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Sad Stories From Classical Music

Frances Metcalfe first learnt to read music at the age of four. She is now a retired peripatetic music teacher specialising in the violin.

Henry Purcell 1659-1695

Henry Purcell 1659-1695

1. Henry Purcell and the Funeral Music for Queen Mary—a Slow March

After the resignation of John Blow in 1680, Purcell (aged only 22) ascended to the post of organist of Westminster Abbey. This was the most prestigious music post in England. Two years later, he took on the role of organist at the Chapel Royal in tandem. The appointments required him to write both sacred music as well as music for events in the royal household. When Queen Mary II, wife of William III (with whom she had joint regency), died of smallpox at the end of 1694, Purcell wrote the music for her funeral.

The music is as solemn as you could imagine. It opens magisterially, with brass chords marking out the slow march tempo, which commands absolute silence from the attendees. It is music to make you take notice and devote your whole attention to it.

The stately chords continue, ringing out in place of bells. Queen Mary is being carried along by the pallbearers of trumpets towards her maker, alternated by a strong, tight solo drum. Death knells.

As the music processes, the drum solos become more embellished, ratcheting up the tension as it drives the music on until the somber final chord. Austere and grandiose, this is music fit for the funeral service of a monarch.

Within twelve months, Purcell was also dead (aged only 35), and his music for the late queen was played at his own funeral on November 21, 1695.1

Georges Bizet 1838-1875

Georges Bizet 1838-1875

2. Bizet and One of the World's Favourite Operas: "Carmen"

The story was all too much for the French public. On stage was a free-spirited woman who wasn't going to be fettered by any man, involved in an underworld of gamblers and smugglers. Worse still she encouraged her infatuated lover, Don Jose, to desert the army and join her disreputable friends, even though he knew he would never be able to hang on to her. Waiting in the wings to replace him in her bed was Escamillo the toreador. The insanely jealous Don Jose killed the mocking Carmen rather than accept she was moving on to someone else.

What a pity the music to this most human of operas was not appreciated at the premiere although some composers in the audience did have favourable comments to make, but certainly not all.

From the first bars, impending doom hovers like a black cloud over the orchestral pit. Carmen with its wealth of memorable and immensely singable tunes has become one of the all-time favourites among opera-goers and arrangers of his arias. Even ice skaters love to choose Carmen to dance to.

Bizet never knew the success it was would achieve. "I foresee a definite and hopeless flop", he said. He fell into despair and died three months after the apparent failure of the opening night of heart failure. He was thirty-six. Within a year Carmen was a hit.2

Alban Berg 1885-1935

Alban Berg 1885-1935

3. Alban Berg: "Violin Concerto"

The title sums up this work: 'To the memory of an angel'.

The angel in question was Manon Gropius, the eighteen-year-old daughter of architect Walter Gropius who was heavily involved in the Bauhaus movement, and his wife Alma, who had formerly been married to Gustav Mahler.

Manon, Alma's third daughter died of polio in 1935 after contracting the disease on a trip to Venice. She was left totally paralysed but eventually regained some use of her arms and hands. Further treatment, however involving x-rays induced complications leading to fatal organ failure.

Berg, who was close to Manon - his wife Helene kept a photograph of her by her bedside - had already written part of the concerto at the time of her death and finished it not long after.3

There are two movements rather than the normal three, obviously, Berg did not have the stomach for a rousing upbeat finale and brought the work to a muted close quoting Bach's famous reflective chorale Es Ist Genug (it is enough) from one of his cantatas as a funeral hymn to the dead girl, while the violin weaves a mournful countermelody over the top. The second movement's preoccupation with mortality is intensified by the inclusion of a Corinthian folk song, the words mentioning death and salvation.

Unusually for a composition employing the twelve-tone technique which almost always results in atonal sound, Berg's violin concerto is highly lyrical and grounded in conventional harmony. Berg cleverly arranges the twelve notes in a series of three-note overlapping chords, G Minor, D major, A minor and E major, the top note of each chord forming the bottom note of the next. The last notes of the series form a four-note whole tone scale, also familiar to the western ear. This beautifully engineered line hovers between minor and major, bitter-sweet, memories of a beloved individual cut short in her prime and the anguish of her untimely passing.

This was a composer of immense sensitivity still able to be true to his solidarity with the other composers of the Second Viennese School, all exponents of the radical twelve-note system.

Teatro Arriaga

Teatro Arriaga

4. Arriaga: "A Teenage Life Cut Short"

He was dubbed 'the Spanish Mozart' but never realised his potential, his life cut short at the end of his teenage years.

Born Juan Crisóstomo Jacobo Antonio e Arriaga, he was born in Bilbao, Spain, in 1806. Unbelievably at his untimely death in Paris, he had already written an opera called 'The Happy Slave' and had it successfully staged by the age of fourteen.

He was, by all accounts something of a wonder on the violin and was sent to the Paris Conservertoire by his father and included the study of composition. By eighteen was engaged at the Conservatoire as an assistant professor.

Arriaga died the following year, 1826, of tuberculosis, leaving behind around twenty-five works including a symphony, a stabat mater, three string quartets, the first of which he wrote aged nine, and other chamber and orchestral music.

He wasn't shy of dabbling with unfamiliar instrumentation either: one of his chamber works he scored for the unfamiliar collection of string quartet, trumpet, guitar, double bass and piano. Stylistically he incorporates a Spanish tang into the transitional world between the classical and Romantic periods, charming and elegant music for the salons and music halls of the day.

A talent cruelly cut short, Arriaga would probably continued to compose at the same rate at a speed perhaps to rival Schubert. When you think how ill he must have been it's amazing we have been left with as much as we have.4

Antonin Dvorak 1841-1904

Antonin Dvorak 1841-1904

5. Dvorak Cello Concerto: Memories of a Lost Love

In his early twenties, the Czeck composer Dvorak was smitten by his piano pupil Josefina Cernakova, the daughter of a goldsmith But his advances weren't welcomed and she married the Earl Vaclav Kounic.

Many years later Dvorak married Josefina's younger sister Anna, she against her father's approval, probably on the grounds that Dvorak was not financially stable. His income from playing the viola in theatres had to be supplemented by giving private lessons.

He remained fond of his sister-in-law, however, and he and Anna bought a house near the castle where she lived at Vysoka u Pribami. When he learnt of her illness he had just started composing his cello concerto and finished it three months later. He included a tribute to her near the end of the last movement by inserting a dreamy folk melody, Leave Me Alone, that she loved to sing.5 Cast in the form of a duet for solo violin and cello it exudes nostalgia and a contemplative passing for something that had never been.

The concerto has become one of the beloved mainstays of the cello repertoire and often coupled with the Elgar concerto for recordings.

Carl Maria von Weber 1786-1826

Carl Maria von Weber 1786-1826

6. Weber's Last Opera

When the Royal Opera at Convent Garden offered Weber a commission to compose and produce an opera, Oberon Weber was suffering from the advanced stages of tuberculosis.

Despite being severely ill, Weber nevertheless accepted the commission, travelling from Germany to London to complete the work and oversee the rehearsals, even learning English. Aware of his impending mortality he had wanted to leave an income for his wife and children after his death.

He conducted the first performance on 12 April 1826 and the twelve further performances as per his contract. He never made it back home and died in London overnight on the 4-5 June aged thirty-nine. That's what you call devotion to your family.6

Felix Mendelssohn 1809-1847

Felix Mendelssohn 1809-1847

7. Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn: Brother and Sisterly Love

They are one of the most famous brother-sister partnerships in music.

The well-known Felix Mendelssohn's sister, Fanny was an exceptional pianist. Aged thirteen she played the first book of Bach's 48 preludes and fugues from memory for her father who, while lauding the feat, commented that this accomplishment would not be displayed on any concert hall.

He wrote 'Music could perhaps be for him [Felix] but not for you, it will always be an ornament and can and never should become the ground bass of your being and doing'.7

She was destined to be a wife and mother, not earn a living. 'Every day I am reminded that I am a woman', she lamented, frustrated that her upbringing in a wealthy middle-class household barred her from pursuing her dreams.

Nevertheless, a teacher they were both sent to the Sing-Academie zu Berlin where the director Carl-Friedrich Zelter said of her 'She is something special, and 'she plays like a man'.8

Instead she threw herself into supporting her favourite brother. He reciprocated by getting some her songs published, albeit under his own name. Women could not, should not do that sort of thing. He too had reservations about publishing works under her own name, which would have in any case been difficult given the general misogyny of the time: 'She is too much all that a woman ought to be for this.....Publishing would only disturb her in these, and I cannot say that I approve of it.'

Happily, she did get something of a comeback on her brother when Felix was invited to Buckingham Palace to be received by Queen Victoria. The British monarch intimated that she wanted to sing one of her favourite songs, 'Italien', at which point Felix had to come clean and confess it was composed by his sister.

Fanny did continue to play a prominent role in her brother's musical life, rehearsing orchestras and collaborating on a possible opera.

And Fanny did get to show off her both prowess at the piano and more than capability to compose - in 1838 she played Felix's first piano concerto and more songs - without her brother's help - were published in 1846. Sadly a year later she was dead from a stroke.

At the death of his cherished sister, Felix was distraught. He managed to compose a string quartet which he dedicated to her memory, yearning and mournful, restlessly twisting and turning from a man who truly was inconsolable. Within six months, Felix had also succumbed to a series of strokes and died.9

Fanny Mendelssohn 1805-1847

Fanny Mendelssohn 1805-1847


1 BBC History

2 Wikipedia

3 WIkipedia

4 Wikipedia France

5 Musicweb International

6 Repertoire Explorer


8 France Musique,

9 Wikipedia France

© 2018 Frances Metcalfe


Frances Metcalfe (author) from The Limousin, France on March 27, 2018:

Hi Barbara, so glad yo like the article. As always I enjoyed researching it, tragic as some of it is.

LesTroisChenes on March 27, 2018:

What a lovely and informative music article. I'm listening to Purcell's funeral music - very powerful. Looking forward to listening to the rest.

Frances Metcalfe (author) from The Limousin, France on March 27, 2018:

Hello Flourish! Always happy to read your comments. Yes, women oppressed AGAIN, as they were back then, and still are, unfortunately. Who knows how many other womens' abilities who didn't family or friendly support went undetected? Fortunately Fanny Mendelssohn did write quite a lot of music, despite her background, which both recognised she had immense talent, otherwise she wouldn't have been sent away to study, and repressed her. Sad indeed, and her mother must have felt exactly the same.

FlourishAnyway from USA on March 26, 2018:

Oh, that last story is so sad. Unrealized talent, particularly for discriminatory reasons, is regrettable. Who knows what she might have been if afforded the chance?