Music is essential for setting the right mood and atmosphere for the occasion, and Halloween is no exception. For centuries, composers have been telling scary stories with their music, and many pieces have become iconic because of their use in pop culture for that very purpose.
We’ve looked at the obvious and the more obscure, pieces both centuries old and new, to come up with a list of musical suggestions for getting into the spooky spirit of Halloween.
Camille Saint-Saëns – Danse Macabre
Let’s start with the obvious: Danse Macabre. Saint-Saëns wrote it as one of four tone poems in the 1870s, a couple of decades after Franz Liszt’s Totentanz, which inspired his own piece. The original vocal part of the piece was modified to become solo violin, and Saint-Saëns used the xylophone to emulate the sound of rattling bones as skeletons follow a Medieval tradition in the Dance of Death.
Modest Mussorgsky – A Night on the Bare Mountain
Mussorgsky’s seminal tone poem depicting the celebration of a witches’ sabbath was made world famous when it was featured on the soundtrack for Disney’s Fantasia. But, in its original orchestration, it was thought of as crude, and even Mussorgsky’s mentor Miliy Balakirev refused to perform it. Despite later revisions, the piece was never performed during Mussorgsky’s too-brief lifetime. It was Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestration and rehabilitation of his friend’s reputation that made it into the iconic work we know today.
Franz Liszt – Totentanz
Franz Liszt was said to be obsessed with the strange and unusual, and he composed several works like Mephisto Waltz that explore themes of death and what might happen afterwards. His Totentanz is based on a melody from a Gregorian chant. Liszt was said to be struck by the originality of Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique, which draws from the same inspiration. Liszt combines the centuries old melody with percussive piano and a sound that was very modern for its time.
Thomas Adès – Totentanz
Thomas Adès is a British composer, born in 1971. The inspiration for his Totentanz for baritone, mezzo-soprano and orchestra was commissioned to commemorate composer Witold Lutosławski and his wife Danuta, and premiered in 2013. The text comes from an anonymous writing under a 15th-century frieze in St. Mary’s Church in Lübeck, Germany which depicted all members of society from the Pope to a young baby succumbing to the dance of Death.
Hector Berlioz – Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath & March to the Scaffold from the Symphonie Fantastique
The premise of the Symphonie fantastique: Épisode de la vie d’un artiste … en cinq parties Op. 14, is melancholy to begin with — an artist who poisons himself with opium over a broken heart. While the attempt to kill himself fails, he experiences a series of dream-like hallucinations, culminating in viewing his own execution, and a witches’ Sabbath at his funeral. Many historians suggest that at least some elements of the story are autobiographical, including the opium use. As noted by Leonard Bernstein, “Berlioz tells it like it is. You take a trip, you wind up screaming at your own funeral.”
John Zorn – Necronomicon
The work of American composer John Zorn ranges from heavy metal and jazz to classical. Several of his classical pieces have been inspired by his fascination for mysticism and the occult — Necronomicon is named after a book by H.P. Lovecraft. The work was released on Zorn’s 2004 album Magick. A 2009 review in the New York Times describes the string quartet as “a fantastical romp with a structural integrity and clarity that assert a lineage from Bartok and Ligeti”, and “frenetic vortexes of violent, abrasive motion, separated by eerily becalmed, suspenseful sections with moody, even prayerful melodies”.
Giuseppe Verdi – Dies Irae from Messa da Requiem
Dies Irae means ‘Day of Wrath’, which derives from Medieval Catholic liturgy, and talks about the world ending in a day of fire and doom. Verdi captures an unsettling mood in this section in particular, which comes in the second section of the work. Verdi composed it after hearing about the death of Alessandro Manzonia, a writer whose work he admired. It was first performed on the first anniversary of Manzoni’s death on May 22, 1874.
Dmitri Shostakovich – Allegro from Symphony No. 10
Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony premiered on 17 December 1953, about nine months after the death of Joseph Stalin. Shostakovich had been denounced twice by the Soviet regime, and many musicologists have debated whether the symphony is a musical commentary on the Stalinist era. No matter what it’s real inspiration, the second movement, the Allegro, is furious and unsettling in its effect.
Sergei Rachmaninoff – The Isle of the Dead
Rachmaninoff’s 1908 tone poem was written while he was in Dresden, and has since become considered as an iconic work of late Romanticism. Rachmaninoff was inspired by a black and white print of a painting by Arnold Böcklin’s also titled Isle of the Dead that he had viewed in Paris. Later, when he saw the original painting, he was disappointed. “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.”
Franz Schubert – Der Erlkönig
Who rides there so late through the night dark and drear? The father it is, with his infant so dear… The text for Schubert’s famous Lied comes from a poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. It’s a father on horseback with his young son, trying to soothe his fears of being pursued by the evil Erlkönig or Elven King. Despite the father’s attempt at escape and reassurance, however, the Erlkönig succeeds, and when he has reached his destination, he finds that his son is dead.
Gyorgy Ligeti – Atmosphères
Rhythm and tonality dissolve in Ligeti’s Atmosphères, using instead what the composer called “micropolyphonic” texture. It creates a moody and sinister sound. Ligeti dedicated the piece to another Hungarian composer who had died the year before its premiere in 1961. The piece was popularized in Stanley Kubrick’s seminal film 2001: A Space Odyssey — but was used without the composer’s consent. Despite his initial hostility, Ligeti eventually came to welcome the movie’s role in making his work known around the world.
Béla Bartók – Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta
While Bartok’s intention was not to compose spooky music, his Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta has become arguably his most popular work for that very reason. It’s been used in several films, notably Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, and even a couple of episodes of Doctor Who. Many musicologists point to the piece’s unique instrumentation as the basis for its singular sound, which was considered to be cutting edge at its premiere in 1936.
Lowell Liebermann – Gargoyles
American composer Lowell Libermann wrote his suite for solo piano in 1989, and it’s become one of his most popular compositions. Inspired by cathedral gargoyles, Liebermann blends elements of tonality and avant-garde in the piece, which alternates between sinister and demonic and more playful and rambunctious moods.
Bedřich Smetana – Macbeth and the Witches
Smetana’s piece for solo piano may be not only convey a spooky mood – it demands a virtuoso’s touch, and the ability to draw out the piece’s drama and madness. The story, of course, comes from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, with its appreciation for the power of black magic and the witches who wield it. Smetana’s Sketches from Macbeth and the Witches was composed for piano in 1859, a time marked by the illness and eventual death of his wife Kateřina while the family lived in Dresden, Germany.
Giuseppe Tartini – Sonata in G minor ‘Devil’s Trill’
More spooky than sinister, Tartini’s Violin Sonata in G minor is more commonly known by its nickname, the Devil’s Trill Sonata. Tartini’s own words describe the piece’s inspiration. “One night I dreamt that I had made a bargain with the Devil for my soul. Everything went at my command—my novel servant anticipated every one of my wishes. Then the idea struck me to hand him my fiddle and to see what he could do with it. But how great was my astonishment when I heard him play with consummate skill a sonata of such exquisite beauty as surpassed the boldest flight of my imagination. I felt enraptured, transported, enchanted; my breath was taken away; and I awoke. Seizing my violin I tried to retain the sounds that I had heard. But it was in vain. The piece I then composed, the Devil’s Sonata, although the best I ever wrote, how far below the one I heard in my dream!”
Britten – The Turn of the Screw
The story itself, based on a novella by Henry James of the same name, is creepy enough. It follows a young governess in an isolated country house and her new charges, who may or may not be controlled and possessed by ghosts. Britten’s chamber opera features a libretto by Myfanwy Piper, and mixes elements of tonality and dissonance, along with a recurring 12-note theme. A line from the play quotes Yeats’ poem The Second Coming: ‘The ceremony of innocence is drowned.’
Carl Orff – O Fortuna, from Carmina Burana
“O Fortuna” is a 13th-century poem that Orff set to music for one of the movements of his cantata, Carmina Burana. Since its composition in 1935-36, it has become a part of popular culture, and its powerful chorus has set the mood for any number of films and commercials. It has been covered by metal bands, used to portray Jim Morrison’s trippy drug addiction in the movie The Doors, in other movies like The Hunt for Red October and Natural Born Killers, and used to hawk everything from cars to beer. Orff even seemed to predict the future popularity of his piece, telling his publisher, “Everything I have written to date, and which you have, unfortunately, printed, can be destroyed. With Carmina Burana, my collected works begin.”
- TikTok #Classicalmusic Challenge Returns For Round 2 - July 31, 2023
- How Classical Musicians Move — And How It’s Woven Into Their Performance - July 4, 2023
- Twitter Faces $250M Lawsuit Over Music Copyright Infringement - June 26, 2023