Some years ago, UK’s Classic FM radio station published a list of what was considered the “saddest music ever written”. It contained the well-known lament from Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas. This incidentally, was my very first professional engagement, not singing the role of Dido you understand, but playing the cello in the orchestra.
The Classic FM list also contained some instrumental works which included the slow movement from Elgar’s Serenade for Strings, Albinoni’s Adagio and the slow movement of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony. Then there was the slow movement from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, which leapt to fame after Luchino Visconti used it his 1971 movie Death in Venice.
As a young teenager I remember becoming hopelessly weepy every time I listened to the yearning slow movement of Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto, though I could never understand the reason. When you look at the score, the melodic line looks straightforward enough but somehow, the wandering theme hits the button, especially when it’s taken up by the strings. The music isn’t actually sad. If anything, it’s elevating and enriching and at some moments, filled with joy.
Charles Darwin noted that “several of our strongest emotions – grief, great joy, and sympathy – lead to the free secretion of tears and it is not surprising that music should be apt to cause our eyes to become suffused with tears”. Darwin realised of course that music doesn’t have to be “sad” to bring out powerful emotions. In any case, the word “sad” is far too childishly simplistic to be of much value.
I recently came across a fascinating article on the subject by Robert Barry, amusingly entitled Having a Bawl in which he wrote, “There are tears and then there are tears. Emotional tears, the ones wrung from inner pain and the recognition of tragedy, have even a different chemical composition. There are proteins that are theirs alone. And the precise network of higher brain functions involved in these less obviously functional emissions remains shrouded in mystery.”
It’s sometimes been suggested that a minor key can produce a “sad” effect but I don’t think that explanation holds much water, or much of anything for that matter. The song My Favourite Things is in a minor key and it’s anything but sad. The Rachmaninov movement which made me lachrymose as a teenager is in a major key. And so for that matter is the last movement of Mahler’s massive Third Symphony which is almost guaranteed to bring a tear or three. But whether it’s a tear of melancholy, sadness, joy, elation or ecstasy, I shall leave it to you to decide.
Gustav Mahler (1860-1911): Symphony No. 3 (last movement). Czech Philharmonic Orchestra cond. Václav Neumann, (Duration: 21.06; Video 720p)