Spooky Classical Music for Halloween
Give Us Spooky Music!
Johann Sebastian Bach's Toccata and Fugue in d minor is a great piece of music, and it deserves to be heard. It's become associated with Halloween as the ultimate example of spooky music mostly because it was used in all those old movies that featured mad organists playing their subterranean instruments beneath old opera buildings in the middle of the night.
Great as Bach's music is, there's plenty of other music that deserves to be more widely heard and is plenty spooky enough to be played on Halloween. At our house we think the following pieces are all spooky enough to become associated with Halloween and add a bit of musical variety to a unique holiday.
Spooky Organ Music
Certainly, not everything written for organ says "spooky", but nothing really says "spooky" better than organ music! Here is our short list of the absolute spookiest.
- Jehan Alain: Litanies
"Litanies" is a classic of the twentieth-century organ literature, the best and most popular piece among the rather small output of French composer Alain. It's a short, single-movement work, too short for most listeners, and it's everything that spooky organ music should be. (Hear it below.)
- Johann Sebastian Bach: Toccata & Fugue in d minor, "The Dorian", BWV 538
This is the other toccata and fugue in d minor; it's the bigger one, also known as "The Dorian" because of its modal notation. It's maybe more restrained than the more famous one, but it's still impressive, and still in d minor, a very suitable key for Halloween. (Sample it below.)
- Johann Sebastian Bach: Fantasy and Fugue in g minor, BWV 542
For some reason, this makes us think of phantom-of-the-opera kinds of things, so it made the list. It's Bach at his showy, spectacular best.
- LÃ©on BoÃ«llmann: Toccata (Movt IV) from Suite Gothique
A French composer and organist from the end of the nineteenth century, BoÃ«llmann may be best known for this toccata, which carries on the tradition of the french organ toccata quite nicely while still managing to be menacing and subterranean. (Hear it below.)
- William Bolcom: Black Host, for organ, percussion, and tape
Contemporary American composer Bolcom wrote Black Host in 1967, back when contemporary music was -- for better or worse (mostly worse) -- much more experimental. It is most definitely not one of his major works, but turn up the volume and it makes great Halloween music!
- GyÃ¶rgy Ligeti: Volumina
Twentieth-century Hungarian composer Ligeti gained some prominence through the use of several of his pieces by Stanley Kubrick in his movie "2001: A Space Odyssey". Remember that really spooky choral music you heard when people looked at the giant black monolith and something bad was about to happen? That was Ligeti. His "Volumina" provides much the same effect, but with a large organ instead of a choir, and a whole bunch of notes played at the same time.
- Franz Liszt: Fantasy and Fugue on "BACH"
The "BACH", in this case, means four pitch names: B-flat, A, C, and B-natural; Lizst uses those notes as the theme of the fantasy and as the subject for the fugue. It's loud, it's bombastic, it's spooky -- it's Liszt!
- Olivier Messiaen: "Dieu Parmi Nous", from La NativitÃ© du Seigneur (Movt IV)
Messiaen, who died in 1992, was a French organist and composer. As a composer he developed his own musical language, filled with bird songs and theological mysticism. As a result, he's high on the spooky scale. This piece is one of his loud and spooky ones. (Hear it below.)
Spooky Piano & Harpsichord Music
Pianos and harpsichords may not be as closely associated with spookiness as organs, but they nevertheless have some spookiness of their own to offer.
- Johann Sebastian Bach: Fantasy in c minor, BWV 906
Sometimes I think of this fantasy as Bach on drugs -- it's filled with the most startling and weird chromatic passages of any of his music and, provided it's played at a brisk tempo, it can be plenty terrifying.
- BÃ©la BartÃ³k: Allegro Barbaro
BartÃ³k, a Hungarian composer writing in the first half of the twentieth century, had a unique musical style that could be brutally rhythmic and eccentric, both of which are on display in this solo piano work. (Hear it below.)
- Claude Debussy: La Cathedrale engloutie ("The Engulfed Cathedral")
There is a legend about a city called Ys, built below sea level but protected by a dike. Through machinations and betrayals, Satan managed to obtain the keys to the gate in the dike and opened it, flooding the city. For what reason is not clear, but (so the story goes) there are times when the bell of the cathedral can be heard ringing to warn of the impending storm. Debussy's evocative prelude paints the mental picture so clearly that it makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. This piece is not scary spooky, but it's definitely mysterious spooky. (Hear it below.)
- Franz Liszt: Mephisto Waltz
This is one of our few spooky pieces that was meant to depict something scary or evil to begin with, the piece meant to portray another legend in which Mephistopheles plays his violin at a village pub, beguiling the villagers. Spooky is as devilish does. (Hear it below.)
- Modeste Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition, "Baba Yaga"
In Russian folklore Baba Yaga is an old hag who flies through the air, creates mischief, and lives in an old hut on "chicken legs", and this is the image alluded to in the ninth movement of Mussorgsky"s famous Pictures at an Exhibition. The whole work is best known these days in Ravel's justly noted orchestration, but it began life as a work for solo piano, and the solo version of this movement has a peculiarly brutal spookiness. (Hear it below.)
- Antonio Soler: Sonata in d minor, no. 117
Soler was a Hieronomite monk and Spanish composer of the mid eighteenth century. As a student of Scarlatti, he carried on with writing hundreds of excellent keyboard sonatas in what I think is a more eccentric and interesting style than his teacher. This particular sonata, with its fierce dissonances (for the time) is pretty hair-raising, provided that it is played at a suitably demonic tempo. (Look for the performance by Bob van Asperen.)
Spooky Chamber Music
Composers for the keyboard had no monopoly when it came to creating music with spooky qualities. (All of these have samples below.)
- BÃ©la BartÃ³k: String Quartet #4
Everything I said about BartÃ³k above is true in this piece, which he wrote in 1927. On first hearing it can seem a jumble of severe dissonance -- almost noise -- but repeated listening will reveal much depth and remarkable musical expression. Fortunately, it stays just as spooky with each listening.
- ZoltÃ¡n KodÃ¡ly: Sonata for solo cello, op. 8
This remarkable piece was written in 1915, and displays an exceptional amount of virtuosity and musical invention. At times one wonders how one cello can produce so many notes. It's intense music, and I've known some people to react strongly and viscerally.
- Olivier Messiaen: Quatuor pour la fin du Temps ("Quartet for the End of Time")
Messiaen wrote this unique piece during the second world war when he was a prisoner of war, explaining the unusual scoring for piano, violin, cello, and clarinet.The music is Messiaen at his mystical and spooky best.
- Steve Reich: "Nibelung Zeppelin", Scene two of 'Hindenburg', Act 1 of the video opera 'Three Tales'
Steve Reich is noted for the way he builds rich textures with intricate, overlapping rhythms. In this piece, composed in 2002, he uses a variety of percussion, a string quartet, and a piano in ways that create a very spooky setting, which is only enhanced by the odd video of Beryl Korot. The rhythmic figure in the opening evokes the sounds of the Nibelungs working on their anvils in Wagner's Das Rheingold, which may be the source of the movement's name. Watch and listen at the composer's website. (Thanks for the tip, Richard B.)
- Dmitri Shostakovich: String Quartet #8 in c minor
This amazing work was written in only three days in 1960. Shostakovish dedicated it to "the victims of fascism and war" -- which may have meant himself. It's vigorous, brutal, introspective, and very scary at times.
- Giuseppe Tartini: Violin Sonata in g minor, "The Devil's Trill"
This would be a standard issue baroque violin sonata except for the exceptional double-trill figures in the final movement, which can be truly scary when they're played with verve. The story goes that the music came to Tartini in a dream in which the Devil himself played this music.
Spooky Orchestral Music
When full-out spookiness is called for, call for an entire orchestra!
- BÃ©la BartÃ³k: Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celeste
Sometimes BartÃ³k is fierce and brutal, at other times he is more mysterious and evocative. This piece, written in 1936, is maybe his best evocative and mysterious piece, and his has some exquisitely beautiful and unusual sounds. This is the spookiness that comes out of the mists rising over deadly silent swamps. (Hear it below.)
- Hector Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique, movements IV ("March to the Gallows") and V ("Dream of a Witch's Sabbath")
Berlioz wrote this exceedingly romantic symphony in 1830, all about an "artist" in the depths of despair over an unrequited love, who drugs himself with opium and imagines all sorts of things. Two of the imaginings are his own death ("March to the Gallows") and a harrowing orgy with witches following his execution ("Dream of a Witch's Sabbath). Pretty spooky stuff!
- Benjamin Britten: Four Sea Interludes from "Peter Grimes"
Britten's opera "Peter Grimes" is filled with alienation, suspicion, and hatred, and the musical landscape tends towards the cold, barren, and wind-swept. These four orchestral pieces were extracted from the opera, in which they are the principle thematic materials. Titled "Dawn", "Sunday Morning", "Moonlight", and "Storm", they are each, in a different way, evocative, moving--and spooky! (Hear them below.)
- Charles Ives: The Unanswered Question
Ives is America's great, native composer, although not everyone knows who he is. He wrote this piece in 1908, but it wasn't premiered until 1946. It's a strange piece, for pensive string orchestra, quarreling woodwind quartet, and questioning trumpet. It's odd, ambiguous, provocative, and spooky. (Hear it below.)
- Franz Liszt: Totentanz ("Dance of Death"), paraphrase on "Dies Irae" for piano and orchestra
Here's Liszt returning to his mephistophelean fantasies, but this time in grand style with piano and orchestra. The "Dies Irae" is an old Gregorian chant that composers turn to whenever they want a spooky theme, and here it is in spades. (Sample it below.)
- GyÃ¶rgy Ligeti: AtmosphÃ¨res
When I talked above about Ligeti, I mentioned that some of his music was used by Kubrik in "2001: A Space Odyssey". This piece, which Ligeti wrote in 1961, is the purely orchestral work that was used in the soundtrack for the "across the infinite" segment. It's worth hearing spookily on its own, without the distraction of the color and light show in the movie.
- Gustav Mahler: Scherzo, Schattenhaft (Movement III) from Symphony No. 7
Mahler wrote at the turn of the twentieth century; his seventh symphony premiered in 1909. The entire symphony is crazy: by turns dour and boisterous, evocative and spooky. Particularly spooky is the third movement, a scherzo labeled by Mahler to be played schattenhaft, or "shadowy". This music is graveyard ghostly, corner-of-your eye what-was-that kind of spooky, with a muted waltz theme that reviewers insist on calling a Danse Macabre. Play it with the two surrounding movements, both labeled "Night Music", and it's a formula for some shivers up your spine.
- Krzysztof Penderecki: Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima
In his early days, Penderecki was severely avant garde, and this piece, dating from 1960 is one of his most severe, but also one of his most effective. It is for 52 string instruments, and uses an array of unusual techniques and "sound masses" to create a musical landscape that is like no other. Perhaps beyond spooky, it verges on the terrifying. Most definitely, it is not easy listening but it's worth hearing. (Sample it below.)
- Francis Poulenc: Concerto for Organ, Strings and Timpani in g minor
This is another work from the early twentieth century, and one is led to believe from the opening volleys by the organ that Poulenc must have seen an early "Phantom of the Opera", since the whole work seems to fit so well into that spooky mold.
- Sergei Prokofiev: "The Battle on the Ice" (Movt. 8), from Alexander Nevsky
In 1938 Sergei Eisenstein made the noted film "Alexander Nevsky"; Sergei Prokofiev wrote the film score. Later he rearranged the score into a cantata for soloist, chorus, and orchestra. The entire cantata is great music, but it is the segment called "The Battle on the Ice" that is the spooky entry: the music always chills me with the sound of cold winds and ice cracking from the intense cold. Brrrr. (Hear it below.)
- Ralph Vaughan Williams: Symphony #7, Symphonia Antarctica
This work derives from another film score, the one that Vaughan Williams wrote for the 1948 film "Scott of the Antarctic". In addition to the chilling sounds of the orchestra, Vaughan Williams calls on an organ, a choir of women and a solo soprano (who never sing words, just oohs and aahs), and a wind machine. The effect is amazingly chilling and spooky.
- Giuseppe Verdi: "Dies Irae", from Requiem
We encountered the musical 'Dies Irae" above as a Gregorian chant theme; here it is the words that are used as the most dramatic sequence in the requiem. When it comes to the dramatic, you might think that Verdi, the great opera composer, could manage a few spooky moments to describe the "Day of Wrath", and you wouldn't be wrong. (Hear it below.)
Spooky Organ Sampler
The exceptional "Litanies" performance is by the composer's sister, famed organist Marie-Claire Alain.
The performance of Bach's "Dorian" toccata is only a short excerpt, but gives the flavor of the work.
The performance of the Boëllmann includes movements III ("Prayer") and IV ("Toccata").
Spooky Keyboard Sampler
I really like the vitality of the guy playing the "Allegro Barbaro".
Listen carefully to the Mussorgsky ("Hut of Baba Yaga") and see whether you agree with me that it's an excellent performance done on the world's worst-sounding piano with horrible sonics.
Spooky Chamber Music Sampler
The Wolf Quartet is playing the first movement of Bartok's Fourth Quartet; the Amadeus quartet plays the fourth movement (of five).
For the Kodaly sonata, different performers play the entire sonata and then the third movement; the third movement is performed by famed cellist (and my favorite) Janos Starker -- keep your eyes on his fingers, if you can.
"Liturgie de cristal" is from Messiaen's "Quartet for the End of Time". The young quartet playing Shostakovich is pretty remarkable to hear.
Be sure to give the violinist playing the Tartini a chance. This performance is of the last movement with all the trills. It sounds a little rough and out of tune at the beginning, but it gets better and the soloist's musical sense of the piece is right on, in my opinion.
Spooky Orchestral Music
The Ives video, conducted by Lukas Foss, is a performance of "The Unanswered Question".
The segment from "Alexander Nevsky" is the movement "The Battle on the Ice", and the visual is the original segment from the Eisenstein film.
Spooky Orchestral Music II
The two videos of the Penderecki "Threnody" are just very short excerpts, but they each give an intense taste of the piece.
Some Spooky Organ Recommendations
Here are some recordings we can recommend that feature performances of the spooky music we described above.
Fortunately, this one album features several of our spooky organ recommendations, all played by the fabulous Marie Claire-Alain.
This is a very nice collection that includes our Messiaen recommendation, as played by a disciple of Messiaen.
This excellent collection of 20th-century music contains the Ligeti Volumina, along with a bunch of other guaranteed spooky works.
Some Spooky Harpsichord & Chamber Music Recommendations
Performances of our recommended spooky keyboard music that we like.
This is an older recording, but it's Mercury Living Presence -- incredible sonics -- and Puyana plays a huge, romantic harpsichord and holds nothing back.
The Emerson Quartet play these challenging pieces with remarkable conviction and verve.
Nobody plays the Kodaly cello sonata better than Starker.
Again, the Emerson Quartet is incredible. (They also have a complete set of the Shostakovich Quartets, all 15, if you want the whole set.)