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7 Scariest Classical Pieces For The Horror Genre!

Celebrate Halloween in Macabre style with these Bone-Chilling Masterpieces!

1. Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain

The image of brooding, winged ghouls wreaking havoc on a mountain village under cover of night has terrified generations of young children in Walt Disney’s Fantasia. Inspired by Russian legend, Mussorgsky’s tone poem depicts the dark ritual of a witches’ sabbath. Sadly, it was never performed in his lifetime, but the arrangement by his friend Rimsky-Korsakov has become a concert blockbuster.

On YouTube…

The version used in Fantasia was orchestrated by Leopold Stokowski and is played here by the National Youth Orchestra of Spain under José Serebrier, former Associate Conductor to Stokowski.


2. Marschner’s Der Vampyr


The vampires in tabloids and teen novels today have nothing on the 19th-century European variety. The creatures of the night enjoyed a brief vampire craze in theatre and opera of the early 1800s, well before Bram Stoker’s Dracula emerged on the scene. Heinrich August Marschner’s grand opera Der Vampyr (1828) is based on a fragment of a novel by Byron, which was completed by the poet’s doctor.

Lord Ruthven Earl of Marsden, a newly created vampire, has asked the Vampire Master for another year on earth before being dragged into hell for eternity. This he is granted, provided he can sacrifice three young ladies by the following midnight. Marschner’s sinister chromatic writing and chorus of witches and hobgoblins is enough to put Twilight to shame.

On YouTube…

Overture to the 1828 opera “Der Vampyr” (The Vampire) by German composer Heinrich August Marschner (1795-1861), an pivotal figure in German Romantic opera. The opera is based on John Polidori’s short story “The Vampyre.”


3. Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre

Saint-Saëns’s creepy 1874 tone poem is a Halloween classic, depicting the revelry of the Grim Reaper at midnight every year at this time. With his cursed fiddle, Death summons the dead from their graves to kick up their heals until dawn. In this vintage Disney animation, listen out for the xylophone sound of rattling bones.

On YouTube…

“Silly Symphony Skeleton Dance” – Danse Macabre


4. Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho Suite


Even without Hitchcock’s horrific shower scene burned on our retinas, Bernard Herrmann’s massed string dissonances in his score for the 1960 film Psycho instantly create an atmosphere of fear and disturbance.

On YouTube…

Music from the movie Psycho (1960) by Bernard Hermann


5. Berlioz’s Dreams of a Witches’ Sabbath from Symphonie Fantastique


In the final movement of Symphonie fantastique (1830), described by Berlioz as a “diabolical orgy”, a lovelorn artist who has attempted suicide by opium poisoning (but not with a lethal dose as intended) has a tripped-out vision of witches, sorcerers and monsters assembled at his funeral.

On YouTube…

A interesting short animated film illustrating the fascinating music of Hector Berlioz.

The fifth movement: Songe d’une nuit de sabbat (Dream of a witches’ Sabbath); The idée fixe has now become a “vulgar dance tune”, it is played on the E-flat clarinet. There are lots of effects, including ghostly col legno playing in the strings, the bubbling of the witches’ cauldron played by the wind instruments. As the dance reaches a climax we hear the Dies Irae (Day of Judgement) melody together with the Ronde du Sabbat (Sabbath Round) which is a wild fugue.
The Symphonie Fantastique is a symphony written by the French composer Hector Berlioz. It is one of the most famous Romantic works for orchestra. The official title of the piece is Episode de la Vie d’un Artiste (An Episode in the Life of the Artist) , but it is always called by its subtitle Symphonie Fantastique which means Fantasy Symphony. The “Fantasy” refers to the story that is described by the music. (Fantasy Symphony is a better translation than Fantastic Symphony because fantastique is not like the modern meaning of the English word fantastic).

The symphony lasts about 45 minutes and is divided into 5 movements. Berlioz himself wrote down the story that the music describes, just as Beethoven had done with his Sixth Symphony. Berlioz’s work is about a young artist. In the music the young artist is represented by a tune.

This tune is often heard during the symphony. That is why it is called an “idée fixe”, which means a “fixed idea”, i.e. an idea that keeps coming again and again. An idée fixe is what Wagner would have called a leitmotif (a tune which is always used to describe a particular person or thing in a piece of music). The first performance took place at the Paris Conservatoire in December 1830. Berlioz made several changes to the music between 1831 and 1845.


6. Bartòk’s Adagio from Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta


Bartòk’s haunting, strangely delicate “night music” in the third movement of this 20th-century masterpiece is so atmospheric and suspenseful that Stanley Kubrick used it in the soundtrack to his horror film The Shining. Listen out for the unusual timpani glissandi effect (the low, other-worldly sliding bass) that underscores the unsettling mood.

On YouTube…

(Video) Music for Strings, Percussion & Celesta, Sz. 106, BB 114 (1936)

I. Andante tranquillo
II. Allegro
III. Adagio
IV. Allegro molto

Chicago Symphony Orchestra
James Levine

Bartók wrote some of his finest music for the Swiss conductor Paul Sacher, in whom he found a particularly sympathetic champion. Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, written for Sacher in 1936, explores with great refinement and mastery the musical concepts that Bartók had been developing since the mid-’20s. In the Piano Concerto No. 1, Bartók explored the percussive elements of the piano, coupling it effectively with percussion only in the introduction to the concerto’s slow movement. In Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, Bartók ingeniously sets the piano with the percussion instruments, where its melodic and harmonic material functions in support of the two string choirs.

Since the early ’30s, Bartók had also incorporated elements of Baroque music into his compositions, inspired partly by his exploration of pre-Classical keyboard composers such as Scarlatti, Rameau and Couperin. In reflection of this, Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta evokes the Baroque concerto grosso, with its two antiphonal string orchestras separated by a battery of tuned and untuned percussion instruments. The work’s prosaic title was actually just a working title which was subsequently allowed to stand.

The opening movement, Andante tranquillo, is a slow fugue on a chromatic melody that springs from a five-note cell, each subsequent phrase growing in length and elaborating on its predecessor. At this point, the two string orchestras play together. As the string voices accumulate, the fugue’s texture increases in complexity and the chromatic implications of the theme are brought to a rigorously dissonant fulfillment. The fugue climaxes at its apogee with an ominous rumble from the timpani and a loud stroke on the tam-tam. As the fugue folds in upon itself the celesta makes its first entrance with an arpeggiated chord, mysterious and remote. The work subsequently grows from the motivic material explored in this first movement.

Bartók deploys antiphonal string choirs for the second movement, a fast, fugitive piece in which the two orchestras chase each other through a breathtaking series of elaborations on the main theme. In the percussion section, piano, xylophone, and harp take the lead while two side drums (with and without snares) provide emphatic punctuation.

The third movement is one of Bartók’s most accomplished “night music” pieces, with cricket-like notes from the xylophone, eerie timpani glissandi, fragmentary murmurs, and frightened exclamations from the strings, along with the always-mysterious notes of the celesta floating clear and sphinx-like over the nocturnal weft. The finale, a dance of energy and abandon, restores the antiphonal deployment of the strings and juxtaposes the diatonic aspects of the work’s main theme with its chromatic elements.

There are also some striking touches like the furious, strummed four-note chords in the violins, violas and cellos that opens the movement, a theme midway through that is based on a repeated note first hammered out on piano and xylophone, and then a grand peroration of the initial fugue theme, now with its intervals doubled and richly harmonized. In the quick coda there is a brief, suspended moment (“a tempo allargando”) before the work tumbles to a conclusion in unabashed A major.


7. Liszt’s Totentanz


Franz Liszt loved to flirt with death. The great Romantic was obsessed with all things macabre and diabolical, themes he explored in works including La lugubre gondola, Funérailles, Pensées des morts and the Mephisto Waltz). Totentanz (Dance of the Dead) is one of his most thrilling and schockingly modern compositions, from the strident, menacing opening to the truly diabolical virtuosity demanded of the solo pianist.

On YouTube…

F.LISZT : Totentanz For Piano & Orchestra- K.ZIMERMAN-S.OZAWA 1987
Photos : phenomena of nature

Composer Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886)
Conductor Seiji Ozawa
Performer Krystian Zimerman (Piano)
Genre Dance / Romantic Period / Variations
Date Written 1847-1862
Period Romantic
Venue Symphony Hall, Boston, MA
Recording Date 04/1987

Totentanz. Paraphrase on “Dies irae.” (English: Dance of the Dead), S.126, is the name of a symphonic piece for solo piano and orchestra by Franz Liszt, which is notable for being based on the Gregorian plainchant melody Dies Irae as well as for daring stylistic innovations. The piece was originally planned in 1838 and completed in 1849; it was then revised twice however, in 1853 and 1859.
Some of the titles of Liszt’s pieces, such as Totentanz, Funérailles, La lugubre gondola, Pensée des morts, etc., show the composer’s fascination with death. In the young Liszt we can already observe manifestations of his obsession with death, with religion, and with heaven and hell. According to Alan Walker, Liszt frequented Parisian “hospitals, gambling casinos and asylums” in the early 1830s, and he even went down into prison dungeons in order to see those condemned to die.

Sources of Inspiration

In the Romantic age, due to a fascination with everything Medieval, the aspect of fantastic or grotesquely macabre irony often replaced the original moral intent. A musical example of such irony can be found in the last movement of the Symphonie fantastique by Hector Berlioz which quotes the medieval (Gregorian) Dies Irae (Day of Judgment) melody in a shockingly modernistic manner. In 1830 Liszt attended the first performance of Berlioz’s Fantastic Symphony and was struck by the powerful originality of this work. Liszt’s Totentanz (Dance of Death), a set of variations for piano and orchestra, is also paraphrasing the Dies Irae plainsong.
The Triumph of Death, c. 1355

Another source of inspiration for the young Liszt was the famous fresco “Triumph of Death” by Francesco Traini (at Liszt’s time attributed to Andrea Orcagna and today also to Buonamico Buffalmacco) in the Campo Santo, Pisa. Liszt had eloped to Italy with his mistress, the Countess d’Agoult, and in 1838 he visited Pisa. Only ten years later, Liszt’s first sketches materialized into a complete version of his Totentanz. Revisions followed in 1853 and 1859, and its final form was first performed at The Hague on 15 April 1865 by Liszt’s student Hans von Bülow, to whom the work is dedicated.

Stylistic Innovations

Since it is based on Gregorian material, Liszt’s Totentanz contains Medieval sounding passages with canonic counterpoint, but by far the most innovative aspect of the scoring is the shockingly modernistic, even percussive, nature of the piano part. The opening comes surprisingly close to the introduction in Bartók’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, a work composed almost a hundred years later. This may be no coincidence since Bartók frequently performed Liszt’s Totentanz. Other modernistic features are the toccata like sections where the pianist’s repeated notes bleat with diabolic intensity and special sound effects in the orchestra—for example, the col legno in the strings sound like shuddering or clanking bones. Richard Pohl (an early biographer) notes, “Every variation discloses some new character—the earnest man, the flighty youth, the scornful doubter, the prayerful monk, the daring soldier, the tender maiden, the playful child.”

And to think it couldnt get any creepier than the above…keep a lookout for the second part of creepy horrific classical pieces just perfect for Halloween!



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