Classical music has always been full of ghouls, goblins, monsters, and other frightful things. And Ether Game has put together a list of some of the spookiest pieces to keep you scared not just on Halloween, but all year long!
- Camille Saint-Saëns, Danse Macabre – The title of this work, Danse macabre, comes an old superstition that dates back to a time when death was all around: the 14th-century, that’s the time of the bubonic plague, or Black Death in Europe. The Danse macabre was a depiction of a personified Death, dancing in the graveyard with skeletons, and summoning kings, children, and peasants alike towards their mortal end. Saint-Saëns’s Danse macabre, with its depiction of Death as a violin, playing dissonant tritones, was inspired by a poem by Jean Lahor, the pseudonym of the poet Henri Cazalis. In the poem, Death is a fiddler, playing a macabre dance-tune at midnight, while tapping the rhythm with his heel on a tombstone. Saint-Saëns initially set the poem as a song. But later, he turned it into the instrumental work we know today.
- Johann Sebastian Bach, Toccata and Fugue In D Minor – The most famous organ piece ever, this work is a staple of any Halloween playlist, guaranteed to make even the catacombs of an old cathedral quake. But there’s been a debate in some musicology circles that says that the most famous organ piece ever was not written by the most famous organist ever, Johann Sebastian Bach. Writer Peter Williams made this posit in a 1981 issue of the Early Music journal. He says for one, Bach would have never used the title “Toccata and Fugue.” No copy exists from Bach’s era; most, in fact, are from the 19th century. The work also doesn’t sound like Bach—the harmonies are too simple, and the counterpoint is not idiomatic. Williams even argues that this may not even be an organ piece, but rather a violin piece arranged for organ! The question of who may have written it instead of Bach is a different matter altogether. It’s a mystery worthy of Halloween!
- Franz Liszt, Totentanz – Franz Liszt had a somewhat creepy fascination with death. According to Liszt biographers, he would often visit hospitals, asylums and even prison dungeons to observe those who were in the last days of life. Liszt was also fascinated with medieval works of art that were created during the time of the Black Death. The composer’s obsession with death and the afterlife is made apparent in his Totentanz, a symphonic poem for solo piano and orchestra. Totentanz, which means “Dance of Death” in German, is a virtuosic theme-and-variations on the Dies Irae (or “Day of Wrath”) plainchant from the Mass for the Dead. The piece is a devilish tour-de-force for the pianist and also features strange harmonic structures and orchestral sound effects that create a creepy and diabolical atmosphere of doom.
- Modest Mussorgsky, A Night On Bald Mountain – The “Bald Mountain” referred to in the title of Mussorgsky’s tone poem is the location of a legendary assembly of ghouls and witches, who celebrated a dark mass until they were dispelled by the ringing of a Matins bell. As with much of Mussorgsky’s music, the history of “Night on Bald Mountain” is complicated by multiple versions. The original title of the work St. John’s Eve on Bald Mountain refers to a Russian folk holiday celebrated not on Halloween, but on the Summer Solstice. While the day itself is celebrated with ritual bathing and fire-jumping, in folklore the eve of the holiday often had more sinister associations. Mussorgsky’s teacher Mily Balakirev rejected the original version of the tone poem, so the composer worked a new version into one of his comic operas. It survives today mostly because of this version, edited and orchestrated after Mussorgsky’s death by his friend Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.
- Bernard Hermann, Psycho – 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.
- Hector Berlioz, Symphonie Fantastique: V. Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath – As the audacious story of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique comes to its violent conclusion, the protagonist has fallen into an opiated trance and believes that he has been executed for murdering his beloved. The music rejoices in bizarre and ugly effects, as the protagonist dreams himself at a black mass of witches and ghouls who drag him to hell to the sound of triumphant fanfares. Thrown into this nightmarish stew is a medieval sequence dating from the mid-thirteenth century, the familiar Dies Irae. Alongside early music, Berlioz was also interested in new and unusual instruments, and he was among the first to write for the E-flat clarinet. This instrument, a piccolo member of the clarinet family invented to play high melody lines, is the source of the grotesque dance of the witches.
- Antonio Vivaldi, Concerto in G Minor, Op. 10, No. 2 “La Notte” – Vivaldi was known for his wild, fantastical improvisations on the violin, but “The Night” Concerto for flute or recorder, with their suggestively programmatic titles like “Phantasms” or “Slumber,” invite some of his most exaggerated and creepiest treatment. Rather than his usual energetic style, “La Notte” features passages of uncertainty and hesitation, with rapid arpeggios that seem to appear out of nowhere. Perhaps Vivaldi even had All Hallow’s Eve in mind when he composed this work; at one point he includes a melody from his popular “Autumn” Concerto. This performance by the ensemble Red Priest heightens the sinister nature of Vivaldi’s concerto.
- György Ligeti, Requiem: Kyrie – The Requiem or Mass for the Dead, has been set to music by many composers throughout history. Famous requiems include the unfinished final work by Mozart, and the hugely elaborate Messa da Requiem by Verdi. Often the composition features solemn music in a minor key, but György Ligeti’s Requiem, in particular the Kyrie, was described by one critic as “the darkest vision of musical terror ever imagined.” The uneasy and supernatural quality of Ligeti’s music stems from his trademark technique of “micropolyphony, ” in which individual voices become so densely woven together that only clusters or clouds of sound can be discerned. When Ligeti combined his style with the dark tone that traditionally accompanies a Requiem, he produced a work that shifts from moodiness to complete horror. Thanks to film director Stanley Kubrick, Ligeti’s work gained widespread attention when Kubrick chose the Kyrie for the appearance of the monolith in his film 2001:A Space Odyssey.
- Heinrich Marschner, Der Vampyr – 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.
- Florent Schmitt, The Haunted Palace – The work of American author Edgar Allen Poe is certainly popular around this time of year. Notable for its fascination in the macabre and its heavy use of symbolism and mystery, Poe’s literature is a forerunner to most modern horror stories. His influence on classical music, however, is more pronounced in Europe than in his home country. Rachmaninoff wrote a famous choral symphony based on Poe’s poem The Bells, and Debussy began work on an opera based on The Fall of the House of Usher. This work by early 20th century French composer Florent Schmitt is based on Poe’s poem “The Haunted Palace,” part of The Fall of the House of Usher. The poem tells of a once beautiful palace ruled by a once powerful and wise king. The king’s mind was overtaken by evil, and the palace is now haunted with phantasms.
And just for fun…
- Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Red Right Hand – While not as overtly about Halloween as say Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” or Boris Pickett & the Cryptkickers “Monster Mash,” the song “Red Right Hand” by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds evokes that eerie, sinister sound perfect for Halloween night. The lyrics are about a mysterious danger—a tall, handsome man who promises wealth and power, but who also possesses a sinister, threatening power. The central image is the man’s red right hand, an image that seems to come from John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost. In the poem, the red right hand is a symbol of the vengeance of God, who can destroy as easily as he provides. The mysterious and spooky quality of this song has made it a staple in horror films, including the entire Scream franchise.