It’s that time of year again! A shiver runs through the air, the nights are lengthening and the pumpkin spice is everywhere. Halloween is fast approaching, and with it come ghosts and scares. Nothing arouses that same kind of fear as certain pieces of classical music. Here are 10 pieces that will make you tremble with fear in October.
10. Mussorgsky – “Night on the Bald Mountain”
After its inclusion in Disney’s “Fancy“Night on Bald Mountain” gave nightmares to a whole generation of children. The ostinato of the strings beats relentlessly, and a rumbling melody in the low brass resonates. The beasts of the night fly and cry, and the woods spin a frightening melody. Interestingly, the version that people are most familiar with is actually a Rimsky-Korsakov re-orchestration. The original Mussorgsky edition is a lot less finished and feels more cerebral, and in my opinion, more spooky.
9. Schnittke – “Concerto Grosso“
What happens when you put baroque music in a mixer and then look at it through a funhouse mirror? Alfred Schnittke’s “Concerto Grosso”! Playful, demented and scary in the same way as clowns, this bitter and biting take on baroque chic music will leave you on your nerves. Dark and ironic, it is most of the time unsettling and truly terrifying.
8. Verdi – “Dies Irae“
Have you ever wondered what Armageddon would look like? Look no further than Verdi’s “Dies Irae”. The threatening blows of the orchestra signal the beginning of the end: the choir declares the day of anger. Furiously rapid sequences of strings and the triumphant cries of the choir and brass give an angry interpretation of the piece. This is what inevitable fate looks like.
7. Ligeti – “Reqiuem“
The human voice can undoubtedly be one of the scariest sounds, and Ligeti certainly knew this when he wrote his Requiem. Commonly used in 2001: A Space Odyssey by Kubrick, the room moves like thick mud; the voices are grouped together and move slowly. Individual voices and lines are indistinguishable, instead frozen in a wall of human sound. Lines come in and out, forming an intricate tapestry of despair and fear. It looks like a mass of souls trained in the underworld.
6. Saint-Saëns – “Dance of Death”
The clock strikes 12 on the harp. Then, the iconic opening violin intervals of this piece invite you to the ‘Dance of Death’. As death arrives on Halloween, he wakes the deceased from their graves and orders them to dance to the beat of his violin. The memorable melody resonates in all ears. Although initially received negatively, this piece has made its way into concert halls around the world and undoubtedly evokes the spirit of dread and Halloween.
5. Penderecki – “Threnody for the victims of Hiroshima“
Penderecki conveys the horror of nuclear war through this threnody. The orchestra screams and collides; dissonance dominates the soundscape of this deeply disturbing piece. Listening to it throughout is enough to elicit a physical response; a pit forms in your stomach and your heart starts to beat faster. The strings scream on the edges of their register and slide back and forth, huge clusters of sounds come and go. I can’t think of another piece that transmits the same amount of pure gravity as this one.
4. Mozart – “Lacrimosa“
Probably one of the most famous Requiems ever written, a dying Mozart worked frantically to complete his last piece, which was ultimately left unfinished and had to be completed later by his pupil Sussmayer. Both tragic and strange, the Lacrimosa with chorus and orchestra conveys an intense feeling of sadness and impending doom. The strings fall asleep like a dying heartbeat and the choir screams a frightening melody.
3. Crumbs – “Black angels”
It’s a piece that goes a bit off the beaten track. Although well known in the field of contemporary classical music, it has not yet really captured the attention of the public. This is, frankly, one of the most terrifying, creepy, and frightening plays that has ever been written. Written for string quartet and electronics, an atmosphere of chaotic horror is created through extensive techniques and filter pedals. The piece includes many movements: it begins with “Threnody I: Night of the Electric Insects”, a frantic hum of high strings accentuated at random intervals. It is enough to make anyone anxious. This movement was also used in “The Exorcist. ”
2. Bach – “Toccata and Fugue in D minor“
While “Toccata and Fugue” might not be the scariest piece on this list, it is inextricably linked with gothic horror and has established itself as a staple in spooky music. Imagine: you are alone in an old, abandoned cathedral at night, the wind howls outside and you walk through the main hall. Suddenly, the candlelight comes on and you see a mysterious organ figure playing Bach’s Toccata and Fugue. It is etched in the fabric of spooky music, an icon of the genre. A fun fact: Some experts speculate that it may not have been written by Bach at all, because it is so stylistically different from anything he had ever written.
1. Thomas of Celano – “Dies Irae”
The “Dies Irae” (Latin for “Day of Wrath”) was the original chilling melody. It was a plain-song game for Requiem services; in fact, the “Dies Irae” was only part of the entire Requiem Mass. His influence is everywhere in classical music and beyond, from Berlioz’s Fantastic Symphony To Sweeney todd To Star wars. Whenever the themes of death or the macabre are present, the “Dies Irae” makes its appearance. Once you hear it, you will start to recognize it everywhere. It is effective in its simplicity; just a melody is sung in Gregorian chant, but there is definitely something strange and almost sinister about it.
Daily Arts writer Jason Zhang can be contacted at [email protected]