Halloween is very nearly upon us, my Little Monsters, and it’s a time when we like to surround ourselves with all manner of, shall we say, spooky shit. We watch our favorite horror films, adorn our homes with decor, or whatever it may take to create the mood that is befitting this ghoulish holiday. But sometimes we need a little something extra to create the proper atmosphere or ambiance, and the right music can absolutely do it. That’s why I have chosen to share five of my favorite (for one reason or another) creepy classical music compositions…in no particular order.
Danse Macabre is a “tone poem” that was written by Camille Saint-Saëns and is based on a French legend. According to the legend Death would appear every year on Halloween at midnight and would request the dead to rise from their eternal slumber and dance about on their graves for him as he played a tune on his violin. Upon the rooster’s crow for the breaking dawn, the dead would return to their graves and await death’s return the following year.
Such a musical arrangement was quite literally made for a holiday like Halloween. This piece just sounds mischievous and devilishly playful. One can almost picture the ghosts dancing gleefully about, much to the shock and horror of any human who might bear witness.
Totentanz (Dance of the Dead) is a piece written by Frans Liszt. He began planning the piece in 1838, completed it in 1849, but subsequently revisited it again in 1853 and again in 1859. Liszt always found himself obsessed with the concept of death, which heavily influenced his music. He was often so morbidly curious, that as a young man he would visit prison dungeons in order to see those who were condemned to die. it is also said that he drew inspiration from Francesco Traini’s famous fresco entitled “Triumph of Death”.
When this particular piece starts, it’s as if some monstrous juggernaut is striding forward, ready to indiscriminately lay waste to anyone or anything who may cross its path. It then continues on into a frantic and chaotic rhythm sometimes pausing briefly only to drop the listener back into the thick of it.
Isle of the Dead is a symphonic poem written by Sergei Rachmaninoff in1908. It’s a piece that was inspired by a black and white reproduction of Arnold Böcklin‘s painting, which was also called “Isle of the Dead”. Rachmaninoff confessed “If I had seen first the original, I, probably, would have not written my Isle of the Dead. I like it in black and white.”
The slow drifting bellow of the horns creates a chilling feeling of dread as if making ones reluctant approach to the island named in the title. This is definitely an ominous and foreboding piece that seems to wanders into fantastical and wondrous interludes only to return us to those shadowy places where we began.
Der Erlkönig is a piano composition written by Franz Schubert, that features a vocal solo which utilizes the verses of a poem also titled Der Erlkönig, which was written by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The rhythm of the piano mimics that of a horse bound rider racing to his destination, through blustery conditions on a dark night. While the tone of the music is frantic, it’s the legend conveyed by the lyrics that is most disturbing. It becomes even more so when associated with a holiday like Halloween, that is commonly associated with children. To read the poem or learn about the legend, click on the link above.
Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath is the final of five movements from Symphonie Fantastique written by Hector Berlioz. It begins like a chilling wind, blowing through and rustling the leaves barely clinging to the trees on a dark autumn night. And though it briefly yield to a whimsical interlude it takes a darker turn as if something or someone malevolent and formidable has arrived. Berlioz himself wrote the following about this piece.
“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. The beloved melody appears once more, but has now lost its noble and shy character; it is now no more than a vulgar dance tune, trivial and grotesque: it is she who is coming to the sabbath … Roar of delight at her arrival … She joins the diabolical orgy … The funeral knell tolls, burlesque parody of the Dies irae, the dance of the witches. The dance of the witches combined with the Dies irae.”
OK, my Little Monsters…I’ve shown you mine, now you show me yours. No, no, no…that’s not what I meant, so everybody zip it or button it back up. I meant that since I have shared a few of my favorites, feel free to also list some of your favorite spooky classical music pieces in the comments on this post at Facebook or Twitter.