A funeral march is a musical work with a slow, stately pulse – typically in a minor key and in 4/4 time – imitating a funeral procession. While the specific origins of the funeral march are unknown, books of military music suggest that the earliest funeral marches were slow, simple beats kept on a large drum. Sometimes these drums were even draped in black fabric to signify death and mute the sound, adding to the mournful atmosphere.
Here’s an example of how muffled drum funeral marches sound:
The funeral march as a musical genre was born out of the muted drums. While the somber/gloomy mood and the relentless beat characterized the music, over time the dotted eighth-note rhythm replaced the monotonous drum. Other notable characteristics include short phrases and slowly changing harmony. Grace notes or trills represent the occasional drum roll.
Famous Funeral Marches
Chopin’s Funeral March
Perhaps the most famous funeral march in our day, Chopin (1810-1849) wrote the third movement of his Piano Sonata No. 2 as early as 1837. Note the solemn mood, the frequent dotted rhythm, the persistent pulse, and the minor key.
*Fun fact: this piece was played at Chopin’s own burial when he died in 1849 and has since been played at many famous funerals.
Funeral March for Queen Mary by Henry Purcell
This funeral march utilizes the muffled drums underneath a solemn brass choir. This video presents the piece as it would have been at the Queen’s funeral – muffled drums included. At the time, Purcell (1659-1965) had to use flatt trumpets (trumpets that had a slide, like the trombone) because they could play in a minor key.
Handel’s “Dead March” (dates)
Performed in the third act of Handel’s (1685-1759) oratorio Saul (an oratorio is a large musical composition for orchestra, choir, and soloists), the “Dead March” is actually in a major key. However, it still qualifies as a funeral march. 🙂
Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 4 3rd Movement
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) was in the middle of composing his 4th symphony when in 1936 Stalin’s Soviet government condemned him and his music for being too radical. He proceeded to write the funeral march movement (as a form of musical rebellion), but he had to wait 25 years to premiere the symphony due to political unrest. Much of his music during this time reflects the Soviet political state through funeral march characteristics.
Beethoven‘s Piano Sonata No. 14, Op. 27 No. 2
Okay, so “Moonlight Sonata” isn’t exactly known as a funeral march, but I’d like to make a case for it. The first movement opens with a slow, steady triplet ostinato (a repeated accompanimental figure) in the right hand and sparse octaves in the left hand. The melody uses the dotted rhythm and slow tempo to create a sense of mystery and solemnity. And overall, the piece stays pretty muted. All characteristics of a funeral march.
The title “Moonlight Sonata” didn’t actually originate until 1836, almost 10 years after Beethoven died. German music critic Ludwig Rellstab commented that the sonata reminded him of the reflected moonlight off Lake Lucerne, and the nickname stuck.
Music is so versatile in its ability to communicate emotion and mood. The funeral march is just one of many musical genres written to tell a story, and we have only touched the surface on the impact of the style. Stay tuned for more on how music affects us and creates its own world around us.