It's a familiar scene: An athlete takes the podium, acknowledges the cheers of the crowd, accepts a bouquet of flowers and then steadies himself as his country's flag ascends the pole to the strains of his national anthem filling the arena. The music sends the athlete over the emotional edge. There are tears, and as viewers (voyeurs?), we're swept along, too. Television networks love podium ceremonies; they're TV gold.
Few things stir our emotions the way music can. Would the podium ceremony have the same impact without the national anthem? Would people cry at the movies without the violins? Would brides spoil their mascara if they walked down the aisle in silence?
Music is the soundtrack for the inner drama of our lives, and the best composers tap into that drama with a deft use of melody and orchestration.
Here are six performances of some of the most emotionally stirring, effusive and sentimental music ever written. Does one of these movements bring you to tears? Who among these composers excels at excess? Which of them is king of the heartstring?
Vote in the survey below to let us know.
Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: love theme from Romeo and Juliet
The love theme from Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet has become a pop culture emblem, if not a cliché, for love at first sight. The music has been parodied in South Park, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Wayne's World, making it difficult to appreciate its true beauty today.
Still, it's hard to deny the epic sweep of its melody, enhanced by Tchaikovsky's exquisite orchestration. Check out this performance by Romeo and Juliet-aged performers in the Teresa Carreño Youth Symphony Orchestra:
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 2, second movement
Rachmaninoff established his credibility as a composer of concertos with his Piano Concerto No. 2, probably his most famous work. The slow movement's main theme practically aches with yearning, and Rachmaninoff's use of wind instruments to introduce it was a stroke of genius.
Incidentally, this music forms the basis of Eric Carmen's 1975 power ballad, "All by Myself," later immortalized by Céline Dion. It gets a languorous treatment from pianist Hélène Grimaud and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra under Claudio Abbado:
Giacomo Puccini: E lucevan le stelle from Act 3 of Tosca
Puccini's librettists, Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, had a knack for setting up emotionally charged situations that would fire the composer's imagination. At the beginning of Act 3 of Tosca, the prisoner Mario Cavaradossi is informed he will be executed in an hour's time. He begins writing a farewell note to his lover, Floria Tosca, but is quickly overwhelmed with sadness: "Forever, my dream of love has vanished. That moment has fled, and I die in desperation."
Watch tenor Jonas Kaufmann pour his heart out in the aria E lucevan le stelle:
Pietro Mascagni: intermezzo from the opera Cavalleria rusticana
Not all operatic music has singing in it. Mascagni's Cavalleria rusticana, a racy one-act opera about love, infidelity and revenge, boasts an intermezzo that has become a popular number on orchestral concerts. In the opera, it provides momentary relief from the tawdry domestic drama unfolding on stage. In the concert hall, stripped of its melodramatic associations, it creates an ethereal soundscape that builds to a stirring climax.
Nobody does it better than the orchestra of the Teatro Comunale di Bologna under the passionate, if sweaty, baton of Riccardo Muti:
Frédéric Chopin: Piano Concerto No. 1, second movement
The music of Italian opera may have been an inspiration for Polish/French composer Chopin who, according to pianist Stephen Hough, "was dazed by the sweet melancholy of [Vincenzo] Bellini's bel canto."
The long vocal lines in Amina's sleepwalking scene in Act 2 of Bellini's opera La Sonnambula are echoed in the slow movement of Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 1. Like its operatic cousin, Chopin's piano writing creates a private world where time stands still and melody speaks to the soul.
See if pianist Evgeny Kissin doesn't put you into a trance with this performance:
Ennio Morricone: Gabriel's Oboe from The Mission and the main theme from Cinema Paradiso
In the modern era, the primary arena for sweet, heart-rending melodies is film music. While Italian composer Morricone is admired for the music he wrote in the 1960s for the spaghetti westerns of his compatriot Sergio Leone, his best loved and most enduring work came later, from films like Cinema Paradiso and The Mission.
It's hard to say what sort of impact these films would have had without Morricone's music. On the other hand, the music will forever be inhabited by the striking images and characters from the films. Here are two excerpts played by the Rome Symphony Orchestra under the composer's direction:
Is there a another composer you'd like to nominate? Let us know in the comments below.
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