This week, we celebrated Halloween with a showcase of musical horrors! Browse below if you dare!
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) Don Giovanni: Finale Evil-doers must pay for their sins. That’s the moral of Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni—whose full title is Il Dissoluto Punito, ossia Il Don Giovanni, or in English The Rake Punished, or Don Giovanni. Based on the Spanish legend of womanizer Don Juan, our title character seemingly gets away with everything. He attempts to seduce every woman on stage without a thought of the repercussions. He lies and drinks, and even commits murder—killing the Commendatore, the father of Donna Anna. But the acts of a libertine cannot go unpunished. In the final act, after an evening of food and song, Don Giovanni receives his comeuppance when the ghost of the man he killed returns. In a dramatic supernatural moment, the statue of the Commendatore comes to life, joins the Don at supper, and then swiftly drags him into hell.
Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) Gaspard de la nuit As if his previous suite of piano music Miroires isn't challenging enough, Ravel’s musical triptych Gaspard de la Nuit is intentionally difficult to play. Ravel’s complex chromatic harmonies evoke the hallucinatory exploration of terror, the macabre, and the surreal dreamscapes which make up the source material.. Ravel selected three poems from Aloysius Bertrand’s posthumously published collection Gaspard of the Night — Fantasies in the Manner of Rembrandt and Callot. The phantasmagoric visions in Bertrand’s groundbreaking prose poetry set the stage for early Gothic literature writers like Edgar Allen Poe. However this collection is practically unknown outside of France and was never fully translated until 1977. An introduction to the collection strongly implies that its true author is the Devil, and Ravel even referenced this, commenting “Gaspard has been a devil in coming, but that is only logical since it was he who is the author of the poems.” The entire composition is a tour de force for any pianist who is up to it, but it is the third movement Scarbo which describes a devilish imp that is considered one the most difficult piano pieces ever written.
George Crumb (1929-2022) A Haunted Landscape George Crumb didn’t consider his work A Haunted Landscape to be programmatic. Instead, it is a musical reflection on the aura of mystery and the psychological impact certain landscapes can have on the human psyche. Crumb thought music was the ideal medium to express these complex psychological states. He cited his own experiences as examples, like a curious sense of deja vu he felt while visiting Delphos and Jerusalem, and also being conscious of the reverence and brooding menace inspired by ancient battlefields. The work is scored for a conventionally-sized orchestra, however the scope of required percussion is enormous, with forty five different instruments used throughout the piece. These include a hammered dulcimer, steel drums, a Cambodian angklung, Kabuki blocks and a friction drum.
Bernard Hermann (1911-1975) Psycho (A Narrative for Orchestra) A horror movie classic, Bernard Herrmann’s famously chilling score to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, with its stark dissonances and shrieking strings, perfectly captures the insanity of the main character Norman Bates. By 1960 when this film was created, Herrmann was already a veteran at making spooky, spine-tingling music. He began his career as a contract composer for CBS Radio, and one of his first big musical successes came with writer and director Orson Welles on the program The Mercury Theatre On The Air. Their first collaboration was the infamous War Of The Worlds radio broadcast, which took place the night before Halloween in 1938. Instead of simply telling the H.G. Wells story, Orson Welles presented it as a series of radio news bulletins. The realism of the broadcasts incited panic in many people tuning in, who thought an actual alien invasion was taking place.
Aaron Jay Kernis (b.1960) Playing Monster Many compositions by Aaron Jay Kernis are known for humor and a free-form synthesis with American pop and vernacular music styles. They also often require advanced technique and a high degree of virtuosity. Kernis’ music tends to be divided into three periods, this 2006 concert etude for piano comes from his third period, when many of his works emphasized emotional directness and simplicity. Kernis has said that he wrote this piece after observing a playground game played by his young twin children. According to Kernis, the game involves lots of hiding, running and screaming, making Frankenstein-like poses, and jumping out of dark corners.
Ron Goodwin (1925-2003) The Headless Horseman The Legend of Sleepy Hollow tells the story of the schoolteacher Ichabod Crane and his unfortunate interaction with the headless horseman on his way home from a party. According to Irving’s story, this rider lost his head in an unnamed Revolutionary War battle. While the identity of the headless horseman is never revealed, some people think that it’s simply another member of the town trying to scare Ichabod away. This story and Rip Van Winkle are two of Washington Irving’s most popular stories, but Irving adapted the story of Sleepy Hollow from an older German legend written down by the Grimm brothers. The musical telling we just heard is adapted by a British composer, Ron Goodwin, who made his career composing film music and light concert pieces. Although this music seems pretty mild for depicting a vengeful, headless specter, Goodwin does have some thrills and chills cred. He composed the scores for two classic horror films, the original 1960 Village of the Damned and the sequel, Children of the Damned.
Heinrich August Marschner (1795-1861) Der Vampyr: Overture Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula is usually considered the quintessential vampire, but that work was only published in 1897. Before there was Count Dracula there was Lord Ruthven (pronounced “Riven”), the main character of the short story The Vampyre by Dr. John Polidori. Vampires in folklore were bloodsucking monsters, but Lord Ruthven was a suave, elite seducer—introducing some of the characteristics we now associate with modern vampires. Interestingly enough, Lord Ruthven is based on a real-life person: the English poet Lord Byron. Dr. Polidori was Byron’s doctor in real life, and he used the Romantic poet as a model for Lord Ruthven. The Vampyre was popular throughout the 19th century (before Dracula came along), and was the source of inspiration for Heinrich Marschner’s German opera Der Vampyr. Marschner was clearly influenced by the fantastic, supernatural music from the operas of Carl Maria Von Weber. But, like Lord Ruthven, Heinrich Marschner is barely remembered today.
Elena Kats-Chernin (b.1957) Chamber of Horrors Australian composer Elena Kats-Chernin has written music in all genres, though she is perhaps best known for her work in theater and ballet music. Often her work demonstrates a single key idea which is then manipulated in unexpected ways, exploring a breadth of interesting timbres and textures. Irony and a sense of the ridiculous are also common features of her compositions, and are apparent in this piece for solo harp from 1995. Kats-Chernin has described the inspiration behind this work as being all in the title. She and a harpist were sitting in a cafe discussing their love of theatre, when the phrase “chamber of horrors” came up in the conversation. Elena immediately had a vision of ghosts, glowworms, and kitschy, sparkling effects. Harmonically, the work is built on a progression of 13 chords, which the composer would re-use in a later piece, Variations in a Serious Black Dress.
The Ghastly Ones (r. 1998) Ghastly Stomp The spooky surf-rock band known as The Ghastly Ones originally consisted two special effects monster artists performing under the names Dr. Lehos and Baron Shivers. Combining their love of Halloween records, late-nite monster movies and early 60’s surf rock, the California-based group performed their first concert in 1996 on a stage decorated with tombstones and cobwebs. Their first album A-Haunting We Will Go-Go was released in 1998 on Rob Zombie’s label Zombie-A-Go-Go Records, after which The Ghastly Ones created their own independent label Ghastly Plastics Co. for subsequent releases.