We’re smack-dab in the middle of October, which can mean many different things for a lot of us. For some it might mean everything pumpkin spice-flavored, while for others it may signal the return of hayrides and frolicking in the leaves (do people actually do that?). I’m sure to most of us, however, that this magical time of year signifies one thing and one thing only: spooky season. It’s that magical time of year guys. It’s beginning to look a lot like Halloween. To properly ring in the festivities I’ve taken it upon myself to curate a top 5 of classical music pieces for your All Hallows’ Eve listening pleasure. What could possibly sound more terrifying than a gigantic pipe organ playing a piece written 300 years ago? Let’s get into it.
5. Starting off our list is Modest Mussorgsky’s orchestral piece Night on Bald Mountain. It initially drew inspiration from a midsummer Slavic holiday involving fire and water, as well as the gathering of witches and spirits. This occasion later came to be known as St. John’s Eve. It was never played performed while Mussorgsky was alive, but after his 1881 death his friend Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov took up the piece and revised several aspects including its demonic ending, wherein screeching dissonance was replaced with church bells to disperse the gathered spirits. Night on Bald Mountain is likely most known for its arranged version by Leopold Stokowski in Disney’s Fantasia (1940).
4. Taking fourth on this Top 5 is the Commendatore scene from Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni. Widely regarded as one of the best operas of all time, Don Giovanni tells of the young, arrogant, and abusive titular character who faces no consequences until his ghastly end. His demise comes at the hands of a statue of the commendatore (Italian military commander) whom Don Giovanni had previously murdered in cold blood in a duel. The statue comes to Don Giovanni’s house and provides him one last chance to repent for his crimes. After turning down this generous offer, our main character gets dragged screaming to Hell by shadow demons.
3. Halfway through! Number 3 is In the Hall of the Mountain King from Edvard Grieg’s incidental music to accompany Henrik Ibsen’s play Peer Gynt. The story of Peer revolves around a young, arrogant youth (sense a theme yet?) who leaves home to seek his fortune, yet has one disastrous adventure after another. In this particular scene, Peer finds himself before the king of the trolls being offered the king’s daughter’s hand in marriage. Peer refuses and is then chased out of the mountain by the trolls, barely making it out alive. Grieg originally composed this piece for orchestra, but then adapted it, as well as the rest of his Peer Gynt suite, as a four-hand piano duet.
2. Second place on our Top 5 goes to Danse Macabre, Camille Saint-Saëns’ tone poem written between 1872-1875. This piece is based on the French legend that Death appears on every Halloween night, playing the fiddle for skeletons’ revelry. The xylophone plays a prominent role in this piece due to its likeness to bones. At its climax, the eerie swells of the spirits’ dance sound almost joyous, desperate to enjoy their annual celebration. At the piece’s ending the calling of the cock signals dawn’s return, thus bringing an end to the skeletons’ party.
1. Taking home number 1 on the Top 5 Classical Music Halloween pieces is….The D minor Toccata and Fugue by J.S. Bach! You’ve all probably heard this piece already in some kind of creepy context, with its beginning featuring the iconic thrilling single-voice flourish. Soon after this, its descent into the lower registers of the organ creates a feeling of unease and suspense right from the get-go. In the days of silent film, horror movies were accompanied by solo organ. This piece in particular was used in 1931’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and 1934’s The Black Cat. When it comes to Halloween, spookiness, or just being plain scary, this piece is king. Get blue lobstered.