Music to shed tears to


I have mentioned before that certain songs can make me cry.  Of course, with my mental wobbliness factor, I don’t necesarily need any songs to accomplish this goal, as at my worst somebody saying hello or a black cloud or nothing at all can open the floodgates, but there are definitely songs which can cause me to well up even when I am in a stable mental state.

I have expressed my tearful admiration for ‘Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye’ before, and it sits alongside other songs written for Broadway shows before the Second World War which have stood the test of time in both singability and the power to move listeners to tears.  The Gershwin brothers’ ‘Someone to Watch Over Me’ and Jerome Kern’s ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’ (lyrics by Otto Harbach) are the greatest examples of this for me.  Songs of love either lost or never found in the first place, expressed with simplicity, directness and a velvety melody.  From the other side of the coin, Irving Berlin’s ‘How Deep is the Ocean?’ (not from a show as far as I know), which speaks of a love of incredible depth and fortitude can make me start to well up, as can ‘All the Things You Are’ by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein.

Of those, only Cole Porter’s ‘Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye’ is absolutely consistent in its tearjerking, as the others depend on the rendition.  The right singer coupled with these songs can be absolutely heart-wrenching.  If the signer truly inhabits the lyrics, they bring the listener in and make them really feel the sense of loss, longing or passion, sweeping all and sundry up in the emotions of a truly glorious song.

Other examples depend very much on context.  With music from the theatre, context can be everything.  An otherwise fairly mediocre song can really pull on the heart strings if it’s in the right place in the plot, pushing the right buttons, an advantage that pop songs don’t tend to have.  The finale for Cabaret, for instance, is peculiar.  Discordant, messy and completely unable to stand on its own outside the show.  However, having seen and performed in the musical, it can bring forth tears for me in subsequent listenings, because it rekindles the memories of the show’s emotional content, mixed as it is with the beginnings of the Holocaust.  Not to be outdone, British composers for the theatre have also contributed to the theatrical tearjerker catalogue.  In Blood Brothers, Willy Russell created a moving play where the music is not necessary, but certainly enhances the theatregoing experience.  The final number, ‘Tell Me It’s Not True’, which comes at a moment which is utterly devastating for characters and audience, has the auditorium in floods of tears.  And in Billy Elliot, Elton John and Lee Hall may as well have hung signs saying “Cry NOW” from the lighting rig when ‘The Letter’ arrives, as young Billy reads a letter his mother wrote to him before she died.  It would be a moving moment in a non-musical play, but the music gives it that cathartic edge.

And sometimes, it’s a different kind of context that can cause a song to make me cry.  After my grandfather’s death, the song ‘You Walk With Me’, from (of all things) the stage version of The Full Monty, moved me in a way it never had before, speaking of the way in which a departed loved one lives on in your life. 

When evening falls and the air gets colder

And shadows cover the road I am following.

Will I be alone, there in the darkness?

No, not alone.  Not alone and I’ll never be.

Never alone.  You are walking, you’re walking with me.

And from Curtains, currently running on Broadway, ‘I Miss the Music’ has a depth and resonance outside of its theatrical context.  In it, a composer sings of how he misses his lyricist, his wife who has drifted away from him.  However, the hidden context of this is that it is a song written by composer John Kander after Fred Ebb, his songwriting partner for over 40 years, died.  Knowing this context, having admired the work of Kander and Ebb for many years, and feeling the depth of loss behind the words and the halting, hesitant melody, brought me to tears the first time I heard the song.  A performance of this song has been YouTubed, and though it may not be the greatest song in John Kander’s catalogue, it will remain one of the most moving, at least for me.

Some songs then, needed no context before they moved me, while others needed either their theatrical context or a moment that connected with my life to achieve the same effect.  I have often mentioned the power of music to uplift and excite me, and it seems quite clear that it can affect me in many other ways.  In these cases, it is primarily the lyrics which have the effect, but they would not have anything like the same effect if the melody and harmony were removed.

  1. This is a very moving post. I was nodding vigorously nad sniffling just a little through-out. Thank you.

    I know all the words to Every Time We Say Goodbye. We have the Ella Fitzgerald version on CD, and while I make an appalling hash of it, I do sing along. And feel weepy. And this despite being one of the luckiest women on earth in that I did marry the great love of my life. You see, we spent the first six years of our relationship at least 200 miles apart except for the odd weekend, and I lived in terror the whole thing would fall to pieces any minute. So while I can sing it happily now, I remember being unable to sing it without choking up then.

    Ah, music.

    And Tallis’s Spem in Alium. I first heard it at the funeral of a beloved and tragically young aunt (not even 40). I cry helplessly every time I hear it now. And it’s so beautiful.

  2. I can certainly see why it makes you sniffle. I don’t really understand why it affects me, as I’ve never been in love at all.

    With non-theatre music, the ‘In Paradisum’ from Verdi’s Requiem gets me, and from the world of opera, Dido’s Lament and the chorus that comes after it are very sniffle-worthy. I’m not sure whether that is a result of having performed in it, though.

  3. I would like to agree with Reed. Thank you for a moving post, which brought to mind lots of beautiful songs. I don’t know all of the songs you mention, but I empathise with your reaction to the ones I do know. Of the songs that you mention, I think ‘Someone to watch over me’ is still the one that gets to me the most, followed closely by ‘All the things you are’. I agree with you about the finale for Cabaret, as well. It’s so ominous, but also very moving.

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