Berlioz ends his five-movement tale Symphonie fantastique with this macabre movement, portraying a surreal funeral scene following the protagonist’s execution. The composer sets the scene in his program notes:
He sees himself at a witches’ sabbath, in the midst of a hideous gathering of shades, sorcerers and monsters of every kind who have come together for his funeral. Strange sounds, groans, outbursts of laughter; distant shouts which seem to be answered by more shouts.
Berlioz depicts these “outbursts of laughter” with a high-pitched, cackling clarinet. Another of his phrases features the string section using a technique called col legno, striking the strings with the wood of the bow rather than the hair. The resulting sound is hair-raisingly skeletal. As if all this isn’t morbid enough, Berlioz quotes the ancient Dies Irae mass melody used to describe the day of judgement, and he frames it with the ominous sounds of distant bells.
Shostakovich was in a state of deep depression during the three short days it took him to write the Eighth String Quartet. He had recently been diagnosed with polio and had been forced to join the Communist party against his will, and according to later accounts by his friends, these events had led Shostakovich to plan his suicide. Thankfully, Shostakovich lived through this period of turmoil continued to compose sublime music until his death in 1975.
Knowing that the composer may have had the end in sight while composing this work is creepy enough, but the music is also unsettling in its own right. In the final movement, the instruments enter imitatively from lowest to highest, as if trying to reach out of the depths of despair. The desperate reaching is in vain, however. The music sinks back down, and the piece ends with a sonority as hollow as death itself.
Ravel’s orchestral waltz may not be outright frightening; in fact, there is something rather charming about the waltz’s nostalgic lilt and its shimmering string melodies. But as the music progresses, something sinister begins to brewing underneath the seemingly benign dance. By the end, the waltz has spun completely out of control–perhaps the ballroom dancers have had too much champagne. Brutal swells and trills in the brass bring the piece to a close, capped off by a final measure that laughs demonically in the face of the waltz: a loud, accented duple rhythm that slices the triple-metered dance in two.
Certainly of the most gripping portrayals of death in all of classical music, this movement makes the perfect soundtrack for Act III of Shakespeare’s tragic love story. A sharp chord punctuates Tybalt and Mercutio’s furious duel like Tybalt’s stab through Mercutio’s chest. One hears the mortally wounded Mercutio proclaiming his “plague o’ both your houses” in the fifteen bass-drum hits leading into the cataclysmic finale. The end is marked by cries of despair, accompanied by persistent rhythmic thudding that can be seen as Romeo’s heart aching for vengeance.
Henri Cazalis’s chilling verse inspired this symphonic poem by Saint-Saens. Cazalis’s poem describes the Dance of Death, a legendary festivity where skeletons rise from their graves at midnight on Halloween and dance frantically until the rooster crows the next morning. To evoke the poet’s grisly line “The bones of the dancers are heard to crack,” Saint-Saens used the cold, bone-like sound of a xylophone. His choice was revolutionary: it was the first time the xylophone had even been used in an orchestra.