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Bocklin’s Isle of the Dead, which inspired Rachmaninov (see below)

MUSICAL TERRORS FOR HALLOWEEN: A SHORT LIST

For many people, “scary” classical music begins and ends with Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain, which was famously featured on Walt Disney’s Fantasia. However, as wonderful as this piece is (which, actually, is only half by Mussorgsky — his comrade Rimsky-Korsakov re-orchestrated/re-composed most of it), there is a long tradition of ‘horrible’ orchestral music which evokes the darker shades of life. Here’s a partial list of works which are perfect to complement not only Halloween but would do grace any horror movie or suspense film (and one is indeed from a movie soundtrack!).

Sergei Rachmaninov, The Isle of the…


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Once an essential part of an English-speaking childhood, Kipling’s Just So Stories have fallen out of favor, replaced by the more contemporary wonders of The Hobbit and Harry Potter. Yet these stories are cut from the same cloth as his other children’s books, such as the more enduring The Jungle Books (1894–95), and the later Puck of Pook’s Hill (1906) and its companion, Rewards and Fairies (1910). Certainly the Just So Stories are a looser confederation of tales, each one giving a whimsical explanation for how the natural world came to be, leading up to the invention of writing itself. …


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I just read an article about universities (yet again) abandoning the Western Humanities in the face of a relentless drive to embrace diversity and a multicultural outlook. The article decried the loss of a rich culture in the face of a loose hodgepodge of approaches, none of which offers a coherent curriculum to university students. As an eighteenth-century British scholar and someone who wrote a Master’s Thesis on South Asian literature, I’m torn. Do I want to preserve a world where Homer, Sappho, Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Defoe, Johnson, and Jane Austen still have a place in the curriculum? Absolutely. But I do want that to be the only voice in the curriculum, so students have no idea that there was a Golden Age of Indian Literature? Or never encounter Taoism? Or remain ignorant of names like Tagore, Narayan, Naipaul, Desai, Lahiri, and Rushdie? …


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In the Nineteenth Letter of Wollstonecraft’s Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, she informs her unnamed recipient, “Do not forget that in my general observations, I do not pretend to sketch a national character; but merely to note the present state of morals and manners, as I trace the progress of the world’s improvement…my principal object has been to take such a dispassionate view of men as will lead me to form a just idea of the nature of man.”

The result is one of the most unorthodox eighteenth-century travel narratives, a mixture of vivid description, Romantic rhapsody, pointed social commentary, and veiled scorn for her long-time lover, Gilbert Imlay. Remarkably, these disparate threads cohere into a kind of field study of “the nature of man” in an area well off the beaten-path of the Grand Tour, which few men (and no women) had explored in print. …


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John Bauer, Brother Saint Martin and the Three Trolls

We’re often reminded that all of Tolkien’s stories began with language. Tolkien invented the languages of elves first and then wondered, where did these words come from? Who made them? Spoke them? What books and legends preserved them? Of course, his languages didn’t exactly emerge out of a vacuum, either; they were his attempts to connect the linguistic thread between various ancient cultures, teasing out common words and phrases that might have belonged to an earlier, ur-language now lost in the folds of time. …


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When submitting a story to a speculative fiction magazine recently, I got a surprisingly fast rejection — we’re talking hours, compared to the usual 4–5 weeks. I was stunned, hoping that I had some formatting issue that made it auto-reject, or that the editor was so taken with the first few sentences that he/she thought, “hell with it, I’m accepting it on the spot!” (ha).

The reality fell somewhat short of both scenarios: the story received a curt rejection, with the following tip for revision: “characters lack inner depth, need to relate to them more, feel their conflict.” In other words, your characters aren’t three-dimensional, fleshed-out beings whose emotions and inner turmoil feel relatable to my own. Which is a fair criticism, since my intention wasn’t to develop characters in this story as much as explore the implications of the story/theme itself. …


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The Dutch master, Johannes Vermeer, bequeathed only 35 paintings to posterity, though some are undoubtedly lost, and others have been judged spurious. Still, in an age where painters needed to flatter the nobility to obtain a constant stream of commissions, Vermeer seems to have painted slowly and somewhat grudgingly. He remained in debt his entire life and left his family — including eleven children — harried with misfortune, his wife forced to peddle off his remaining canvases for paltry sums. We know almost nothing about his personal life or ideas except what trickles down to us from his paintings. …


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Odilon Redon, “The Hideous Cyclops” (1883)

William Beckford’s Vathek, An Arabian Tale (1786) is perhaps the most bizarre response to Europe’s love affair with all things ‘Oriental’ in the eighteenth-century. The age witnessed a rich immigration of Eastern art and culture, as evidenced by figures such as Mary Elizabeth Wortley Montagu, who ‘smuggled’ in her letters on Turkish society and customs after a two-year stay in 1716–1718. Once the letters were finally published in 1762, the market had already been established by the French translation of an Arabic classic, The Thousand and One Nights. …


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Odilon Redon’s “Muse on Pegasus (c.1910)

Imagine this, if you will: a gorgeous, Pre-Raphaelite temple (to no particular god) set amidst the sublime landscape of the Himalayas. You arrive for the performance of a lifetime — namely, Alexander Scriabin’s magnum opus, Mysterium, a work for orchestra, chorus, soloists, dancers, odors, colors, and perhaps the earth itself, which is to last an entire week. At the conclusion of the work, the audience, along with the performers and the composer himself will die — ascending to the heavens in a state of cosmic bliss. In other words, the end of the world.

A kitschy bit of 21st century avant-garde postmodern performance art? Hardly…it was a work Scriabin conceived around 1909 and worked on feverishly until his death in 1915. Scriabin began life as a virtuoso-composer in the mold of Chopin or Liszt, writing conventionally perfumed piano music in traditional forms — Preludes, Mazurkas, Etudes. After an apprentice period which also saw the composition of two symphonies and a piano concerto, Scriabin immersed himself in the writings of Nietszche and conceived more grandiose ambitions for his music. This only intensified once he became a member of the Theosophical Society and sought to embody the beliefs of Madame Blavatsky in art. His piano music all-but departed from tonality, and he invented what he termed the “chord of the pleorma” (later called the “mystic chord”) which became the basis for many late compositions. [read more about it here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mystic_chord]. …


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When I pick up my teenage sons from junior-high, I’m always amazed to see what the kids are wearing today. Sometimes, it feels like I’ve driven through a time-portal and ended up back in my own era, circa 1991. Torn jeans — particularly at the knees; black band shirts, typically of Nirvana or Metallica; black leggings and flannel shirts; Converse and combat boots. With a few exceptions, you could drop a ‘cool’ kid from 2018 into my 1991 high school and no one would raise an eyebrow (not that kids ever paid each other much attention, anyway). In general, cool cycles back, and some things — torn fabric, especially — never quite go out of style. …

About

Joshua Grasso

English professor at East Central University (OK); PhD from Miami University (OH); eternal student and lover of books

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