Classical Music Program for Halloween

by Jacy Burroughs

There are a plethora of classical pieces appropriate for Halloween. The best known are arguably Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain and Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King. Here are my suggestions for a slightly less typical, yet spooky program. They are also great pieces to listen to and get you in the mood for a night of tricks and treats!

1. Isle of the Dead, 29, Sergei Rachmaninoff – 1908

Rachmaninoff was inspired to compose Isle of the Dead after he saw a black-and-white reproduction of Arnold Böcklin’s painting by the same name in Paris in 1907. The image is of a boat bearing a coffin to a fortress on a mysterious island. Rachmaninoff’s musical interpretation begins with the sound of oars in the water, represented by an irregular 5/8 meter. The urgency of the music increases as the boat approaches the island. Then, the Dies irae – the Gregorian Chant from the Mass for the Dead – takes over. Briefly, there is a struggle with music that sounds full of life, but the Dies irae theme is stronger. At the end, the piece comes full circle, returning to the relentless sound of rowing oars.

2. Danse Macabre, 40, Camille Saint-Saëns – 1874

This piece was inspired by a French poem by Henri Cazalis. Saint-Saëns originally wrote it for voice and piano, but reworked it for solo violin and orchestra. The programmatic story is based on a legend in which Death appears at midnight, indicated by the twelve opening notes, every year on Halloween. He raises the dead from their graves and they dance for him while he plays his fiddle, represented by the solo violin.

3. Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta Adagio, Béla Bartòk – 1936

The slow, third movement is an example of what was known as Bartòk’s night music. Described as atmospheric, it sounds particularly spooky, enhanced by the unusual effect of timpani glissandi and the oddly delicate, floating sounds of the strings. It is so suspenseful that film director Stanley Kubrick used it in the soundtrack to his horror film The Shining.

4. Symphonie fantastique: Dreams of a Witches’ Sabbath, 1830, Hector Berlioz

Berlioz was known for his romantic temperament. In 1830, he won the Prix de Rome, a distinguished award granted to artists by the French government. The prize was the ability to study in Italy at the government’s expense. However, Berlioz was reluctant to go because of his engagement to pianist Camille Moke. Sure enough, while in Italy, Moke broke off the engagement to marry someone else. Berlioz in a fit of passion, or so the story goes, boarded a train to Paris with the plan to kill Camille, her lover, and himself. While on the long train ride, he calmed down and returned to his senses.

Berlioz, quick to fall in love but hard to fall out, became obsessed with actress Harriet Smithson when he saw her portray Ophelia in Hamlet in 1827. In 1830, he completed Symphonie fantastique, which depicts his obsession. The last movement, Dreams of a Witches’ Sabbath, is about a man who has fallen asleep in an opium-induced state and has a wild dream about shades, sorcerers, and monsters gathering to attend his funeral. The death march, Dies irae, is heard in this final movement. Needless to say, not your average love song. Apparently, Harriet Smithson must have been a little unbalanced herself. After hearing the piece, she realized Berlioz’s genius and they married in 1833. The marriage was not a happy one and the couple separated in 1843. This final movement can be heard in the horror film The Shining.

 5. O Fortuna from Carmina Burana, Carl Orff, 1935-1936

We’ve all heard it before. It has been featured in countless movies and television shows to express rising suspense or an impending cataclysmic event. But what is it really about? O Fortuna was a poem written by Latin monks in the thirteenth century. It speaks of the fickleness of fortune and the cruelness of fate. The poem was set to music by German composer Carl Orff as a movement in his cantata Carmina Burana.

Jacy Burroughs is the Online Merchandiser for Sheet Music Plus. She has degrees in horn performance from the University of the Pacific Conservatory of Music and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.  She is a freelance horn player in the Bay Area.

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