By Zachariah Friesen
Halloween is upon us. If you go to any orchestra concert or listen to classical radio during this time you are likely to hear Halloween greats like “Night on Bare Mountain” (Mussorgsky) from Disney’s Fantasia, “In the Hall of the Mountain King” (Grieg), or even “Symphonie Fantastique” (Berlioz). They are classically spooky and fun. If your performers or Classical DJ’s are real professionals, they might even program Piano Sonata No. 2 in Bb (Chopin), which has the famous funeral march theme that everyone hums when trouble is near. Now you know where it’s from; thanks Chopin.
If you’re willing to delve a little deeper, I’ll show you some truly dark music filled with passion and despair. Music you may not know, but music you’ll love from composers you love. Who knew that the same composers who were capable of writing such beautiful music were also able to pull out frightening melodies, disturbing harmonies and unidentifiable orchestral colors. These striking compositional techniques can be likened to combining half the crayons in your box and coloring over and over again in the same area of a blank canvas. Let’s start things off by first visiting the dark and stormy music of Dmitri Shostakovich. Shostakovich wrote despairingly dark music at times, and if you know his story, you’ll know why.
The 2nd movement of Shostakovich’s 10th symphony is a fast waltz whose syncopation and rapid tempo depicts a furious, relentless military scene. There’s brute force in the brass, frantic strings, and woodwinds that sound like they are being chased by militaristic percussion. Even the melody and counter-melody appear to be fighting as both voices are screaming at each other from the orchestra back and forth and even at the same time. This music is 4 minutes of sheer terror and is sure to increase your heart rate. Close your eyes and let your imagination give in to the story Shostakovich is masterfully telling you.
Modern Love Waltz (Arranged for 2 Toy Pianos by Margaret Leng Tan) – Phillip Glass
The version of Phillip Glass’ Modern Love Waltz that I fear most is the one arranged for for Two Toy Pianos. I will admit this piece is subjectively creepy and Halloween-y. If you are afraid of clowns, then you’re with me on this one, creepy! The two toy pianos seem to circle each other like warring demented ice cream trucks. Like a dog chasing its tail, each part intertwines and converses, but unlike any conversation I would like to witness. Syncopation, twistedly pleasant melodies and the angry chasing of two toy pianos with that creepy clown sound make this one of the more terrifying and delightful pieces I’ve ever heard.
One of the more bombastic pieces in the classical music repertoire; the Dies Irae movement of Verdi’s Requiem inspires fear and terror in all who lay ears on it. The off-beat bass drum alone means business; but the shrill trills in the woodwinds, frantic runs in the strings, and brass that just sound angry, grabs you by the collar and stares straight into the iris of your eye. Very eerily this comes to a soft hush in the choir, which makes the music even more frightening because something is surely lurking. The question is what is coming and when? Verdi masterfully pulls the strings of his puppet listeners forcing you to keep your eyes peeled on the iron fist of the booming bass drum in anticipation while choir voices whisper. This is truly and wonderfully dark music.
The piano version is very passionate and Russian. Emotion attacks the keys from the pianist’s fingers, flooding from the piano and crashing upon the ears, hearts and souls of the audience like waves against a rock. This music is made up of energy, passion, and emotion, and that’s why we love it. The orchestral version, arranged by Henry J. Wood, adds even more color to this music. Orchestrating from the bottom up, the double basses and low brass are the spikes of the mace that transform the music from passion and emotion to something a little more twisted. Bassoons, bass clarinet and rumbly percussion ominously tip toe the orchestra through a dark forest of suspense and the uncertainty of what lies ahead. In either version, enjoy this music for what it is, wonderfully dark.
Vaughan Williams’ use of narrator in the Antarctic Symphony makes this one of the most all-time creepy pieces ever written. The third movement lingers with ominous melodies, light orchestration and eerie movement from the cymbals, a truly dark and evil instrument (joke). This movement is constantly building momentum to something, as if the audience is exploring the uncharted, uncertainty of vast ice and snow in the dark. Through all 11 minutes of this piece, Vaughan Williams paces and toys with suspense in masterful use of louds and softs and brilliant orchestration. Not exactly the classical music you want to put on for your kids when they go to sleep at night. I have nicknamed this movement “The Heebie Jeebies” and I encourage you to do the same.
Loosely translated to English, “Totentanz” means “The Dance of the Dead”: how wonderfully evil. This is as Liszt calls it, a paraphrase on Dies Irae, used in the aforementioned Halloween favorite “Symphonie Fantastique” by Hector Berlioz. As did Berlioz, Liszt relies on the Low Brass to deliver the message of the Dies Irae. Liszt establishes terror and then paints the scenery with hammering block chords in the piano and marching percussion. Where we are headed, I’m not sure; but based on the sounds of the beginning of the piece, I’m not sure I want to go. Liszt twinkles subdued motifs in the piano around the Dies Irae and brings terror back time and time again with the Hellish low brass and frantic orchestral interludes. Even in the presence of a beautiful clarinet solo lies a toil-boiling piano background; and then it’s off to the races again, never completely beautiful and never for very long. “The Dance of the Dead” is a wonderful journey and celebration of darkness and twisted beauty.
Zachariah Friesen is the online merchandiser at Sheet Music Plus. He is also a freelance trombone player and private lessons teacher in the bay area.