Ghosts and witches go hand in hand with violins and orchestras. For centuries, composers have loved using the power of music to frighten and thrill audiences.
Here is a list of CPR Classical’s favorite spooky moments in classical music, compiled by our hosts. Dive in for a terrifying treat -- if you dare!
Monika Vischer picked music from Michael Nyman’s score to "The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover." She calls it "eerie and driving, like a Hitchcock knife. And that soprano at the end just kills me!”
And speaking of Hitchcock's knife, it wouldn't be a spooky Halloween without Bernard Herrmann's music for “Psycho.” The shrieking strings have been imitated, but the original is still savage and chilling.
We aren’t done with Hitch yet. David Ginder selects some Hitchcock-related music from Charles Gounod, "The Funeral March of a Marionette." Hitchcock used it as the theme for "Alfred Hitchcock Presents."
“I love his quirky self on the TV series, I respect his using top-of-their-game composers, and I can't help myself when I watch post-Hitchcock films and say, 'That's so Hitchcock!'" David says. "I also love that he's carrying a double bass in his cameo in 'Strangers on a Train.'"
Karla Walker picks more spooky stuff from Rachmaninoff, from "Isle of the Dead."
“The piece begins with a slow, march-like theme in the low strings," she says. "It's actually an oarsman, slowly and methodically rowing his deceased cargo to the fictional Isle of the Dead -- a lonely rock of an island surrounded by dark waters in Arnold Böcklin's famous series of paintings. The music is as spooky as the painting.”
Rachmaninoff wrote several spooky pieces. Here's another, the second movement of his Symphonic Dances.
Jean Inaba selects "Witches Sabbath," the finale of the Berlioz "Symphonie Fantastique."
“This music lurches about with darkness and shadows," Jean says. "The specter of death is all over this movement. For example, the eerie tolling of bells, the Dies Irae (the Catholic funeral chant for the dead), the rattling bones of skeletons. The violinists and violists get this effect by beating their strings with the wood side of their bows. Berlioz should have you quaking in your boots at the end.”
Weekend host Marilyn Cooley chooses a bone-chilling bit of musical theatrics from Franz Schubert, "Der Erlkonig."
“The child's fear and the father's panic are palpable," Marilyn says. "I once saw a recital in which the baritone actually collapsed to the floor at the conclusion. (OK, yeah, it was my dad, but still.)”
Ray White says, "It's tough to beat the raw power of an organ. All those glorious sounds and colors. There is nothing more chilling and to the point of Halloween than E. Power Biggs' magnificent recording of Bach’s 'Toccata and Fugue in D Minor'. I’ll admit that there was a Halloween or two when I hid a speaker near the front door and and cued it up all evening for the trick or treaters. Sinister fun!"
Matt Weesner recommends Franz Liszt's "Totentanz" (or "Dance Of Death"), a set of variations on a Latin hymn that depicts Judgment Day. Liszt wasn't the only composer fascinated with this 13th Century chant; Berlioz and Rachmaninoff used it, too. Matt says he salutes any pianist that can actually play this piece by Liszt. It's mind-blowingly difficult!
I’d like to leave you with two more bits of terrifying music from the movies. First, the title sequence from James Horner’s "Aliens" score. The lurking menace hiding in the dark is present from the very first notes.
And finally, John Corigliano’s mind-melting music from "Altered States." The buzzing insect-like sounds in the middle of this piece make my skin crawl every time I listen.
What's your favorite Halloween music? What other spooky favorites should have been included in our list? Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Halloween On The Music Room
Karla Walker presents Halloween-themed music on CPR Classical, October 26-30, 2020 at 10:30 a.m.
Listen to CPR Classical by clicking "Listen Live" on this website. You can also hear CPR Classical at 88.1 FM in Denver, at radio signals around Colorado, or ask your smart speaker to “Play CPR Classical.”
You've read another CPR classical story to the end. We have got just the thing for classical music lovers like you: a weekly email newsletter! Sign up here to stay up-to-date on CPR Classical programming, events and stories from the world of classical music.