Add some chills to your Halloween with a scary classical music soundtrack. Here are 13 pieces which include zombies, witches, dancing skeletons, and even the devil himself. To purchase any of these pieces, simply click on the title.
One brief note before you begin the journey. Several of these pieces include a mid-13th century Gregorian plainchant known as the Dies Irae (translated from Latin as Day of Judgment). Attributed to Friar Thomas of Celano, it was customarily sung as part of the mass for the deceased. The hymn is a meditation on the last judgment, when Jesus Christ will send the wicked to hell and welcome the righteous to heaven.
This tone poem for violin and orchestra recounts a legend in which Death appears at midnight every year on Halloween and calls skeletons from their graves to perform the dance of death while he plays his fiddle. The piece infamously begins with the solo violin playing an interval known as a tritone, or the “Devil’s Chord”. Using a technique known as scordatura tuning, the E string is tuned a half-step lower to the note E-flat and played with the A string. Another feature of this piece is the use of the xylophone to imitate the sounds of rattling bones.
I have fond childhood memories of this opera because my Suzuki violin group teacher used to play a recording of the Wolf’s Glen scene for us every Halloween. This classic German fairytale tells the story of the young forester Max, who must win a shooting contest in order to marry his beloved Agathe. Here’s a description of the Wolf’s Glen scene from the Des Moines Metro Opera page:
… Caspar [a troublemaking forester] intones a spell and a chorus of invisible spirits responds. Samiel [the black Huntsman]converses with Caspar as they wait for the arrival of Max. When he arrives he is haunted by visions of his dead mother and of Agathe who he perceives as leaping into the river rapids. When Max sees Caspar he insists the casting of the magic bullets must be Caspar’s work. Caspar purposely does not tell Max that though six of the seven bullets belong to the shooter, the seventh is controlled by Samiel. Between each of the seven castings there are horrifying supernatural manifestations: flapping night birds, charging wild boars, a hurricane, cracking whips, galloping horses, and wheels of fire, thunder, lightning and meteors, and final Samiel himself. Both Caspar and Max are thrown to the ground unconscious.
The Austrian-born composer jokes that Frankenstein!! is “a piece made by a 33-year-old naughty youngster with musical ability.” It was composed in 1971 and rearranged for full orchestra in 1977. The BBC Philharmonic website describes the piece as “mutant nursery rhymes scrambled over genetically-modified melodies and banging orchestra day-glo: it’s the ultimate monster mash-up.” Batman and Robin, Superman, and Little Miss Dracula all play a part in this unusual work. The orchestration requires eccentric instruments such as whirling plastic hose pipes, motor horns, kazoos, a toy trumpet, and Swanee whistles.
This symphonic poem is based on a painting by the Swiss artist Arnold Böcklin. The background of the painting shows gloomy cliffs and still waters. The foreground includes a rowboat containing a mourning white-clothed figure, a coffin, and an oarsman. The piece utilizes the Dies Irae plainchant and paints a musical picture of the boat’s journey to the Isle of the Dead.
Paganini was a renowned 19th-century violinist and composer. His cadaverous appearance and virtuosity fueled rumors that he had made a pact with the devil to acquire extraordinary abilities. Le Streghe is a set of variations for violin and piano. The piece is based on a theme from Franz Xavier Sussmayr’s ballet Il noce di Benevento, in which the theme accompanies the witches’ entrance onto the stage. Paganini frequently performed this piece during a tour of Europe in 1829.
This piece exists in several forms – Mussorgsky’s original piano composition and orchestral arrangement, as well as orchestral arrangements by Maurice Ravel, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Leopold Stokowski. The story of the piece is based on a Russian legend of a witches’ sabbath taking place on St. John’s Night on the Lysa Hora (Bald Mountain), near Kiev.
The symphony tells the story of a musician (Berlioz) who experiences opium-fueled dreams in which his beloved appears as a recurring musical idea (idée fixe) throughout each of the five movements. The piece is likely based on Berlioz’s courtship and doomed marriage to the Irish actress, Harriet Smithson. Of particular note is the fifth movement, “Songe d’une Nuit du Sabbat”. From Berlioz’s program notes:
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… 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… She joins the diabolical orgy… The dance of witches combined with the Dies Irae.
Sonata for Violin and Continuo in G minor, B. g5 “Il trillo del diavolo” (The Devil’s Trill) by Alessandro Tartini
This 18th century violin virtuoso/composer claimed that he’d had an encounter one night with the devil at the foot of his bed. He immortalized the encounter in this sonata, in which virtuosic trills are combined with double-stops to create a sense of agitation.
The symphonic poem, subtitled Scherzo after a Ballad by Goethe, was inspired by Johan Wolfgang von Goethe’s 1797 poem of the same name. The piece is best known from its appearance in the 1940 Disney animated film, Fantasia. The original poem is about an elderly sorcerer who departs his workshop, leaving his apprentice with chores to perform. The apprentice enchants a broom to do the work for him. He is unable to control his spell, and chaos ensues. At the end of the poem, the old sorcerer returns, disables the spell, and saves the day.
There’s nothing particularly spooky about this piece, although it is one of the best known organ compositions of all time. It’s been used in TV shows and movies (including Fantasia) often depicting scary houses with haunted pipe organs.
This piece exists as a solo piano version (S. 525), two piano version (S. 652), and piano and orchestra version (S. 126). This work is a set of theme and variations based on the Dies Irae plainchant. Franz Liszt was fascinated with death, religion, heaven, and hell. There are reports that he went down into prison dungeons in order to see those condemned to die.
Koshkin wrote this solo guitar piece so that the instrument would have a concert-scale waltz similar to Franz Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz. The piece is based on Edgar Allen Poe’s gothic horror story, The Fall of the House of Usher. A man (the narrator) is summoned to the remote mansion of Roderick Usher, his boyhood friend. Roderick is suffering from a mental illness, while his sister Madeline is knocking on death’s door due to a mysterious disease. Usher himself is somewhat mentally imbalanced, and spends his day playing guitar and painting. Madeline eventually dies and rises from her tomb to kill her brother. The narrator flees. The House of Usher collapses and demolishes the last traces of the ancient family.
Daugherty composed the work in 1991 for husband-and-wife violists Jeffrey Irvine and Lynne Ramsey. The piece consists of sections enticingly titled, “Zombie andante”, “Zombie revivus”, “Zombie presto”, and “Zombie con furore”. Daugherty writes, “You are traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind; a journey into a world as vast as space and as timeless as infinity where two violists separated stereophonically on stage explored musical and timbral possibilities of the imagination. You’re moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas. That’s the signpost up ahead – your next stop, Viola Zombie. ”
Sources: Wikipedia, www.desmoinesmetroopera.org, www.bsomusic.org, www.bridgewater-hall.co.uk, peermusicclassical.com, www.cdbaby.com, www.gradesaver.com, www.accessmylibrary.com, Google Books Isle of the Dead, Google books Paganini, www.franciscan-archive.org