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Classic FM's 10 best classical tear-jerkers

Robert Weedon | Internet | Friday 12th July 2013

Yesterday, an email newsletter from Classic FM turned up in my inbox.

I don't remember signing up for it, but I expect it's because I completed some sort of survey for them. However, I clicked on a link to an article called "10 best classical tearjerkers", which I suppose should have been a clue not to go anywhere near it.

The article certainly provoked an emotional reaction in me, but probably not the one they were looking for. Reading it somehow made me feel quite sullied.

Read it and weep

Perhaps it was the awfully Photoshopped portrait of a composer most classical music appreciators consider one of the greatest artists to have graced us here. Or perhaps it was the astonishingly banal reasons given for the arbitrary "10 best" choices on the page, with its "ho-ho-ho I'm so ironic" tone, presumably the result of some sort of poll and a bored junior researcher's labours. But I think more than any of these it was the use of the phrase "classical tear-jerker".

To experience an emotional reaction to a piece of music, whether classical or another form is perhaps one of the most profound experiences a human can have.

Either through its inherent musical beauty, the subject it portrays or an association with an event in a person's life, music has the power to provoke emotion perhaps more than any other medium. You only need to listen to a programme like Radio 4's excellent Soul Music to hear how life-affirming, even life-changing a piece of music can be.

Unlike the majority of other arts, whose primary medium is storytelling, music is an abstract concept where the sound itself gives rise to the emotion through signals it sends directly to the brain. Sometimes it can be intense joy or fierce anger, humour or even pain. But at its best music is a form that can move you, to metaphorically take you outside of yourself and your existence, if only for a brief moment.

I remember going to hear Vaughan Williams' Symphony No.5 at the BBC Proms last year. It's a profound piece, with associations of The Pilgrim’s Progress, very serene and quiet yet first played in the middle of World War II as the bombs were falling on London. The Romanza is the emotional core of the work, with its implied quotation of the hymn tune Lasst Uns Erfreuen.

With all of these associations, but mainly just because it's beautiful, I found myself fighting back the tears. I wouldn't normally share this, but I remember reading that Vaughan Williams’s Serenade to Music had a similar effect on Rachmaninov at its premiere, so I think I'm in safe company.

I also noticed I wasn't the only one in the audience feeling the same, and looking around a huge auditorium like the Albert Hall made me realise how special sharing a musical experience can be, rather like the point in a book where an author observes something you thought unique to yourself.

I can only assume that the poor writer of the Classic FM article has never really experienced anything like that. One of the pieces the writer mentions on the page is Henryk Gorecki's Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, which is based on a prayer written by a girl on the wall of a prison during World War II. I don't really see how it can ever be appropriate to trivialise that.

Interestingly, the comedian Bill Bailey of all people, not exactly known for taking music entirely seriously, expressed a similar sentiment over the Last Night of the Proms, observing the awful mock-emotions that some Prommers affect and how they seem to devalue the music and musicians.

Maybe I'm taking it all a bit too seriously, after all it's only a silly article on a commercial radio station's website, evidently part of a series with such illuminating titles as "10 OMG moments in Classical Music", but I find it disappointing that a station that professes to be the "home of classical music" can treat it with such disdain.



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