Imagine a bygone era when an existence without religion and superstition would be unthinkable, in which the souls of the departed were believed to exist among the living as a matter of course. In our lives today, surrounded by technology and cosseted by commerce, such powerfully held beliefs exist only in barely acknowledged vestiges of behaviour. Once a year, however, on the last day of October, we allow ourselves to be reminded of the power of the supernatural—yes, it’s Halloween again!
Witches in mythology were sorceresses and enchantresses rather than the cone-hatted broom pilots we think of today. The plot of Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas (8.553108) turns around the scheming Sorceress and her trouble-making associates, who break up the love affair between the title characters by provoking Aeneas’s departure. You can hear the wicked plot being hatched in Ruin’d ere the set of sun.
There are plenty of nightmarish tales in classical music, and it’s remarkable how much influence the writings of Goethe had in this regard. One of Schubert’s best known songs is a setting of Goethe’s ghostly ballad Erlkönig (Elfin King) (8.550476). The music reflects the terror of a horseback chase, the fears of a haunted child and the seductive power of the ghostly Erlkönig, with the boy’s sudden death providing a deeply tragic ending.
Audiences of the past have often found something devilish in the superhuman technical skills of virtuoso musicians. One such figure was certainly Franz Liszt. Women swooned over his brilliant pianism, creating a hype known as ‘Lisztomania’. The dance of his second Mephisto Waltz (8.557814) starts with notes that suggest the diabolus in musica, the devil in music, the interval of a tritone that was banned by the Roman Catholic Church in the Middle Ages.
Liszt’s darkly dramatic and grimly minor-key Totentanz (Dance of Death) is based on the Dies irae (day of death) plainsong melody found in the traditional Requiem Mass or Mass for the Dead, and has been used as a shorthand for the subject by numerous composers. It can be clearly heard in the frenzied, devilish outbursts at the opening of the piece (8.570517).
Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition (8.550051) also contains some horrors. The Catacombs depicts stacked skulls that begin to glow, lit from within, as the music sets out to suggest an eerie scene conducted in the language of the dead. The macabre element continues later on with a hut on fowl’s legs, the hut of the Russian witch Baba Yaga, who crunches the bones of her victims and flies through the night on a pestle. Here she is. Hold onto your pointy hats!
Saint-Saëns’s highly popular Danse macabre (8.573331) begins with the clock striking midnight. Death plays that dissonant diabolus in musica on his violin, and then skeletons clatter and dance to a languorous waltz. Originally for orchestra, it has been arranged and transcribed innumerable times, but here it’s given the atmosphere of the Phantom of the Opera played in a virtuoso arrangement for organ. Here’s the macabre climax, just before dawn breaks with the crow of the cock.
The innocent sounding opening to Dvořák’s symphonic poem The Noon Witch (8.550598) lures us into another truly horrific narrative. A mother scolds her child and threatens him with the Noon Witch, who is active between eleven o’clock and midday. Before long the witch—small, brown, wild in look and with a sheet drawn over her head—indeed appears and demands the child. A struggle ensues, the mother screams and collapses, the noontide bell is heard, and the father of the family opens the door of his house to find his child dead. Here’s a slice of Dvořák’s atmospheric scene-setting.
There are many other well-known pieces in the repertoire with a supernatural element to them, Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique (8.572886), Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (8.573296) and Britten’s opera The Turn of the Screw (8.660109-10) among then. But we’ll round off today with a mention of some lesser-known spooky sounds that show how the devil and his associates occasionally had a softer side to them.
From his four Symphonic Sketches, the American composer George Whitefield Chadwick’s Hobgoblin (8.559213) dating from 1904 is a colourful and rhythmically energetic Halloween piece, more impish than insidious, but a jolly good romp nonetheless. Chadwick’s biographer Victor Yellin thought the piece sounded like an “English Puck domesticated to Massachusetts in October”, which seems just about right.
Edward MacDowell’s Witches’ Dance (8.559049) became one of his most popular works, to the extent that MacDowell became embarrassed by what he saw as the piece’s flashiness and shallow outlook, although he was still playing it himself in 1891! Here’s the closing passage.
Contemporary composers continue to explore spooky themes, and one such is Jonathan Leshnoff, whose Cosmic Variations on a Haunted Theme (8.559721) is as spectral as the title suggests. Better keep the light on for this scene-setting opening section.