No Danse macabre on this list!
By James Chang, Henry Myers, and Lara Saldanha
James: The Unexpected Selections
Prokofiev: Scythian Suite: II. The Evil God and Dance of the Pagan Monsters
Evil Gods, menacing music, and grotesque squawks characterize this music, fitting for Halloween’s evil spirits.
Bartok: Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta: III. Adagio
This wasn’t meant to be scary, but it might as well have been the soundtrack for some creepy, horror movie. Turn off the lights and listen in darkness, alone. You won’t feel alone after a while.
Britten: Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings: V. Dirge
“From Brig o’ Dread when thou may’st pass,
To Purgatory fire thou com’st at last;
If ever thou gavest meat or drink,
The fire sall never make thee shrink;“
The text comes from the Lyke-Wake Dirge, which is about the soul’s journey from death to purgatory. Britten’s treatment of this text is appropriately gnarly and grotesque. The entrance of the solo horn elicits visceral reactions at the climax of the piece.
Stockhausen: Unsichtbare Chör
Listening to the first minute of this will speak for itself… or perhaps, even forebodingly laugh and chant for itself.
Henry: Psychologically Disturbed Music
Schubert: Der Doppelganger
The final song from Schubert’s posthumous Schwanengesang, “Der Doppelganger” depicts a man coming to the house of his long-lost beloved in the night, only to find another man there; who, horrifyingly, turns out to be a tormented apparition of himself. The low, passacaglia-like chords which constitute the piano accompaniment are bone-chilling—and unforgettable.
Shostakovich: Cello Concerto No. 2
Though a little subtler than the first concerto, Shostakovich’s second cello concerto is perhaps even spookier, and features an odd assortment of instruments including slapstick, wood blocks, and xylophone. I’ve always imagined that this piece depicts (at the very least) a man horrified by an increasing lack of control over the world around him, due to both external forces and the resulting fracturing of his psyche.
Brian Wilson: “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow (Fire)” from SMiLE
Following Pet Sounds, the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson sought to continue his pursuit of the avant garde in pop music with the album SMiLE; that is, until a combination of drugs, mental illness, and tension with his band members brought the album’s production to a screeching halt. The haunting mixture of fire sirens, toy whistles, bass drum, and grungy guitars in the song “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow” captures a little too well the paranoia and psychological decline that eventually shelved the greatest album that never was.
Originally an intermezzo from his opera Fremd (in English, “Other”) based on Euripides’ tragedy Medea, Hans Thomalla’s “Fluchtig” depicts the estrangement experienced by the title character following her flight from the bizarre land of Colchis to be the wife of Jason, leader of the Argonauts. Replete with foreign sounds but only scarce, momentary hints of harmony, Thomalla creates a surreal atmosphere of alienation and uncertainty.
Lara: “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” in Music
What is an Erlkönig anyway? The text by by Goethe, loosely translated as “King of the Elves” popularized a Danish or Germanic legend of an evil spirit who haunts the forests and lures children to their destruction. There’s debate as to the origin of the myth, but whatever the etymology, it remains one of the creepiest pieces of music in the Lieder repertoire.
If you’ve never seen a performance of Rusalka, do yourself a favor and take 2.5 hours out of your life to do so. It features a whole cast of fantastical creatures—mermaids, water goblins, witches, wood sprites, and ghosts, all brought to life with incredible orchestration.
H.K. Gruber: Frankenstein!!
If you’re looking for music that combines depictions of vampires, Dracula, Frankenstein, Superman, Batman, and James Bond, this is the piece for you. And as an added bonus, all the orchestral instruments are doubled by toys!
Written in 1989, Gargoyles has become one of the most popular late-20th century pieces in the piano repertoire with a Prokofiev-esque combination of the grotesque and humorous (and good old pianistic virtuosity for good measure.)