When it comes to beautiful classical music, there’s a lot to choose from. From slow and melodic to fast and memorable, there’s something out there for everyone. Only a select few pieces, however, rise to the level of being so beautiful they bring tears and touch the soul. If that is what you are searching for, consider our list of top 20 heart-wrenching, moving classical music pieces below.
1. Elgar – “Nimrod” from the Enigma Variations
“Nimrod” is truly one of the all-time heart-wrenching pieces with its fluctuating dynamics and unresolved tension. It is laden with anticipation from the start with a classic crescendo into the second entrance of the main theme. It’s no wonder it is used at British funerals, memorial services, and on Remembrance Sunday. Parker Symphony performed it on October 26, 2018 at our Salute concert.
2. Tchaikovsky – “Pas de Deux” from The Nutcracker
The “Pas de Deux” is a visually stunning part of the ballet The Nutcracker. And it is no surprise that the beauty of the two solo dancers is complemented by a powerful and expressive melody. It begins with a soulful cello melody and builds from there.
3. Rachmaninov – “18th Variation” from Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini
Fans of the movie “Somewhere in Time” and those who have seen “Groundhog Day” will instantly recognize this lyrical melody. The variations overall, including the 18th, have become more famous than the Paganini tune they are based on.
4. Dvořák – “Largo” from the New World Symphony
The second movement of Dvořák’s 9th Symphony (the Largo) has often been described as surreal and sublime. While the melody is seemingly simple, it evokes feelings of reminiscence like no other piece. It is, at times, nostalgic with a lamenting, longing tone.
5. Puccini – “O Mio Babbino Caro” from Gianni Schicchi
With a title that translates to “Oh my dear daddy”, you can only imagine that this is a song filled with emotion. “O Mio Babbino Caro” is a soprano aria from Puccini’s opera Gianni Schicchi sung at the point when tensions are so high that they threaten to separate the singer, Lauretta, and the boy she loves, Rinuccio, forever.
6. Barber – Adagio for Strings
Adagio for Strings is arguably Samuel Barber’s best known work. It was arranged for string orchestra from the second movement of his String Quartet Op 11. It has been written that it is “full of pathos and cathartic passion” that “rarely leaves a dry eye”. It has been played at funerals and memorials and in 2004 was voted the “saddest classical” work ever by the BBC’s Today program.
7. Zimmer – Chevaliers de Sangreal
Hans Zimmer’s “Chevaliers De Sangreal” is arguably not classical, but a film score. Still, it is perfect for this list. The gradual crescendo that builds anticipation is the backdrop for the end of The Da Vinci Code when Robert Langdon realizes the truth about Mary Magdalene’s tomb. Sorry…no spoilers here. The point at which the music hits its climax is the moment Langdon reaches the spot and kneels.
8. Godard – “Berceuse” from Jocelyn
Jocelyn may not be among the most recognized operas, but the “Berceuse” from it remains the most enduring of Godard’s compositions. It was originally sung by a tenor, but it has been recorded by other instruments including Pablo Casals on cello.
9. Beethoven – 2nd Movement from “Sonata Pathétique”
The “Adagio cantabile” from Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 8 (Pathétique) was used as the theme music for the radio program Adventures in Good Music from 1970 to 2007. The sonata overall is among Beethoven’s most popular piano works.
10. Williams – Schindler’s List
The theme to an intensely emotional movie like Schindler’s List will, of course, also evoke tears and heart-wrenching feelings. The original score and recording features violinist Itzhak Perlman and won numerous awards including an Academy Award for Best Original Score.
11. Handel – “Largo” from Xerxes
With such a beautiful aria, it’s interesting that Handel’s opera Xerxes was a failure. The area was resurrected 100 years later and is typically performed at solemn occasions. Although it was originally sung, it has been arranged for all sorts of instruments and voices.
12. Debussy – “Clair de Lune” from Suite Bergamasque
One of Debussy’s most recognizable works, “Clair de Lune” is actually the third movement of his Suite bergamasque written for piano. It has since been arranged for orchestra and numerous instruments and is prominently featured in both the movie Ocean’s 11 and as background music for the Bellagio fountains in Las Vegas.
13. Elgar – 1st Movement from his Cello Concerto in E minor
Elgar’s Cello Concerto is his last notable work and a cornerstone of solo repertoire for any serious cellist. The first movement is filled with passion and it is hard to find a more expressive and passionate recording than that of Jacqueline du Pré.
14. Puccini – “Nessun Dorma” from Turandot
One of the best-known tenor arias in all of opera, Nessun Dorma was popularized worldwide by Luciano Pavarotti who performed it for the 1990 World Cup, captivating a global audience. It was played at his funeral in 2013.
15. Mozart – “Lacrimosa” from his Requiem in D minor
Mozart’s Requiem is full of emotional and intense moments especially in places like the “Dies irae” and the “Lacrimosa”. Sadly, the “Lacrimosa” was incomplete due to Mozart’s death and was finished by Franz Xaver Süssmayr.
16. Gounod/Mantovani – Nazareth
Originally composed by Gounod for voice as “Jesus de Nazareth”, it was recorded by Mantovani & His Orchestra for Christmas albums and titled “Nazareth”.
17. Sartori/Quarantotto – Con te partirò (Time To Say Goodbye)
This Italian song was originally performed in 1995 by Andrea Bocelli at the Sanremo Festival. This second version was released in 1996 sung partly in English with Sarah Brightman.
18. Saint-Saëns – “The Swan” from Carnival of the Animals
Lushly romantic, “The Swan” is another staple in cello repertoire. The cello solo is said to represent a swan gliding elegantly over the water while the piano is the swan’s feet beneath the surface.
19. Massenet – “Meditation” from Thaïs
The “Meditation” is played during a time of reflection in Act II of the opera Thaïs. It is considered one of the great encore pieces and has been performed by all the great violin soloists.
20. Mahler – 4th Movement from Symphony No. 9
Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 was his last symphony. He died without ever hearing it performed. The final movement is often interpreted as the composer’s farewell to the world since it was composed after the diagnosis of his fatal heart disease.
Honorable Mentions (in case you want to check out more):
- Grieg – “Heart Wounds” from 2 Elegiac Melodies
- Mascagni – “Intermezzo” from Cavalleria Rusticana
- Grieg – “Morning Mood” from Peer Gynt
- Fauré – Cantique de Jean Racine
- Puccini – “O Soave Fanciulla” from La Bohème
- Smetana – The Moldau
- Bruch – Kol Nidrei
- Brahms – Waldesnacht
- Liszt – Liebesträume No. 3
- Ungar – Ashokan Farewell
- Brahms – Waltz in A Flat Major
- Franck – Panis Angelicus
- Delibes – “Flower Duet” from Lakmé