Fall is the best time of year—the leaves are changing and that familiar chill is in the air.
The days are getting shorter and the stormy nights more frequent. Not to mention the unmistakable feelings that October brings about…something magical, dark, mysterious, even creepy that you just can’t put your finger on. There’s no doubt about it—Halloween is upon us.
These autumn themes often resonated with classical composers who would draw from dark ideas, stories, poems or sonnets as inspiration for their work. These dark motifs are present throughout a lot of classic pieces, either directly through the instruments or through stories the composers are trying to tell. This makes symphonic music so great to listen to, especially during this time of year. The perfect soundtrack can set that spooky feeling off right and put you in the Halloween spirit. So the next time it gets dark and stormy, dim the lights, curl up by the window, and turn up these dark and mysterious masterpieces.
J.S. Bach – Toccata & Fugue in D Minor
This piece is most recognizable from the films The Phantom of the Opera and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but it was also featured in Disney’s Fantasia and the classic Federico Fellini film La Dolce Vita. While Bach’s Toccata and Fugue is probably one of the most popular organ pieces, it wasn’t originally written to be so dark and ominous. However, there’s no denying that there’s something completely haunting about the organ in this one. It makes sense that pop culture has long associated this classic piece with all things dark and mysterious.
Bernard Herrmann – Psycho Suite
“Thirty three percent of the effect of Psycho was due to the music,” said Alfred Hitchcock referring to Herrmann’s work. As tension builds in the introduction, the haunting lyrical section and accents on the strings makes the listener feel a little uneasy. Not to mention the screeching sounds of the violins played during the notorious shower scene. Perfectly written as the score for one of the scariest movies ever made, it automatically strikes fear into your heart.
Hector Berlioz – Symphonie Fantastique
As a programmatic piece, Symphonie Fantastique tells the story of an artist who tried to commit suicide by overdosing on opium. Instead of dying, he ends up in an hallucinatory state where he murders his lover and is subsequently executed. He watches his own beheading, which is illustrated by a dramatic impact at the end of the fourth movement, where the music depicts the decapitated head thumping down the execution steps. He then becomes a guest at his own funeral among witches, sorcerers and monsters. This piece was also featured in Kubrick’s film The Shining. Creepy.
Andre Caplet – Conte Fantastique/Masque of the Red Death
Caplet, a French composer and conductor, is probably best known for his work with friend and fellow composer Claude Debussy. Masque of the Red Death is another programmatic piece and based on the Edgar Allan Poe short story of the same name. In this story, a masked figure with blood stained clothes arrives at a masquerade ball and is immediately confronted by the party’s host, a prince. The prince drops dead and upon further inspection, the masked figure is confirmed to be the spirit of the “Red Death” plague intending to kill all the guests.
Modest Mussorgsky – Night on Bald Mountain
This was the scariest part of Disney’s Fantasia and can set any adult on edge. Inspired by a Russian legend and written in the form of a tone poem, this piece was meant to depict Satan hosting a ritualistic witches’ Sabbath. However, for most of us, this will always be linked to those horrifying flying ghosts.