Musical Terrors for Halloween: An Orchestral Short List

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


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 Dead

The ultimate Halloween piece, and probably the last word on death in music. The piece was inspired by a painting by the once-famous Belgian painter, Arnold Bocklin, entitled The Isle of the Dead. Rachamninov saw a black and white reproduction of it and the wheels began turning. His orchestral canvas is much bleaker, opening with one of the most memorable beginnings in music: the sound of the waves lapping (or the oars rowing?) against the boat of the dead. As the boat approaches the shore, the music become more and more impassioned, with one heart-rending melody after another, as if the dead is clinging to the last threads of life. Finally, there’s an ear-splitting climax, as life and death engage in a bitter struggle to the end. Life loses, death is triumphant, and the eerie music of the waves returns; another soul is added to the Isle of the Dead’s population.

Interestingly, Rachmaninov makes use of the so-called dies irae, which means “day of wrath,” a Medieval chant which was part of the Mass of the Dead. Many composers have since used this to depict death or gloom, and Rachmaninov made it his signature, using it in almost every single piece he wrote, cleverly disguised, or the basis of ingenious variations. Here it’s pretty easy to spot once you know the original, and it colors the entire piece with a charcoal blackness.

Bernard Herrmann, Psycho: A Suite for Strings

Culled from his moody, atmospheric soundtrack for Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, this suite distills the doom-laden storyline in a few short movements. Surprisingly, the ‘shower music’ scene isn’t the best music in the score: the stabbing, frenetic strings that open the piece creates a mood of unbearable tension, which gradually settles down into the gloom of morbid melodies. It’s amazing what orchestral color Herrmann can pull from strings alone (only violins, violas, cellos, and basses), and listening to this, you realize that much of the film’s success was created by the music; no other score would do!

Berlioz, Symphonie Fantastique

Most people know about this one, though it’s still a gloriously effective piece — one of the first ‘program’ symphonies, and one that remains emulated even today. In essence, it tells the story of an ‘artist,’ who is haunted by the image of a beloved, whom he chases throughout society at a ball, in the countryside, and finally through an opium dream where she becomes a witch and leads a terrifying orgy (where he is finally beheaded). The music opens with a statement of the lover’s theme, and the first movement depicts the passionate and confused emotions of its hero. The second movement is a fast-paced dance at a ballroom, and is followed by a bucolic depiction of the countryside, though rumbles of a storm intrude at the end. Then things get really interesting: rousing battle music follows when our hero goes into an opium dream, and we get a musical witch’s Sabbath, using the famous dies irae which Rachmaninov made his musical thumbprint. The music gets more and more frenetic, as the witch’s Sabbath theme alternates with the dies irae is a spectuacular battle royale! As expected, death wins in the end and the beloved destroys our hero — such is love! Incidentally, Berlioz wrote this to an actual woman he was in love with (an Irish actress) and sent her the detailed program the piece when it was first performed, letting her know that she was the lover/witch, and he the hero. She was not impressed…though she eventually succumbed to his wooing and married him (and it was not a happy marriage!).

Sibelius, Tapiola

One of the great Finnish composer’s last pieces, Tapiola is a brooding piece describing the indifferent forest god of the North, Tapio. Opening with a violent motive, that quickly gets swept up into a kind of orchestral ‘storm,’ it then settles down into a bleak, Northern landscape where everything seems dead or in hibernation. Slowly, the piece expands into strange melodies and motifs until the storm breaks, and the piece gets very scary — and very loud. After the climax, all passion spent, the piece fades into the gloom once more, yet offers a tiny hint of peace at the end…as if a better world awaits beyond the frozen tomb of the North.

Liadov, Baba Yaga

An orchestral miniature, only about 3–4 minutes, this piece evokes the evil witch of Russian folklore who lives in the ‘hut on fowl’s legs.’ It’s a fun piece, a lot like early Stravinsky, with colorful orchestration and a lot of skeletal xylophone. It ends in a ferocious — yet fun — climax, as we imagine the witch is hurtling through the woods in search of her latest prey. Liadov also wrote a fun, if less chilling piece, Kikimora, about the equivalent of Shakespeare’s Puck (but more menacing), and a peaceful, eerie piece about an enchanted lake in the woods called, yes, The Enchanted Lake.

Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring

To me, the ultimate “Halloween” piece in that it evokes the horrors of an imaginary pagan ritual, complete with a sacrificial maiden forced to dance herself to miserable doom. Everything about this piece is spooky and supernatural, from the opening melody for bassoon, which seems to come from another world, to the bizarre, jerky dances which sound like corpses trying to move their grizzled bones. No composer was better able to channel the sense that you’re listening to the voices of the dead…if pagan Russian had a soundtrack, this would be it. And yes, this piece was used in Disney’s Fantasia as well to accompany the dinosaur sequence…and while it works well for that, it’s more fitting in its original context.

Saint-Saens, Danse Macabre

Like the Liadov, this is mostly a fun ‘spooky’ piece, depicting a skeleton rising from the grave and playing a ghostly serenade on a haunted violin. You can hear the violin scratching away at the beginning, and it sounds spooky for the 1850’s (though James Netwon Howard played with this tune in his much scarier soundtrack for Signs). The piece has a wonderfully hummable tune which flits throughout the piece, played now by the flute, now by the strings, and now by a ghostly xylophone (this is one of the first pieces to really exploit that instrument). It ends in a rollicking finale before returning to the grave.

Prokofiev, Symphony №3

Prokofiev wrote some very eccentric symphonies, rarely following conventional symphonic thought, and a few adapted from his opera and ballet scores. His Third Symphony is one of his least-known, but also one of his most effective — and chilling. Adapted from his opera The Fiery Angel, which tells the story of the Inquisition, the symphony makes use of some of the scariest and most dramatic music: ghostly whispers, demonic invocations, and explosions of orchestral fire. The piece opens up quite demonically, with clashing bells and cymbals and total orchestra chaos. This settles down into the spooky main theme, which undergoes a number of transformations before returning to anger and revenge. The second movement is the scariest — an eerie tune with restrained orchestration, barely above a whisper. As it continues, the music gets more disturbed and unusual, with some unexpected jump scares. The third movement is a ferocious fast-paced movement (where the normal Scherzo would be — which is usually a dance-like movement) which was inspired the finale of Chopin’s 2nd Piano Sonata with its “wind whistling through the graves.” The final movement is a monumental climax where the entire world seems aflame. Scary, exhilarating stuff!

Scriabin, Prometheus

One of the strangest orchestral pieces ever written, Scriabin originally wrote it for orchestra and “color organ.” Scriabin had synethesia, which is the ability to see sounds as colors, and he wanted a machine to ‘transcribe’ the colors of his piece for the audience. He was never able to develop a proper machine, but the piece itself is colorful enough without it. It opens with silent, almost terrifying music from another dimension…just fragments of melody, eerie motifs, and disembodied cries from the piano. Gradually this coalesces into fleeting themes and a sense of tremendous momentum, as the piano takes center stage to narrate the ghastly events. The entire piece is a slow burn, and the tension become uncomfortable, especially in a live performance, where the music seems to emerge from some vast abyss. At the piece’s climax, a chorus joins in to create an earth-shattering noise…a precursor of Scriabin’s unfinished piece, The Mysterium, which was literally intended to end of the world (seriously, he thought it would accompany the transmigration of our souls to heaven). Small wonder he never finished it.

Bartok, Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta

While the title doesn’t seem particularly promising, the is one of the great masterpieces of 20th century music. It’s what Psycho was channeling and seems to come from the same dread universe as The Rite of Spring. The opening movement is like a creature lurching out of the abyss…slow, quiet, yet with a feeling of immense weight. It’s very scary music, and not surprisingly was used in Kubrick’s film of The Shining. The second movement is a menacing scherzo, full of dancing rhythms and some wonderful percussive effects. The highlight of the piece is the utterly strange third movement, which opens with the xylophone imitating insect noises (or so it seems), with a dreadful quiet spreading over the orchestra. Only thin voices emerge, and then the ghostly scales of the celesta, which is utterly terrifying. The finale is a more earthbound, slapdash affair, going back to the motor rhythms of the second movement. If you like this piece, you’ll also love his Divertimento for Strings, which though more light-hearted (for Bartok!), also has moments of complete dread and despair.

Shostakovich, String Quartets Nos. 8 and 10 (also orchestrated for String Orchestra by Rudolph Barshai)

Shostakovich’s string quartets were his private musical diary kept during the Great War and Stalin years, where music had to serve a patriotic purpose and nothing more. So he hid his deepest thoughts in private music which were never to see the light of day (and didn’t, until long after Stalin died). The Eighth String Quartet is his most famous, as it is his musical testament to many friends who died before and during the war. The piece is riddled with self-quotations, often to works which were censored by the government and deemed “formalist” or “harmful.” The piece opens with a spooky, Bartokian theme, which is a fitting prelude of things to come. A truly violent episode follows, some of the most terrifying and exciting music ever written for string quartet — it has to be heard to be believed (and afterwards, it can never be forgotten!). Gloomier, most introspective music follows, often with terrible pauses suggesting a mind that simply cannot go on…and yet does, plunging to lower and lower depths.

The Tenth Quartet is cut from the same cloth, but features an even angrier, grittier ‘dance of death’ in the second movement, which could depict any number of horrors in the world. This is followed by a harrowing, heart-felt lament, reaching truly Rachmaninovian proportions (see Isle of the Dead, above). Some prefer these pieces in their string orchestra transcriptions, but for me, the intimacy of the string quartet makes them seem more real, and more terrifying, since you feel you’re right there between the instruments…with no where to run!

And finally, a few ‘haunted’ soundtracks that make for perfect Halloween listening:

  • James Newton Howard, Signs
  • Amenabar, The Others
  • Kilar, Dracula
  • Shostakovich, Hamlet
  • Frankel, The Curse of the Werewolf
  • Goldsmith, Alien and Horner, Aliens

Written by

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

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