Thursday, October 15, 2009

Classical Frights!

Halloween is almost here and it is my favorite time of the year. Although I enjoyed the candy as a child, my favorite part of the holiday was (and still is!) the dressing up and spookiness of it all. To celebrate, here are some classical music selections to embrace ghosts, goblins, and All Hallows' Eve:

This tone poem, Danse Macabre by Camille Saint-Saëns, depicts Death himself waking the dead at the stroke of midnight on Halloween. Death plays his fiddle providing music for the dead as they rise from their graves to dance while their bones rattle and crack. They dance all night and when dawn approaches they must go back in their graves and wait until next Halloween to dance once more.

In the 4th movement of Hector Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, the protagonist take a heavy dose of opium and envisions he killed his beloved and is executed for his crime. Thinking he is now dead, the 5th movement of the piece is the protagonist's vision of his doomed afterlife, and is titled "Dreams of a Witch's Sabbath." Those wondering what an opium induced vision of hell would sound like need to look no further.

Der Erlkönig is a poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe about a sick child being chased by a mythical figure as his father drives their horse carriage quickly. Franz Schubert's Lied (song) based on the poem features a piano and a singer who sings what the three characters say and the narration.

Night on Bald Mountain by Modest Mussorgsky is about a witches' sabbath like in Symphonie Fantastique and also features unearthly beings having freedom for one night only like in Danse Macabre. The animation made for Fantasia visually enhances the fear Mussorgsky created musically.

Although Toccata and Fugue in d minor by Johann Sebastian Bach has no story, I associate it as a spooky and appropriate for Halloween piece. This is probably a result of the dissonance used in the piece as well as it being used to represent fear in pop culture.

György Ligeti's piano etude, L'escalier du diable (Devil's Staircase), uses Shepard's scale and incredibly loud dynamics to represent a staircase in hell that is impossible to escape. No matter how far you climb it, you can never escape hell. Those who have played Mario 64 will notice that the music for the "eternal staircase" in the game uses the same technique and was probably inspired by this piece.

I saw Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas in theaters when I was 8 years old and it made me love Halloween even more. Long before I began listening to classical music and knew any of these other pieces, the music from this film made an impact on my taste in music. Is it okay to label this song as classical music? Der Erlkönig is a song and is considered classical. The composer of This is Halloween is Danny Elfman who started as lead singer/songwriter for the band "Oingo Boingo" but became a film scorer for several films which requires a "classical" approach. So in response to my question; does it matter?

I hope these "Classical Frights" help put you in the Halloween spirit and that you have a fun and spooky time on October 31st.

1 comment:

  1. Thank for the Ligeti Dave!
    That piece is by far the most intense thing on here. Other readers should check out Le Grande Macabre, Ligeti's opera and his orchestral pieces like Lantano and Atmospheres, and a host other Eastern European darkness by Penderecki, Lutoslawski, and Schnittke.
    Additionally, I'd suggest checking out Musica Ricercata by Ligeti which was still very much under the influence of Bartok but sought new ways.