Recently I attended a memorial service, a beautiful service for a man I didn’t know. That was my loss. He was dear to all present, had died suddenly and too young, and I wish I had known him. I knew his widow but a little; we had sung together in a choir. On this day, she was deeply and visibly grieved as she welcomed friend after friend into her arms. I was touched by the generous way she shared her grief.

On the way home, I had William Blake’s poem “On Another’s Sorrow” on my mind:

Can I see another’s woe,
And not be in sorrow too?
Can I see another’s grief,
And not seek for kind relief?
Can I see a falling tear,
And not feel my sorrow’s share?

on_anothers_sorrow.300Is it possible to be impassive in the face of sorrow? Where do tears come from? Why do another’s tears open our own waterworks? Why is the salt in our tears so startling when it hits our palate?

Seeking to know more about loss, I consulted the Elmans’ Atlas of Emotions. I learned about the many shades of sadness, from disappointment through increasingly intense states to grief, sorrow and anguish. According to the web site, “the Dalai Lama asked Paul Ekman to create a map of the emotions, hoping that such a map would enable people to have more constructive emotional experiences.”

Tart as it is, I agree with Mme. Merle’s comment in The Portrait of a Lady: “I’m afraid there are moments in life when even Schubert has nothing to say to us.” But she adds: “We must admit, however, that they are our worst.” When we’re sad, our actions include protest, mourning, withdrawal, rumination and the seeking of comfort. Music can console us in our worst moments, can bring us back to what the Atlas of Emotions calls a baseline state of calm.

With that in mind, I offer some pieces that have comforted me over the years, and continue to welcome me into their grieving arms. All are frankly tonal. In several works, expressive voices or strings are countered by a  less dynamic medium like the piano or organ, heightening their vibrancy. There are a couple of sonata forms, but most of the pieces are rotational or strophic. And they all have a middle of some sort which defines their shape. That middle distinguishes them from pieces that are pure contemplation. Most also share an andante tempo. That is part of their healing power: the music walks forward, bearing us along with it. Above all, these pieces affirm their thematic material; repetition and reassurance are part of their structure.

I share this list with the hope that you also may have pieces that console you. Perhaps you’ll leave a comment and tell me about them.

Click on a title to go to YouTube. Listen on Spotify here.

Grainger: Irish Tune from County Derry

The richest harmonization of this tune.

J. S. Bach: Motet, BVW 118, “O Jesu Christ, Mein’s Lebens Licht”

Imagine this played and sung in procession.

O Jesus Christ, light of my life,
My treasure, my comfort, my security.

Vaughan Williams: Prelude on “Rhosymedre”

Many will not know the simple Welsh hymn that gives structure to this setting:

My song is love unknown, my Savior’s love to me.
Love to the loveless shown, that they might lovely be.

Mieczysław Weinberg: Allegretto cantabile, I. from Concertino for Violin and Strings, Op. 42

A sweet song from one who knew bitter times.

Wolf: “Auch kleine Dinge,” from Italienisches Liederbuch

As the opening song from the Italian Songbook reminds us: “Even little things can be precious.”

Walton: “Touch Her Soft Lips and Part”

A lovely expansion of a moment, from the film music for Olivier’s Henry V.

Finzi: Eclogue for Piano and Strings

Finzi, for whom Hardy was a favorite poet, is one of the great composers of loss.

Elgar: Nimrod, from Enigma Variations

Brahms: Geistliches Lied, Op. 30

For me, this piece is inextricably linked with Grigg Fountain and the Alice Millar Chapel Choir.

Do not be sorrowful or regretful; be calm, stand firm;
what God has decided, that is and must be the best.

Mary Chapin Carpenter: The Moon and St. Christopher

Back when darkness overtook me on a blind man’s curve
I relied upon the moon and St. Christopher to be my guide.

piper piping on another's sorrow