Music is an essential part of most funeral services, but its importance is often overlooked. Grieving families can find themselves choosing traditional, clichéd or impersonal pieces from set lists, which often fail to truly capture the emotion and poignancy of the moment.
What follows are five of the most beautiful and overlooked pieces of music, recommended by professional musicians who regularly perform at funerals. Where applicable, service organisers should feel free to use the text and/or translations for inclusion in programmes.
1. William Harris, Bring Us O Lord (1959)
This uplifting piece of vocal music by English organist and composer William Harris is sure to be popular among congregations.
Benjamin Goodson, a choral conductor from Potters Bar, says “Bring Us O Lord sets a beautiful prayer by John Donne that contemplates an ultimate unity after death. Harris’s music is ubiquitously personal: a searingly heartfelt response to Donne’s text that uses the divided voices of an 8-part choir to amazing effect.”
Enjoy this rendition of the piece by King’s College, Cambridge:
Here is the stunning original text by John Donne:
Bring us, O Lord God, at our last awakening into the house and gate of heaven, to enter into that gate and dwell in that house, where there shall be no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light; no noise nor silence, but on equal music; no fears nor hopes, but one equal possession; no ends nor beginnings, but one equal eternity, in the habitation of thy glory and dominion, world without end. Amen. (John Donne)
2. Henry Purcell, Thou Knowest Lord (1685)
Composed for the funeral of Queen Mary at Westminster Abbey where Purcell was organist, it was sung again at Purcell’s own funeral at the same venue just a year later. A hauntingly beautiful piece, it would suit the acoustic of both larger and smaller spaces.
James Marriott, a Choral Scholar at Portsmouth Cathedral, says: “This piece is part of the set of three. The third, Thou Knowest Lord, the secrets of our hearts concludes the ‘sentences’ and is performed in a serene manner. This was designed to create a larger expanse of emotion. This can be seen from the four-part choral line and usually chamber organ accompaniment, with slow moving phrases and the spacious ‘O God’ phrase, illustrating the pain that is felt at the loss of someone. The use of general pauses throughout the piece creates quiet moments to reflect. In particular, the last bar could be seen as being a way of saying the ‘final goodbye’ to the Queen, and so therefore was usually performed toward the end of the service.”
The text consists of a prayer for mercy especially at the hour of death. It is one of three texts recited or sung at the grave side, before the body is placed in the earth:
Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts;
shut not thy merciful ears unto our prayer;
but spare us, Lord most holy, O God most mighty,
O holy and most merciful Saviour,
thou most worthy Judge eternal,
suffer us not, at our last hour,
for any pains of death, to fall from thee.
3. Maurice Ravel, Pavane pour une infante défunte (1899)
The title literally translating as ‘Pavane for a dead Princess’, this piece has been a personal favourite of mine for many years.
The pavane was a slow processional dance that enjoyed great popularity in the courts of Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and Ravel himself said that the piece was an “an evocation of a pavane that a little princess might, in former times, have danced at the Spanish court.”
Here it is being performed by Russian pianist Elena Kuschnerova in 2011:
In 1910 Ravel reworked the piece for Orchestra. Listen to it here performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra:
4. Sergei Rachmaninov, Cherubic Hymn (1910)
Typically sung in the Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches, this hymn symbolically incorporates those present at the liturgy into the presence of the angels gathered around God’s throne (according to The Blackwell Dictionary of Eastern Christianity).
Wilfred Jones, a choral scholar at New College, Oxford says: “It’s somewhat of an unusual choice for a funeral, but for me it is a profound statement of theological hope. The funeral is a moment of realisation that a transition is taking place. We ourselves have to come to terms with the change in our lives as we realise that we will no longer see our loved one but more importantly we commend an unclean soul to the transformative love of its maker to purify it.
“Rachmaninov’s text come it these two parts: the first is about us here on earth and our relationship to those in heaven. The second is a vision of the divine essence that the purified soul sees after death and it is this which illicits the superficially incongruous ‘alleluia’ which closes the piece.”
Enjoy this sublime performance of the Hymn, once again from King’s College, Cambridge:
Here’s the text of the Hymn in the original Greek, with full English translation below:
Οἱ τὰ Χερουβεὶμ μυστικῶς εἰκονίζοντες,
καὶ τῇ ζωοποιῷ Τριάδι τὸν Τρισάγιον ὕμνον προσάδοντες,
πᾶσαν τὴν βιοτικὴν ἀποθώμεθα μέριμναν.
Ὡς τὸν Βασιλέα τῶν ὅλων ὑποδεξόμενοι,
ταῖς ἀγγελικαῖς ἀοράτως δορυφορούμενον τάξεσιν.
Ἀλληλούϊα, Ἀλληλούϊα, Ἀλληλούϊα.
We who mystically represent the Cherubim,
and who sing to the Life-Giving Trinity the thrice-holy hymn,
let us now lay aside all earthly cares
that we may receive the King of all,
escorted invisibly by the angelic orders.
Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.
5. Hubert Parry, There is an old belief (1916)
Benjamin Goodson says this a piece which “contemplates a life after this and, in a stirring referencing of the plainsong of ancient church music, juxtaposes the strength of ‘creed’ with the fragility of ‘hope’.”
“It’s deeply religious music, but actually I find the strength of its conviction means it is affecting on a human level, not just a religious one,” he added.
Here it is performed by the University of Utah singers:
The text of the piece:
“There is an old belief,
That on some solemn shore,
Beyond the sphere of grief
Dear friends shall meet once more.
Beyond the sphere of Time
And Sin and Fate’s control,
Serene in changeless prime
Of body and of soul.
That creed I fain would keep
That hope I’ll ne’er forgo,
Eternal be the sleep,
If not to waken so.”
(J. G. Lockhart)