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In The Shadows

Ether Game explores music that goes bump in the night (photo credit: pixabay)

With Halloween lurking around the corner, Ether Game steps into the darkness for a show all about music hidden from the light. Beware of the those shadowy figures in a show we’re calling “In The Shadows.”

Here’s our spoooooky playlist:

  • Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827), Sonata in C-Sharp Minor, Op. 2, No. 2 “Moonlight” I. Adagio sostenuto – Beethoven’s famous “Moonlight” sonata—with its unrelenting minor-key arpeggios—might evoke the sounds of something lurking in the shadows of the moonlight, but this is certainly not what Beethoven intended. He wrote this work at a time when he was terribly unhappy, because he was finally admitting to his friends that he was going deaf. At the same time, he realized that the woman to whom he dedicated this work, Countess Giulietta Guicciardi, a woman he was also in love with, was not going to marry a lowly musician like Beethoven. So he made the first movement of this work a lament. That “Moonlight” description actually came years later, after Beethoven’s death. It was the Berlin journalist and poet Ludwig Rellstab who gave the work that nickname. Rellstab associated the piece with a boat floating along Switzerland’s Lake Lucerne in the moonlight. By the end of the 19th century, the nickname stuck.


  • Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849), Nocturne No. 4 in F major, Op. 15, No. 1: Andante cantabile – Nocturnes, as you might guess by their nocturnal name, are night-time pieces. Early nocturnes, in general, were simple in form: an operatic melody set against a consistent accompaniment. They’re similar to serenades. The difference is that serenades were usually associated with night-time performances and nocturnes are evocative of the night time itself. Chopin was initially inspired to compose in this genre by the nocturnes of John Field. Field, an English composer and concert pianist, wrote his first nocturnes in the early 1810s and they were relatively simple works. Chopin’s own nocturnes grew increasingly experimental in form, style, and harmonic ambiguity. But even among all this complexity, the Romantic ethos of night as a source of shadowy mystery and beauty is still very present.


  • George Frideric Handel (1685–1759), Serse: Ombra mai fu – This aria from Handel’s opera Xerxes is about the beauty of being covered by the shadows, rather than the terror of what lies in the shadows. It’s the first aria that the Persian King Xerxes sings in Act I, sung as he sits under a tree, praising it for its beauty and the coolness of its shade. The aria is one of Handel’s most famous, but the opera didn’t enjoy the same popularity. It was a complete flop when it premiered in London in 1738. What may have caused this failure was the innovative way that Handel composed this opera. Xerxes contains elements of both comic opera and opera seria, a practice that was forbidden by librettists at the time. The mixture of the two genres turned out to be a major turn-off for audiences and critics in the 1730s. Xerxes disappeared from the stage for over 200 years until it was revived in the 20th century through several popular productions in Germany and London.


  • Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971), The Rake’s Progress – In 1735, the art world was rocked with controversy over the publication of A Rake’s Progress, a series of eight paintings by the British artist William Hogarth. The paintings tell the story of a fictitious character named Tom Rakewell, the son of a wealthy merchant who comes to London, squanders his fortune on gambling and prostitution, and ultimately ends his days in the infamous Bedlam asylum. The story of this famous work later became the inspiration for Igor Stravinsky’s opera The Rake’s Progress. The opera is loosely based on the story in the Hogarth paintings with one major addition to the plot. Stravinsky and librettist W. H. Auden added the character of Nick Shadow, a mysterious man who leads Tom Rakewell to London and tempts him into his series of irresponsible adventures. It turns out that Nick Shadow is none other than the Devil, but Tom doesn’t realize this until it is too late.


  • Béla Bartók (1881–1945), Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta: III. Adagio – In Bartok’s Music For Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, it’s the percussion that’s at the center…literally. Bartok arranged for the percussion instruments to be right in the middle of the stage, with the strings placed on either side of them (the celesta is far less prominent than the title implies). In this third movement, Bartok has created a delicate, chilling, and eerie atmosphere that he refers to as “night music,” characterized by inventiveness in the percussion, which is used to replicate the sounds of creatures active in the nocturnal hours. He employs the technique of a timpani glissando—that’s where the timpanist strikes the drum, and then adjusts the pedal, changing the tension on drum head and thus the pitch. The creepy quality of Bartok’s “night music” also peaked the interest of Stanley Kubrick, who used this Adagio as the soundtrack to the infamous hallway scene in his film adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining.


  • Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791–1864), Dinorah: Ombra leggera (“Shadow Song”) – Giacomo Meyerbeer’s opera Dinorah is not performed all that often today, but the aria “Ombra leggera,” otherwise known as the “Shadow Song,” still shows up as a virtuoso showcase for sopranos. Dinorah is about a woman who is driven mad after her husband disappears on their wedding day. It might seem like the workings of a horror tragedy, but the opera is actually a comedy and became famous in the 19th century for featuring a live goat on stage. The “Shadow Song” is one of the numbers that shows Dinorah on the edge of sanity, wondering where her husband has gone. In the aria, she sings to her shadow, asking it to stay with her, and then dances with her shadow on stage.


  • Richard Strauss (1864–1949), Die Frau Ohne Schatten (“The Woman Without A Shadow”) – Die Frau Ohne Schatten is one of Richard Strauss’ most rich and complicated scores, though the opera was mired in difficulties. Strauss had a good working relationship with his librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, but both had different agendas for outcome of the work. Hofmannsthal did not want the complicated symbolism of his text to be lost to the production, while Strauss wanted to change certain passages to match the drama of the music. The opera takes place in a mythical island empire where two characters called the Emperor and the Empress are to marry. The union is complicated by the problem that the Empress is half human and half Spirit, and does not cast a shadow, symbolizing her inability to have children. If she is not able to claim a shadow before the twelfth moon, she will return to the spirit world and her lover will turn to stone.


  • Maurizio Cazzati (1620–1677), Ballo della Ombre (“Dance of the Shadows”) – Maurizio Cazzati is fairly unknown today, but during the mid-seventeenth century he was a successful music director throughout the many Italian cities surrounding Mantua, where he was born. In 1657, he was so in-demand that he was given the prestigious position of chapel director at the Basilica of St. Petronio without the normally required audition. Though he published sixty-six volumes of music, Cazzati is most remembered for his instrumental works, especially his dances, or Ballo in Italian. The titles of Italian dances often match the character of the dancing rather than the accompanimental music. Cazzati’s Ballo della Ombre or Dance of the Shadows for example, was probably danced before an audience for entertainment and references the dark, wispy costumes the dancers would be wearing.


  • Pink Floyd, The Dark Side Of The Moon – Pink Floyd’s 1973 album The Dark Side of the Moon was the band’s first widespread commercial success, after six years of recording music only for art rock purists. The band largely abandoned their extensive instrumental passages of “psychedelic noodling” for something a little more focused. All of the songs deal with the annoyances and pressures of everyday life—anxiety, stress, money, isolation, struggles with mental illness—tied together within themes of darkness and shadows. It was recorded at Abbey Road Studios in London and used some of the most advanced studio techniques of the day. The album spent one week at number one, but has since spent over 900 weeks in other positions on the Billboard charts, better than any other album.

Want more shadowy tunes? Check out this week’s In The Shadows podcast!

Music Heard On This Episode


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