Happy Halloween! When it comes to spooky music, classical trumps “Monster Mash” any day. Of course, there are the standards: Toccata and Fugue in D minor; “Dreams of a Witches’ Sabbath” from Symphonie Fantastique; Night on Bald Mountain; Danse Macabre… but here are some slightly less popular selections from my Halloween playlist. Below, you’ll find vampires, ghosts, demons, and even some dancing zombies! — and, hopefully, a piece or two that you’ve never heard before. Go ahead and scroll down — creepiness awaits!
- Franz Schubert: Der Doppelgänger With an eerily calm melody and darkly resonant piano accompaniment, this musical setting of a poem by Heinrich Heine vividly depicts the sort of thing that only happens in horror movies. Imagine: you’re strolling through town late at night, and no one’s around. You come towards your ex’s place, and notice a person standing outside the house. The guy turns to face you — and he looks exactly like you. (Read the text and translation here for a more poetic version of this scenario.) The myth of the Doppelgänger, or double, is cross-culturally terrifying, and there have actually been a number of documented sightings, making for some real-life ghost stories. (My favorite is the story of Emilie Sagée — check it out!) Schubert’s song is beautiful, but it may also send a shiver up your spine.
- Sergei Prokofiev: “Zdes’, gospodin rycar” (“Here, Sir Knight”) from The Fiery Angel The opera alone is creepy enough without the rather creative staging seen in the above video. The plot centers around a young woman named Renata, who has fallen in love with an ambiguously hallucinatory angel and ends up being accused of demonic possession and burned at the stake. Here — just read this excerpt from a review of the above Mariinsky production: “The stage, a dark eerie box, is haunted, quite literally, by a silent horde of virtually naked white demons who freeze, scramble, crawl, stalk, contort, tumble, stretch, climb the dank walls and gently mock the feeble mortals in distress. The feeble mortals include a strong-voiced maiden experiencing the terminal throes of sexual hysteria, a masochistic knight who wants to possess her, a generous representation of mystics and religious fanatics, one sadistic alchemist, a devil in disguise who amuses himself by devouring a tavern lad, and, oh yes, a chorus of nuns who strip off their habits in a climactic outburst of orgiastic frenzy. Opera is such a delicate art.” Enough said.
- Franz Liszt: Totentanz This “Dance of the Dead” is one of many, many pieces Lizst wrote involving death — others include Funérailles; La lugubre gondola (written after the death of his son); and the Mephisto Waltzes (there are a whole bunch of them — Nos. 1, 2, 3, and 4 — each depicting the Devil’s dance). But of all these works, Totentanz is by far the most forthrightly Halloween-y. Listen to how he transforms that familiar plainchant melody of the Dies Irae (“Day of Wrath”) into something feverishly virtuosic. The angry brass, the writhing woodwinds, the furious strings — and those moments of surprise calm — all undulating beneath a piano solo so challenging it can only be played by someone slightly more than human.
- Heinrich Marschner: Overture to Der Vampyr This overture is actually more charming than scary, but the opera it precedes has all the bloodshed and love-triangle intensity of yet another Twilight installment. Plus, the whole thing takes place in Scotland, a setting which has inspired a ridiculous amount of eerie artworks, from Macbeth to The Bride of Lammermoor (also an opera!). Basically, this guy Aubry discovers that his old buddy is a vampire, but is told that if he reveals this secret he will become a vampire as well. The problem is, Aubry’s girlfriend is being forced into an arranged marriage with this vampire fellow — but due to the aforementioned situation, he can’t warn her about the whole vampirism thing. (Read a more elaborate synopsis here.) ‘Tis quite the conundrum for poor Aubry, but his conundrum inspired some epically fun and sinister music, so it’s a win for us.