My Vote for the Most Sorrowful Piece of Music Ever Written
. . . Goes to Arvo Part's "Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten." The piece starts off with a lone bell, chiming, as if in the distance, four times. Then, strings wash in, even as the bell repeats. The piece is almost without melody, much less lyrical than Barber's deservedly lauded piece of "sad" music, "Adagio for Strings." In discordant and faltering iterations, the same descending scale figure is taken up by various string instruments, unfolding very, very slowly as that same bell continues to repeat in the background. It's an almost formless piece of music, almost a soundscape, but somehow it manages to escalate, through subtle effects of orchestration and dynamic control, and the addition of new undertones and pitch ranges, to progress emotionally throughout its length, the intensity very slowly, but inexorably, being ratcheted up to an almost-unbearable finish. The piece ends with one seemingly endless chord being drawn out for well over a minute, with minor cadences within it bringing the piece to a kind of musical resolution. With the last beat we hear that bell one last time in the background, fading away.
Well worth digging up a rendition. The version I know is off of this album, well worth having, even if the bulk of it is taken up with various re-orchestrations of Part's wonderfully moody and evocative "Fratres." Here you'll find a much more thorough and musically literate look at this work. It was also used, to great effect, in Fahrenheit 9/11, during the early Trade Center montage.