by Simon Critchlow
Sick of the ‘Monster Mash?’ Here are 10 spooky classical music pieces to listen to for Halloween.
1. ‘La Danse Macabre’
by Camille Saint-Sans
Right from the solo violin entry at the very start, it is clear the devil is leading this dance. Saint-Sans’ clever use of the interval of the tritone is not random; this interval was known as the ‘Diabolus in Musicus’ (The Devil in Music) from the middle ages onwards.
The seductive chromatic descent of the opening waltz theme, innovative orchestration, fugal passages and the inclusion of the Gregorian chant of death the Dies Irae, all lead the listener by the hand into the dance with the assembled cast of Halloween characters. The old adage is that the devil has all the best tunes – look no further than this for proof.
Fear Factor: 5
2. ‘Symphony Fantastique. V. Dream of the Night of the Sabbath’
by Hector Berlioz
What should you do if are in love with a beautiful actress, are taking opium to deal with the pain of unrequited love, and dream you’ve murdered her and then arrive at a Witches’ Sabbath with an undead version of your beloved leading the festivities?
Write a symphony about it, obviously. At least that’s what French romantic composer Berlioz did, including a terrifying, grotesque transformation of the unusual but lovely theme that signifies his beloved in the rest of the symphony.
A highly influential work in the history of classical music, also quoting the Dies Irae, it actually did the trick and he married the object of his affections, English Actress Harriett Smithson, in 1833. Sadly, it didn’t end well and they were separated 10 years later, proving that writing an out-and-out masterpiece for someone can’t ultimately sustain a relationship and you’re probably better off sticking to the opium instead.
Fear Factor: 9
3. ‘Carmina Burana. I. O Fortuna’
by Carl Orff
Written in 1935 and inspired by Orff’s discovery of a volume of medieval German poetry of the same name, this is his attempt to recapture the medieval spirit through the prism of a dramatic and simplistic compositional style.
A Latin musing on the terror that fate and misfortune can bring, this piece has been used for everything from the arrival of the home team in football games to X-Factor contestant’s entrances. A simple but powerful composition, it should be enough to get the pulse racing on fright night.
Fear Factor: 7
4. ‘Messa da Requiem. II. Dies Irae’
by Guiseppe Verdi
The ultimate expression of Catholic fire and brimstone, Verdi uses all the dramatic skill learned from creating some of the finest operas ever written to terrify audiences with his setting of the Mass of the Dead.
Written for a colossal orchestra, choir, four soloists and an off-stage brass section, this vision of the end of the world and the undead rising from their graves is enough to make you jump out of your seat. Italian conductor Carlo Maria Giulini inspires his troops to give an incredible and dramatic performance, captured live in London in 1964.
Fear Factor: 7
5. Piano Sonata no.9 “Black Mass”
by Alexander Scriabin
What on earth Russian quasi-mystic composer Scriabin had in mind when he wrote this extraordinary piece is anybody’s guess. The title of “Black Mass” was suggested by someone else, but the composer certainly approved of it. A single movement work lasting some nine minutes, it pushes tonality to its outer limits and beyond while gradually building motives layer on layer towards a conclusion of Titanic, satanic ferocity before fading away into desolation.
Dense, exotic and seemingly random at times, it is actually tightly structured and sophisticated giving the terror a cold, intellectual edge. Russian piano legend Vladimir Horowitz plays out of his skin in this live recording from 1965. Not for the
Fear Factor: 9
6. ‘The Planets. I. Mars the Bringer of War’
by Gustav Holst
Despite his Germanic name, Holst was as English as they come and carved out a long career, somewhat overshadowed by the popularity and success of this, his best-known work. Written in the mid-1910s it was inspired by the classical mythology of the planets of the solar system.
The Roman God of war brings his wrath to bear on the poor souls of Earth in this irregular (5 beats per measure instead of the usual 4), cosmic military march. Dissonance, relentless rhythmic drive, and sheer volume provide the thrills in this terrifying vision of war and death.
Fear Factor: 8
7. ‘Night on a Bare Mountain’
by Modest Mussorgsky
What is it like to be stuck on a Russian mountain in the freezing cold with no shelter, bears everywhere and the Tsar’s troops on your tail?
Terrifying if this is anything to go by. Mussorgsky sends literal shivers down the spine with the immediacy of his melodies and masterly orchestration. Perfect for scaring away trick or treaters when the sweets run out.
Fear Factor: 6
8. ‘Symphony no. 6’
by Gustav Mahler
No cheap thrills available here though. This is like a tense, intellectual and tightly structured psychological thriller with twists aplenty, pitting triumph against despair on a colossal scale.
The imaginary hero of the symphony has his hopes and dreams battered again and again by a brutal tympani motif; wide, descending intervals and a major to minor key transformation that haunts him until his end.
Hope is not so much taken away but battered to death over the course of an hour and a quarter (literally in the almost hallucinogenic, nightmarish finale by a percussionist whose only job is to smash a massive hammer down onto a huge block of wood at crucial moments).
Mahler leaves the conclusion open until the very end, leaving the listener to believe there is a chance all will be well and our hero will live to fight another day.
Spoiler alert: he doesn’t. The ending is as devastating as it is shocking. Steel yourselves before embarking on this one. Darkness awaits.
Fear Factor: 10
9. ‘Siegfreid’s Death and Funeral March from the Ring Cycle’
by Richard Wagner
The complete “Ring Cycle” comprises 4 operas (The Rhine’s Gold, The Valkyrie, Siegfried, and Twilight of the Gods) and lasts over 16 hours in total.
The story, written by Wagner himself and based on Norse and German mythology is no less ambitious, charting the rise and fall of an entire civilisation complete with Gods, dwarves, mythical beasts and the quest for a ruling ring of power forged in the depths of the Earth in secret (sound familiar? Tolkien denied everything).
The hero of the piece is, of course, the noble German knight, Siegfried. If you are going to sit through 16 hours worth of music drama, you would want the hero’s death in the final opera to be absolute, stunningly unforgettable.
Fortunately, Wagner delivers in spades with the music of high drama, emotional depth and devastating power, played here by the London Philharmonic under the baton of German conductor Klaus Tennstedt in this classic live recording.
Fear Factor: 9
10. ‘Peer Gynt Suite: In the Hall of the Mountain King’
by Edvard Grieg
Norwegian composer Greig conjures up two and a half minutes of perfectly grotesque, macabre music that at first creeps around in the shadows like a would be Halloween assassin, then bursts forth to terrify the unsuspecting revelers.
Effectively one massive crescendo, unless you are already part of the undead this one will have the hairs on the back of your neck standing to attention. But a word of warning; Grieg’s readily accessible and tuneful music has lead unwary listeners to conclude Henrik Ibsen’s play of the same name which inspired it must be equally light and easy with a few thrills thrown in. Assume this at your peril.
Fear Factor: 8