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Harmonia Early Music

Something Wicked This Way Comes

“Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.” This hour on Harmonia, we’ll catch a fright listening to scary sounds for Halloween.

Halloween jack-o'-lanterns

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Double, double, toil and trouble!

“Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.”

This hour on Harmonia, we’ll catch a fright listening to scary sounds for Halloween…but Halloween was not always reserved for ghouls, goblins, and trick-or-treaters! In addition to being a major holiday for the pagan and Wiccan world, some aspects of Halloween and the Day of the Dead also have roots in the Catholic church, as we will hear. On our featured release, we’ll hear music that spooks and delights, featuring recorder virtuoso Maurice Steger.


Music by Francisco Guerrero, performed by Chapelle du Roi, under the direction of Alistair Dixon, from their 2000 recording Vespers for All Saints. 


Roots of the Holiday

In the pre-Christian Celtic year, Samhain was one of the “quarter days,” falling exactly between the solstices and the equinoxes. The others are Imbolc, Februrary 1; Beltane, May 1; and Lughnasadh, the first of August. Samhain marked the harvest and preparation for the dark part of the year, and celebrated what in Irish lore is sometimes called the “Thin places” – portals between this world and others. As with many pagan holidays, it was eventually absorbed in to the Christian calendar with the three days of Allhallowtide — All Saints’ Eve, also known as All Hallows’ Eve – or Halloween – All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day.  And although today’s secular Halloween celebrations typically feature trick-or-treating and costume parties, the Roman Catholic holiday has also been celebrated since the Middle Ages. Let’s listen to the Gregorian chant proper for All Saints’ Day.

We heard Psalm 109, the liturgical music proper to All Saints’ Day. Schola Gregoriana Pragensis and the Gregorian Choir of Paris sang on that 2007 release Funeral Mass and All Saints’ Day Mass.

Late Medieval and Renaissance composers frequently set religious texts, for use in church on the appropriate feast day. Here is a motet by Flemish composer Philippe de Monte, composed for All Saints’ Day.

We heard the motet “Hodie, dilectissimi, omnium sanctorum,” performed by Ensemble Orlando.

The Spanish Renaissance composer Francisco Guerrero wrote music for both All Saints’ Day and its vigil, All Hallows’ Eve. Guerrero’s Vespers for All Saints would have been heard at sunset on All Hallows’ Eve. Let’s listen to a movement from that work.

We heard “Laudate pueri dominum,” from the Vespers for All Saints’ Day by Francisco Guerrero. Alistair Dixon directed Chapelle du Roi.


Samhain and Les Witches

One of the other aspects of the appropriation of Samhain and other pagan observances was the demonization of the wiccan tradition, for whom Samhain is one of the most profound observances of the year. This comes out not just Halloween costumes, but in the characterization of witches in many works of early music, drama, and story. Here’s a “witches’ dance” by Robert Johnson, performed by the ensemble Les Witches. 

Witches’ dances by Robert Johnson and Nicholas L’Estrange from the 1997 release Shakespeare’s Music.

The Halloween-variety characterization of witches is abundant in Shakespeare, as are references to musical works; and many of Shakespeare’s verses were set to music. Here Hecate, the goddess of witchcraft, chastises a trio of witches from Shakespeare’s Macbeth in the song setting “Come away, Hecate,” by Robert Johnson.

We heard “Come away, Hecate,” performed by soprano Julianne Baird and lutenist Ron McFarlane.

On to the music of more famous witches from the world of early music – the Wayward Sisters from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. Henry Purcell and librettist Nahum Tate’s witches laugh maniacally as they plot against Dido and Aeneas. Interestingly enough, witches don’t actually appear in the original version of Virgil’s Aeneid. When the opera premiered in the late 1680s, the revised story may have been engineered to compliment the English monarchy – where the hero Aeneas symbolizes Charles II, a Protestant, and the witches symbolize James II, a Catholic. In this way, pitting Dido and Aeneas’s fates against the witches serves as an allegorical representation of the way the troubled reign of Charles II played out against the potential reinstatement of the Catholic Church.

We heard music from Dido and Aeneas, by Henry Purcell. Christopher Hogwood conducted the chorus and orchestra of The Academy of Ancient Music. 


Between Life and Death

The holiday of Halloween or Samhain is partly about capturing the moment between life and death, as we see in the development of other practices such as the Day of the Dead celebrations. It also symbolizes the meeting place between worlds – like the worlds of humans and faeries. In this famous folk song, a woman named Janet encounters handsome Tam Lin, who has been captured by the faery folk. She goes through many trials and a terrifying encounter with the Queen of the Faeries in order to win him. This is Fairport Convention, from their 1969 recording Liege and Lief.

Another famous, although somewhat less savory character who has a frightful experience with ghosts is Don Juan. A number of artists have memorialized the epic of the legendary libertine, including Molière, Byron, Mozart, and Gluck. Christoph Willibald Gluck’s ballet pantomime Don Juan was inspired by Molière’s 1665 play. At the end of the tale, a ghostly apparition appears, offering Don Juan a chance to redeem himself, but he squanders the opportunity. Because Don Juan refuses to repent, he ends up being swallowed into the earth amid thunder, lightning, and flames, as the breathing statue watches.

We heard Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, performing music from Christoph Willibald Gluck’s Don Juan.


Frightful Evening Furies

On our featured release, we’ll hear frightful evening furies and a delightful pastoral scene. Antonio Vivaldi’s concerto no. 2 in G Minor, “La Notte,” comes to us in a collection of six flute concertos, op. 10. Although the op. 10 concertos were originally written for flute, they have become popular pieces for recorder as well. The “La Notte” concerto tells the tale of a frightful night. We begin with a largo lulling us to sleep. In the middle fast-slow-fast movements, fantastic spirits appear, stirring nightmares. Finally, at the end, sleep overwhelms us. Vivaldi indicates “tutti gli strumenti sordini” – all instruments play with the mute. Let’s hear music from Vivaldi’s “La notte.”

Recorder virtuoso Maurice Steger with I Barocchisti – Early Music Ensemble. We heard music from Vivaldi’s concerto no. 2 in G Minor, “La Notte.”

The night has ended, and now it is day. Vivaldi’s concerto in D Major, “la pastorella,” for mixed chamber ensemble narrates a pastoral scene. Scored for recorder, oboe, violin, bassoon, and continuo, the work encompasses many rustic tropes. In this recording, ensemble I Barocchisti employs hurdy-gurdy to amplify the bucolic effect.


Break and theme music

:30, Dido and Aeneas / The Indian Queen, The Academy of Ancient Music, Decca 2014, Tr. 18 Echo Dance of the Furies (excerpt of 1:04)

:60, Shakespeare’s Music, The Baltimore Consort, Dorian Sono Luminus 1997, Tr. 30 La Volto (excerpt of 1:20)

:30, Don Juan / Sémiramis, Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, Sony Classical 1993, Tr. 48 Allegro assai (0:30)

Theme: Danse Royale, Ensemble Alcatraz, Elektra Nonesuch 79240-2 1992 B000005J0B, Tr. 12 La Prime Estampie Royal

The writer for this edition of Harmonia are Sarah Huebsch and Angela Mariani.

Learn more about recent early music CDs on the Harmonia Early Music Podcast. You can subscribe on iTunes or at harmonia early music dot org.

Music Heard On This Episode

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Sarah Huebsch

Sarah Huebsch , DM, performs on period oboes throughout North America. Sarah holds degrees from the New England Conservatory and Indiana University. She started writing for Harmonia in May 2016.

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