10 Pieces of Classical Music Inspired By Witches and Sorceresses
Stories about witches abound in most cultures, making mischief or worse, though there are the occasional good ones to balance the scales. They can be young or old,
Here is a selection of classical music where composers have been bewitched by the subject.
Hector Berlioz 1803-1869
1 Berlioz Symphony Fantastique
This amazing symphony written only three years after Beethoven's death is a brilliant showpiece for an orchestra bursting at the seams. It was unlike any of its symphonic predecessors and charts the journey of a would-be lover, who is identified by his own unique tune, known by its French term, the idée fixe. Diverging from the usual four movements, Symphonie Fantastique has five, and it is the last where the young man envisages himself at his own funeral where the woman he loves and witches come together to mock.
Mysterious and a little bit creepy, the cellos roll upwards followed by a supressed giggle. A witch has arrived who simply cannot keep her excitement under wraps, for she is meeting up with her fellow meddlers in the occult for a knees up of hellish proportions.
The clarinet's jerky witches' jig swaggers with cheeky insolence and reedy glee, a ballet for a coven, crafted out of the idée fixe. The fearsome Dies Irae, mostly associated with death, weighs in lauding it over the funerary party and the symphony thunders to a conclusion, the vision of death hard on its heels.
Modest Mussorgsky 1839-1881
2 Mussorgsky Night on a Bald Mountain
Witches dance around a cauldron of pulsing swirls from the strings and woodwind, trumpet cackles and threatening trombones before their commander-in-chief arrives to preside over the Black Sabbath Mass on a bald mountain. The witches have grabbed us against our will, frantically pulling and pushing us from one group to another, Mussorgsky's magic wand as musical illustrator conjures up all manner of evil intentions.
Only as the dawn light filters onto the exhausted scene and breaks the spell does the oppression lift, transforming into angelic beauty. Peace returns in a radiant sigh of relief.
The concept of the witch harks back at least to biblical times. King Saul is written about consulting the Witch of Endor who summons the prophet, Saul in the First Book of Samuel.
Charles Gounod 1818-1893
3 Gounod Faust
Faust, having sealed his pact with Satan's agent, Mephistopheles and sold his soul in exchange for youth and excess, have arrived for Walpurgis Night, the eve of May 1st. According to northern folklore, witches gather to on the Brocken, the highest point of the Harz mountains in Germany, to perform the Witches Sabbath.
In the company of witches, Mephistopheles tempts Faust with beautiful women to cavort with the whole night long. The ballet music to accompany the scene is normally cut out, but still often performed as a stand alone piece in the ballet repertoire.
To be fair we only have an impression of the presumed debauched revelry in the final section. Perhaps Gounod was protecting our supposed fragile sensibilities within the gentle waltzes that he was so adept at writing. But Faust surely had more in mind than just dancing the night away.
The fifteenth century book Malleus Maleficarum, or the Witches' Hammer was a guide to exposing witches, written by persecuting German cleric, Heinrich Kramer. It's believed another individual, Jacob Sprenger, may also have contributed to its authorship. It set out to provide ways of identifying witches through physical imperfections and lifestyle.1
Antonin Dvorak 1841-1904
4 Dvorak The Noon Witch
The bright optimistic opening of Dvorak's tone poem is overshadowed by the interjection of a solo oboe, cutting through the happy pastoral atmosphere. Many parents have threatened a child that if they don't behave, a bogey man - or in this case the Noon Witch - will come and whisk them away. With the oboe representing the naughty child and the subsequent admonishment from his mother we are treated to normal everyday family life.
But in comes the Noon Witch herself, a menacing presence low in the bass clarinet. Her figure emerges out of the shadows becoming larger and more terrifying. Whether the imagined chase of the Noon Witch is real or not, the mother, in her desperation to save her child from her clutches thinks she is protecting him by holding him close but has unwittingly smothered him. We will never know if the she caused the death or the mother's protective instincts went too far.
Dvorak, who set his native folklore to vivid orchestral scores taps into every parents' fears and guilt when tragedy knocks on the door.
Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky 1840-1893
5 Tchaikovsky Children's Album The Witch/Baba Yaga
Tchaikovsky's witch, the Baba Yaga of Russian and Slavic folklore, is whizzing round looking for victims, scrunched up in her pestle, not caring who she upsets as she careers by. Baba Yaga has a softer side, too, for she has been known to reward those who are generous of nature.2
Most of the chords in this short piece are dissonances so the music remains in an unresolved state and accented, as if lashing out at anyone who obstructs her way, and then, as quickly as the witch arrived, she's gone, her apparition a bewildered memory.
Click here to read about Mussorgsky's petrifying Baba Yaga from Pictures at an Exhibition.
Engelbert Humperdinck 1854-1921
6 Humperdinck Hansel and Gretel
The story centres around two hungry children who are sent into the forest to look for food by their mother. They stumble across a witch who has turned children into gingerbread and built a cottage out of sweetmeats to lure youngsters.
Hansel and Gretel manage to outwit the witch who wants to bake them in her oven, Gretel pretends she cannot understand how to check if the latest batch of gingerbread is done and as the witch shows her, the two children push her in.
In the scene where the witch introduces herself to the children as Rosina Leckermaul (translated as Rosina Tastymuzzle or the Nibblewitch), Humperdinck has her cackling and disingenuously alluring, using a folk-like song to embellish the traditional German tale and parodies the usual arias from a major character.
Giuseppe Verdi 1813-1901
7 Verdi Macbeth
On a heath witches have come together, discussing various misdemeanors they have been involved in. Verdi's edgy nervous scene-setting foreshadows the fatalistic action to come, as the witches predict taht Macbeth is to become king of Scotland.
The overture, too is portentous, clouded with danger in the form of unresolved dissonant chords. The audience is in for a bloodthirsty evening at the opera; the witches' prophesy leads Macbeth to kill or have killed any rivals as he is consumed by ambition which will ultimately lead to his death.
Although it's widely believed witches were commonly burned at the stake, it wasn't the usual way of execution. No-one condemned as a witch was burned in the Salem Witch Trials. It's likely this misconception arose as the bodies of executed 'witches' were burned after they were executed, often by hanging.3
Henry Purcell 1659-1695
8 Purcell Dido and Aeneas
Dido, queen of Carthage and Aeneas, and a Trojan prince marry for love. That love is to be thwarted by a sorceress who orders her second-in-command, a witch, to come between the royal couple during a picnic by conjuring up a thunderstorm. Dido leaves to take shelter back at the palace, but Aeneas is waylaid by the sorceress's elf in the guise of Mercury and suggests he leave Dido establish a new Troy. This will break Dido's heart and she will die.
As the sorceress is plotting, the chorus of witches laugh with her, and two witches ask how they are to achieve their aim.
For a work from the late seventeenth century Purcell injects a modern flavour into the Dido and Aeneas with its realism in depicting the evil interaction between the sorceress, and the witches' chorus, sniggering with anticipated delight at engendering misery.
Edward MacDowell 1860-1908
9 Edward MacDowell Hexantanz (Witches Dance)
We can easily visualise a catch-me-if-you-can broomstick flight as the pianist ripples up and down the keyboard. Does the witch fall off and tumble down a hill and have to walk back to retrieve her broom? Perhaps she's a novice, learning her craft and hasn't quite got the hang of it yet.
Edward MacDowell's delightfully playful piano solo pokes gentle fun at the normally frightening apparition, reducing her to a bit of a laughing stock.
Arriago Boito 1842-1918
10 Boito Mephistofele Act 2 scene 2 The Witches Sabbath
Feverish in its despotic urgency, the witches and wizards of Boito's Walpurgis Night are a collective whirling dervish of Satanic intent. The jarring tritone, like a punch to the stomach stabs throughout the chorus. The church dubbed the tritone the 'devil's interval' or for its edgy sound, unpleasing to the ear.4
We hear the witches repeating the tune by the wizards and vice versa, intertwined by a common malevolent goal. Whipped up by the dangerously charismatic Mephistopheles, the witches and wizards sing a deadly manifesto, kowtowing to their self appointed leader in this excitingly unhallowed spectacle.
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© 2018 Frances Metcalfe