com)

10. Gustav Mahler – Das Lied von der Erde – VI. Der Abschied

Das Lied von der Erde (“The Song of the Earth”) is an orchestral song cycle for two voices and orchestra. Mahler composed this work following the most painful period in his life, and the songs address themes such as those of living, parting and salvation. Leonard Bernstein described this work as Mahler’s “greatest symphony”. As with his later Symphony No. 9, Mahler did not live to hear Das Lied von der Erde performed. Mahler also hesitated to put the piece before the public because of its relentless negativity, unusual even for him. “Won’t people go home and shoot themselves?” he asked.
The final movement, “The Farewell” is nearly as long as the previous five movements combined. Its text is drawn from two different poems, both involving the theme of leave-taking.
The first public performance was given on 20 November 1911, six months after composer’s death. (© Wikipedia)