Great music pierces the soul…and can sometimes terrify it. Over the centuries, composers, like nearly all artists of every variety, have been fascinated by the subject of death and by the supernatural—the world of witches, goblins, ghosts, and demons. Composers have given us Dances of the Dead, frightful tone poems and songs, scary opera scenes, and even whole symphonies on the subject of death and the afterlife. Below are ten of the scariest pieces of classical music ever written, in order of frightfulness, from ten to one; they are guaranteed to make your Halloween much more terrifying!
10. The Noon-Day Witch, by Antonín Dvořák
Antonin Dvorak reveled in traditional Bohemian fairy-tales that, unlike our sanitized and Disney-ized ones, were generally designed to scare the heck out of disobedient children by invoking the specter of a visit by some mythological monster. For inspiration the Czech composer drew on the folk ballads of Karel Jaromír Erben, which were well-known in Bohemia. The Noon-Day Witch tells the tale of a mother who warns her son to behave lest the witch get him. When the witch does indeed appear at mid-day, the frightened and regretful mother grabs her son and runs, chased by the witch. The mother eventually passes out, and when the father returns, he finds that the son has been inadvertently smothered to death by his unconscious wife. Dvorak’s The Water Goblin and The Golden-Spinning Wheel are similarly gruesome.
9. The Isle of the Dead, by Sergei Rachmaninoff
Rachmaninoff composed this symphonic poem in 1909 after viewing a black-and-white reproduction of Arnold Böcklin’s painting of the same name, which depicts an oarsman and a standing figure clad in white in a boat, shepherding a coffin across the waters toward a small island of rock, with tombs hewn into its surface, and tall trees at its center. Rachmaninoff’s music, which at its outset seems to depict the paddling of the oarsman and the undulation of the waves, employs the theme of medieval Dies Irae chant and maintains a brooding, gloomy mood throughout its twenty minutes, which is punctuated by three orchestral climaxes, and which ends in grim resignation.
8. Asrael Symphony, by Josef Suk
Written in memory of his father-in-law, Antonín Dvořák, Czech composer Josef Suk at first intended his symphony to contain joyful sections, praising Dvořák as well as burying him. But when Suk’s wife died midway through the project, the devastated composer made the entire work an unremittingly sombre and indeed frightening affair. Asrael is the Angel of Death of the Old Testament, and in the symphony’s foreboding first movement the listener may well imagine the specter coming for him. Here is the second movement Andante of the symphony.
7. “Witches’ Sabbath” from Symphonie Fantastique, by Hector Berlioz
The dance of death was a medieval notion, in which death would come to us like a terrifying lover, ready to embrace us and take our souls to the next world. The image inspired many compositions: Danse Macabre by Camille Saint-Saëns, Jean Sibelius’ Valse Triste, Franz Liszt’s Totentanz for piano and orchestra, and the second movement of Gustav Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. Topping all of these for spookiness is the “Witches’ Sabbath” from Symphonie Fantastique, the tale of a tormented artist whose opium dream causes him to imagine all sorts of horrors, from his own death to this infernal dance of female conjurers.
6. “Toccata and Fugue,” by Johann Sebastian Bach
It’s opening notes evoke images of haunted houses and spooky old castles better than anything else in the repertoire.
5. Wolf’s Glen Scene from Der Freischütz, by Carl Maria von Weber
One of the most famous sections in all of opera, the Wolf’s Glen from Der Freischütz (The Free-Shooter, or The Marksman) scene takes the prize for spookiness in musical drama. In addition to the musical score below, a staged version (with English subtitles) can be viewed here.
4. Die Erlkönig, by Franz Schubert
How can a four-minute song for solo voice and piano be more terrifying than a piece for full orchestra? When it is Schubert’s Erlking. This song tells the tale of a father and son riding on horseback in the forest, when they are confronted by the specter of the evil Erlking. The lyrics can be found here.
3. The Masque of the Red Death, by André Caplet
André Caplet was a contemporary and friend of Claude Debussy. Inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s short story about the plague, Caplet composed this chilling piece for string orchestra (later arranged for string quartet and harp). When the red-robed figure “knocks” near the piece’s end, you may well jump out of your seat!
2. “Intermezzo for 24 Strings,” by Krzysztof Penderecki
Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki (b. 1933) has written a good deal of creepy music, perhaps most famously his Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima and his Requiem, but also his Christmas Symphony (!). Nothing, however, may exceed the “Intermezzo for 24 Strings,” written in 1973, in sheer creepiness.
1. Night on the Bare Mountain, by Modest Mussorgsky
Poor Mussorgsky. No one thought the Russian composer could orchestrate well. Thus both his friends and later composers tinkered with his works, notably his opera Boris Godunov, and the ten-minute tone poem, Night on the Bare Mountain (originally titled St. John’s Night on the Bare Mountain). His mentor Mily Balakirev pooh-poohed the effort, and Mussorgsky himself re-worked the piece for chorus and vocal soloist. For a century, Night on the Bare Mountain was known only in the orchestration by Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov. But Mussorgsky’s original versions have recently and rightly come into vogue, and they posses their own unique power and wildness. The opening measures of both constitute the most chilling music of all. Here is the version for chorus and soloist, which Mussorgsky planned to use in his unfinished opera, Sorochintsy Fair.
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The featured image is “Tartini’s Dream” by Louis-Léopold Boilly (1761-1845), and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.