The Well-Tempered Ear

Yes, classical music critics cry too: What pieces make you cry? Try these.

April 22, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

There we were, in the lobby of the concert hall, waiting to go hear Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.”

If you listen carefully, I joked, you’ll probably hear me sobbing at the end of the 18th Variation, a wonderfully lyrical several minutes that mark the end of the slow movement and has such a beautiful theme that French pianist Philippe Bianconi played so perfectly.

You mean even you, a music critic, cries?” asked one of the friends we were with.

Yes, I said, yes I do cry. Often.

In fact, the ability to make me cry is one of the things that draws me to classical music – though not by any means the only thing — and to certain pieces again and again. It feels good to cry at beauty – cathartic and at once communal and intimate.

The incident got me to thinking and I started making a list of the classical music that almost always makes me cry – though that is hardly the only criterion for choosing favorite pieces.

Why do I cry? Is it genetic or nervous system hard wiring? Is it social conditioning? It is a formative childhood experience? I honestly don’t know, though I suspect all play a role.

And it’s not just classical music. Certain pop and rock songs do it too. And hearing people sing “We Shall Overcome” always does it.

But here is a listing of some of the classical pieces that make this critic cry—almost every time:

The Andante movement from J.S Bach’s Violin Sonata No. 5 in F Minor and cantata aria “Ich habe genug”; Samuel Barber’s “Adagio” for Strings; Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto (the slow movement); Brahms’ “Selig sind die Toten” from his “German” Requiem and the slow movement from his Violin Sonata No. 3; the slow movement from Chopin’s Sonata No. 3; Sir Edward Elgar’s “Nimrod” Variation from the “Enigma” Variations; Mozart’s Requiem and the first two movements of his last Piano Concerto, No. 27; Puccini’s “Vissi d’arte” from Tosca” and “Nessun dorma” from “Turandot” and the opening duet from “La Boheme”; the 18th Variation from Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” and the finale of his Piano Concerto No. 3; the second movement of Schumann’s “Kreisleriana”; and the “Love Death” from Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde.”

There are lots more, I’m sure. Maybe as they come to me, I will write about them.

In the mean time, here are some audio samples of the beautiful music that makes me cry:

First, here is Arthur Rubinstein playing that same 18th Variation with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Fritz Reiner. It is, as one commenter says on YouTube, both passionate and delicate. Try it and see.

Then here is a purely instrumental piece: the “Nimrod” Variation from Sir Edward Elgar’s “Enigma” Variations, played by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under its last music director Daniel Barenboim in a Carnegie Hall:

It was also used by Ken Burns in his documentary about World War II. But I loved it before then. I heard the CSO play it as a tribute to their longtime cellist who had recently died. That’s was a perfect piece for the occasion and made me ask the Lawrence University Orchestra to perform it for my 40th reunion in honor of those classmates who are no longer with us. They did and it was perfect. It worked again.

And finally, here is superstar tenor Luciano Pavarotti singing Puccini’s “Nessun dorma” from “Turandot” with the Met’s James Levine conducting in Paris. It was Pavarotti’s signature and no one before or since has done it like him. It works every time, from the first time I heard it – played as background against bombers dropping bombs in the film “The Killing Fields” — to the last Olympics Pavarotti sang in before he died.

Does classical music ever make you cry?

What pieces of classical music make you cry?

Let me know. I am anxious to expand my experience.

And The Ear wants to hear – as well as cry.

Posted in Classical music

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