1. Dido’s Lament – Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas
Is it the yearning melody? The chromatically descending ground bass? That sense of distilled despair in the text? There’s certainly something uniquely effective about this aria from Purcell’s 1688 opera Dido and Aeneas, in which Dido, distraught at Aeneas’s betrayal, prepares to kill herself.
For all its surface simplicity, Dido’s lament is full of musical sleights of hand, not least its leaning appoggiaturas in the vocal part, and ornamentation in the strings, all of which conspire to make this one of the most tragic, and famous arias in the history of English opera.
2. Danny Boy – Trad
There are various theories about the meaning of this beloved ballad. Some say it’s a message from a parent to a son going to war. Others see it as a song for the Irish diaspora, who were displaced from their country. And it’s a popular choice for funerals: Charlie McKenna, A retired Irish American police officer from Rhode Island, once said: ‘I want ‘Danny Boy’ sung at my funeral mass, and if it isn’t, I’m going to get up and walk out.’
Either way, there’s something about this song’s sense of yearning for home, as well as its uplifting hopefulness, that resonates with a lot of people. Set to the traditional Irish melody of Londonderry Air, ‘Danny Boy’ has come to acquire iconic status in Ireland; many see it as an unofficial Irish national anthem. So it’s easy to forget that its lyrics were written in 1910 by an English lawyer: Frederic Weatherly.
3. Verdi Prati – Handel’s Alcina
The setting seems far removed from reality: a magical island belonging to Alcina – a beautiful but dangerous enchantress who seduces every man that lands there, and transforms them into rocks or wild animals when she has grown tired of them.
But Handel’s 1735 opera seria, Alcina, has plenty to say to us, and this aria, in which the hero Ruggiero bids farewell to the enchanted world that so seduced him, is its most poignant offering, expressing the sorrow of mankind at the finiteness of beauty, and the fact that nothing, ultimately, withstands the onslaught of time. Like the most elegant arias of Mozart, ‘Verdi prati’ manages to combine surface restraint with an internal depth and the result is music of exquisite melancholy.
4.Porgi, amor, qualche ristoro – Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro
Talking of Mozart, no list of sad songs would be complete without him. And this aria from The Marriage of Figaro was one of the most moving things he ever created, despite, or perhaps especially because of, the opera’s comedic nature. Sung by the countess the first time we ever see her, it speaks of her sorrow at the fact that her husband no longer seems to love her: ‘Oh love, grant some relief / To my sorrow and my sighs. / And if you won’t give me back my loved one, / At least, I beg you, let me die.”’
You could say that it pulls many of the same heartstrings as that famous scene in Love Actually, where Emma Thompson cries alone in her bedroom. But here we also get the benefit of Mozart’s music: externally simple, unshowy and utterly beautiful.
5. The Parting Glass – Scottish/Irish trad
The most popular traditional parting song in Scotland before Robert Burns wrote ‘Auld Lang Syne’, this is another regular at funerals. It first appeared in James Aird’s A Selection of Scots, English, Irish and Foreign Airs in 1782.
Since then it has turned up in various guises, not least in versions by The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem and Bob Dylan. Incidentally, it’s also the song that the author Margaret Atwood chose to end her guest-edited edition of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
6. An Mhaighdean Mhara – Gaelic trad
This traditional Gaelic lament, closely associated with County Donegal and the Irish-speaking area, is about a mermaid who, under a spell, marries a sailor and bears him two children, Mary and Patrick. But when the spell is broken, she is condemned to perish on land or live in the ocean, watching her family from afar.
In the lyrics, we hear her sad, parting conversation with her children: ‘I am tired and will be until until the day / My fair maiden Mary and my darling Patrick/ On top of the waves and by the strand / Yonder, Mary Kinney comes to you, after swimming the Atlantic.’ Can a song get much sadder than that?
7. Death of Mimi – Puccini’s La bohème
Who knows exactly what it is – the glowing orchestration, the soaring melodies, or the way that Puccini’s harmonies tell us exactly the opposite of what the characters seem to be saying – but I’ve never watched this moment in La bohème without being reduced to a blubbering mess.
Maybe it’s just my particular achilles heel – I’m not exactly the strong and silent type – or maybe there is something universally affecting about the way Puccini manages to harness the love music of Act I and invert it to such tragic effect. Either way, watching Mimi slowly fading away is like watching a candlelight gradually petering out, and it’s gut wrenching.
8. Scarborough Fair – Trad English
Though many people know this folk song from Simon & Garfunkel, it actually predates them by several hundred years, with roots that go all the way back to the Middle Ages. Its lyrics, referring to an old market fair in Yorkshire that started sometime in the 14th century, are beautifully poetic: a young man delegates impossible tasks to his former lover, demanding that she complete them before she comes back to him.
In return she requests impossible things of him, saying she will perform her tasks when he performs his. It’s an eloquent expression of yearning, of insecurity, of lovers talking and acting at cross-purposes. But the soul of this song really rests in its haunting melody.
9. Every Time We Say Goodbye – Ella Fitzgerald
Written in 1944, during the height of World War II, when many soldiers were leaving their loved ones, Cole Porter’s song is a product of its era. But its message, about the pain of having to say goodbye to someone you love, is universal.
Cole Porter imbued the music with his trademark sophistication, producing a haunting melody full of ingenious effects, not least the witty musical mirroring of ‘the change from major to minor’.
But while the song made its first appearance in Billy Rose’s 1944 musical revue Seven Lively Arts, where it was introduced in a sketch by Nan Wynn and Jere McMahon, it really owes its current popularity to Ella Fitzgerald, whose heartfelt rendition from the 1950s is the stuff of legend.
10. Strange Fruit – Abel Meeropol
It’s not so much sad as downright chilling. This song about the racist lynchings in the US shocked audiences when Billie Holiday (pictured) first sang it in a New York night club in 1939. All these years later it still stands out as one of the most famous, most explicit and most powerful protest songs ever written, with Holiday’s version named by Time Magazine as ‘song of the century.’
It was written by the Jewish communist Abel Meeropol, who drew his lyrics from a poem he had penned in 1937, comparing the victims of the Black American lynchings to the fruit of trees. He cited as his inspiration a grotesque 1930 photograph of the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith. Although lynchings were by then on the decline, it would take more than three more decades for them to come to an end.
With its stark melody and starker lyrics (‘Blood on the leaves and blood at the root / Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze’), ‘Strange Fruit’ became an anthem of the anti-lynching movement and the first important song of the nascent Civil Rights Movement. [‘Strange Fruit’] is about the ugliest song I have ever heard,’ Nina Simone once said. ‘Ugly in the sense that it is violent and tears at the guts of what white people have done to my people in this country.’