Music has always been an integral part of my life. I majored in music in college (consider that a warning for any extreme musical nerdiness in this post or others), and though my parents swear they don’t know where my “musical talent” comes from, anyone who visits their house is sure to see the massive CD collection featured prominently in the living room. They have a little bit of everything, from soundtracks to Zydeco and Motown to Folk Revival. So, thanks to Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra, I knew right where to go for my Halloween music fix.
But many of the songs on that CD are the songs that end up on every playlist dedicated to Halloween music, and there’s a good chance you’ve heard them before. So I thought I’d highlight some other pieces from the “Classical” canon that don’t get nearly the attention of Night on Bald Mountain or In the Hall of the Mountain King.
So, without further ado, here’s a collection of spooky, dark, eerie music perfect for those dark, moonlit nights when the ghouls are on the move…
Danse Macabre, Op. 40 in G minor — Camille Saint-Saëns
Okay, I’ve cheated, as this one appears on almost all the Halloween playlists. But Saint-Saëns was directly inspired by a poem when he composed this piece, so how could I not include it? The poem, originally in French, describes a “Dance of Death,” — or, in French, a danse macabre.
“Zig, zig, zig,
Death in cadence,
Striking a tomb with his heel,
Death at midnight plays a dance-tune,
Zig, zig, zag, on his violin.
The winter wind blows,
and the night is dark;
Moans are heard in the linden trees.
White skeletons pass through the gloom,
Running and leaping in their shrouds.”
(Full text available here.)
But the cool doesn’t stop there. The violin you hear in the opening is incorrectly tuned in order to create an interval (basically, two notes playing together, sort of like a partial chord) commonly known as the Devil’s Tritone. This interval is particularly dissonant and was, until the 19th Century, not commonly used in any musical works of any kind. (Also fun: the two notes of the tritone are three whole steps apart, thus the tri- part of tritone, which also fits into the devil thing. Isn’t music theory cool?)
In addition to the violin solo, which is a clear reference to the text, Saint-Saëns uses a xylophone to evoke the clatter of bones that’s referenced later in the poem, and at the end has the oboe stand in as a rooster crowing. Here and there throughout the piece I hear rising and falling passages suggestive of the moans in the trees, and I love the frenetic, darkly humorous energy to this piece.
Symphonie Fantastique, Op. 14 Mvt. 5: Dreams of the Witch’s Sabbath — Hector Berlioz
The subtitle for this symphony is “An Episode in the Life of the Artist.” The entire symphony is programmatic (meaning it has a theme or meaning, as opposed to absolute music which stands alone without any outside meaning or representation attached). In the first movement, the artist (Berlioz, one presumes) falls in love and becomes sort of obsessed. In the second he attends a ball and has a grand time, except that whenever he sees his beloved he’s thrown into a tumult of emotion. In the third, he convinces himself that she has betrayed him. Heartbroken, he takes opium for the fourth movement (obviously what we all do in such cases), and dreams that he’s being marched to the hangman’s scaffold while his beloved looks on mockingly. At the end of the fourth movement, he dies…and in the fifth he wakes up in Hell, watching as witches dance around him, including — of course — his beloved, transformed into a hideous creature represented by the awful, strained carousing of the Eb clarinet.
During this movement, the heavy, pounding “Dies Irae” (a medieval melody often quoted in later works; its name is Latin for “The Day of Wrath”) is juxtaposed with a darkly jaunty dance tune, itself a variation on the theme of the beloved throughout the entire symphony — and running throughout and behind all this is the chiming of bells, sounding Berlioz’s doomsday. The result is gloriously evil, and I can’t help being glad
Berlioz “the artist” took opium and had this nightmare.
(More info about the symphony here, if you’re interested.)
Totentanz, S. 126 — Franz Liszt
This piece (which also translates into English as “Dance of Death”) begins with a theme, based on the same Dies Irae used by Berlioz, which then runs through several variations. Sometimes the Dies Irae is a pounding, demonic base line, other times a wandering piano cadenza in a high register. Sometimes it’s even light and happy sounding — but in the end it comes back to a dark, menacing rendition similar to that of the beginning.
According to Wikipedia, Liszt was obsessed with death. I don’t remember learning that in my music history class, but it may well be true (don’t have my textbooks with me, otherwise I’d check!). But I do remember one interesting tidbit: Franz Liszt wasn’t just famous, he was idolized like a modern rock star — complete with women fainting in his presence. I mean, Beatlemania? Liszt totally got there first: 1841 was the year of Lisztomania.
The Banshee — Henry Cowell
This is rather more avant garde than the previous two — but it’s not meaningless like a lot of avant garde stuff. Cowell was a Twentieth Century composer credited with creating several common modern music techniques, including the tone cluster (not a chord but a jumble of notes similar to what happens when a toddler starts banging their fist against a keyboard). He also pioneered the use of the “string piano,” whereby the pianist opens the piano and reaches in to strike, strum, or stroke the strings inside (source).
That’s what makes the awful, creepy, haunting wail of the banshee in this particular piece. So yes, every sound you hear in this track was created by one pianist at one piano. Personally I think this is awesome, but I’m not sure I’ve met anyone else who agrees with me.
Fog Tropes – Ingram Marshall
Ingram Marshall is a contemporary composer whose works often incorporate both live and synthesized instruments — evidently, this is called electroacoustic music. He is influenced by the minimalist movement, which is just what it sounds like — an artistic movement focusing on simplicity and repetition rather than complex counterpoint and harmonies. (One minimalist piece is basically just a C chord for ten minutes. It’s kind of strange.)
This piece is unsettling because it seems to lack a tone center and any sort of rhythm. It works a lot like a soupy fog, with brass instruments coming in here and there, sounding almost random above a thick, heavy droning bass line. There’s also a creepy, repeating line that sounds like an eerie, high-pitched voice — a ghost calling out from the depths of the fog, perhaps? A siren calling sailors to their deaths? Either way, don’t listen to this alone in the dark, unless you want to be disturbed.
Do you use music when writing? I do, of course; the right music can help me stay focused on what I’m trying to achieve with any particular scene or even a novel as a whole. I love that different art forms connect and relate to each other so powerfully — that no matter the medium, an artist is an artist. We can overcome or face or even just accept the horror of death by writing a poem or taking a picture or composing a few ominous lines of music; and somehow, even though the results are so different, they’re also somehow very much the same.
But that could (maybe will) be an entirely different post. Do you use music to evoke feelings or seasons? Got any favorites? And if you listened to any of the playlist, what did you think?