It’s that time of year again! A chill runs through the air, nights become longer and pumpkin spice is everywhere. Halloween rapidly approaches, and with it comes spooks and scares. Nothing elicits that same kind of fear like certain pieces of classical music. Here are 10 pieces that will make you tremble in fear this October.
10. Mussorgsky — “Night on Bald Mountain”
After its inclusion in Disney’s “Fantasia,” “Night on Bald Mountain” gave nightmares to a whole generation of kids. The string ostinato beats relentlessly, and a rumbling melody in the low brass resounds. Beasts of the night fly and clamor, and the woodwinds spin a spooky tune. Interestingly, the version that people are most familiar with is actually a re-orchestration by Rimsky-Korsakov. The original Mussorgsky edition is much less finished and feels more cerebral, and in my opinion, more spooky.
9. Schnittke — “Concerto Grosso”
What happens when you put Baroque music into a blender and then look at it through a funhouse mirror? Alfred Schnittke’s “Concerto Grosso”! Playful, demented and creepy in the same way clowns are, this bitter, biting version of posh Baroque music will leave you feeling on edge. Shadowy and ironic, it’s unsettling most of the time and genuinely terrifying.
8. Verdi — “Dies Irae”
Ever wondered what the Armageddon would sound like? Look no further than Verdi’s “Dies Irae.” Ominous hits from the orchestra signal the beginning of the end: The choir declares the day of wrath. Furiously fast runs from the strings and the triumphant shouts of the choir and brass give a wrathful interpretation of the piece. This is what inevitable doom sounds like.
7. Ligeti — “Reqiuem”
The human voice can undoubtedly be one of the spookiest sounds, and Ligeti definitely knew this when he wrote his Requiem. Famously used in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, the piece moves like thick sludge; voices are clustered together and move slowly. Individual voices and lines are impossible to make out, instead congealed into a wall of human sound. Lines weave in and out, forming an intricate tapestry of despair and fear. It sounds like a mass of souls being dragged into the underworld.
6. Saint-Saëns — “Danse Macabre”
The clock strikes 12 on the harp. Then the iconic opening violin intervals of this piece invite you into the “Dance of Death.” As Death comes around on Halloween, he wakes the deceased from their graves and commands them to dance to the tune of his fiddle. The memorable melody rings in everyone’s ears. Though initially received negatively, this piece has worked its way into concert halls everywhere and undoubtedly conjures up the spirit of spookiness and Halloween.
5. Penderecki — “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima”
Penderecki conveys the horror of nuclear warfare through this threnody. The orchestra clamors and clashes; dissonance dominates the soundscape of this deeply disturbing piece. Listening to it the whole way through is enough to elicit a physical response; a pit forms in your stomach and your heart starts to beat faster. Strings shriek at the edges of their register and slide back and forth, huge clusters of sound come and go. I cannot think of any other piece that conveys the same amount of sheer gravity as this one.
4. Mozart — “Lacrimosa”
Probably one of the most famous Requiems ever written, a dying Mozart frantically worked to finish his last piece, which was ultimately left incomplete and had to later be finished by his student Sussmayer. Equal parts tragic and eerie, the Lacrimosa with choir and orchestra conveys an intense sense of sadness and impending doom. The strings lull back and forth like a dying heartbeat and the choir wails a chilling melody.
3. Crumb — “Black Angels”
This is a piece that’s a little off the beaten path. While well-known in the realm of contemporary classical music, it hasn’t really caught the public eye yet. It is, frankly, one of the most terrifying, hair-raising, bone-chilling pieces to have ever been written. Written for string quartet and electronics, an atmosphere of chaotic horror is created through extended techniques and filter pedals. The piece comprises many movements: It starts with “Threnody I: Night of the Electric Insects,” a frantic buzzing of high strings accented at random intervals. It’s enough to give anyone anxiety. That movement was also used in “The Exorcist.”
2. Bach — “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor”
Though “Toccata and Fugue” might not be the spookiest-sounding piece on this list, it is inextricably tied to Gothic horror and has cemented itself as a staple of scary music. Just imagine: You are alone in an old abandoned cathedral at night, the wind howls outside and you wander into the main hall. Suddenly, candlelights flicker alight, and you see a mysterious figure at the organ play Bach’s Toccata and Fugue. It’s engraved into the fabric of spooky music, an icon of the genre. A fun fact: Some experts speculate that it might not have been written by Bach at all, since it is so stylistically different than anything else he’d ever written.
1. Thomas of Celano — “Dies Irae”
The “Dies Irae” (Latin for “Day of Wrath”) was the original spooky melody. It was a plainchant set for Requiem services; in fact, the “Dies Irae” was only a part of the entire Requiem Mass. Its influence is everywhere in classical music and beyond, from Berlioz’s Symphony Fantastique to Sweeney Todd to Star Wars. Whenever themes of death or the macabre are present, the “Dies Irae” makes an appearance. Once you hear it, you’ll begin to recognize it everywhere. It’s effective in its simplicity; just a melody is sung in Gregorian chant, but there is something undoubtedly eerie and almost sinister about it.
Daily Arts Writer Jason Zhang can be reached at email@example.com.