Classical Music for the Halloween Season: What Makes the Stories Behind the Music Enduring and Fearful

The repertoire of classical and romanticist music contains a number of very familiar works that are frequently resurrected in October because their themes complement the spectral and supernatural at Halloween. Many of these works revolve around similar motifs: the return of dead spirits, the interaction of demonic forces with humans, and selling one’s soul to the devil.

Obsession with the Plague Years and the Dance of Death

One of Halloween’s most frequently played pieces is Camille Saint-Saens’ Danse Macabre. Like Franz Liszt’s Totentanz, the music celebrates 14th Century artists’ depictions of the dance of death, found throughout Europe in murals on church walls and in museums. Like many Halloween stories set to music, Danse Macabre was taken from a poem, in this case by Henri Cazalis, ending with the line, “Long live death and equality!”

Similar emotions are evoked in the second act of Adolphe Adam’s tragic ballet Giselle. The dead heroine, a humble peasant girl, is visited at her grave by a young nobleman she had fallen in love with. Even as they dance together, the spirits of other betrayed female lovers join the dance to destroy him.

Listeners can feel the frivolity and anguish of the spirits as their dancing builds to a heated crescendo, only to be called back to their graves as dawn approaches. The same feelings are evident in Modest Mussorgsky’s Night on Bare (or Bald) Mountain, another Halloween favorite popularized in Walt Disney’s animated interpretation Fantasia. Night on Bare Mountain depicts Mussorgsky’s view of a witches’ sabbath on the top of Mt. Triglav.

Death, Sacrilege, and selling one’s Soul to the Devil

Although many people can identify Charles Gounod’s Funeral March of a Marionette as the Alfred Hitchcock theme, Franz Schubert’s Erl King is not as well known. Based on a poem by the German Romantic poet Goethe, it is the story of a father riding swiftly through the forests, cradling his sick son. The boy tells his father that the Erl King beckons to him even as the father vainly attempts to outrun death. In the end, the father arrives home, but the child is dead.

Dark and spooky forests are the scene of many Halloween pieces of music. For 19th Century Romantics, the dense European forests were the perfect abode of evil spirits and otherworldly phantoms. In Cesar Franck’s The Accursed Huntsman, a nobleman is cursed for going hunting on the Sabbath rather than attending Mass.

The theme of Der Freischutz by Carl Maria von Weber involves a forester who meets the devil deep in the forest and sells his soul for seven magic bullets. The selling of one’s soul is also the theme of several works by various composers that capitalized on the Faust tale, another poem by Goethe.

From Light-Hearted Themes to Wagnerian Romanticism

Paul Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is a Halloween perennial and based on another Goethe poem. Also featured in Fantasia with Mickey portraying the hapless apprentice, it represents an excellent Halloween vehicle for children that tend to be unfamiliar with classical music. Selections from Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suites serve the same purpose with their focus on Scandinavian mythologies, trolls, and other dwarf-like beings.

At the other end of the spectrum are the works of Richard Wagner, deep and emotionally cumbersome like The Flying Dutchman and The Ride of the Valkyries. Yet they also comprise elements associated with Halloween themes and are therefore included in concerts devoted to ghostly themes.

For listeners seeking more on Halloween than the Ghostbusters theme or Michael Jackson’s Thriller, the classical music genre offers variety guaranteed to stir emotion and fantasy. Hearkening back into a time when superstition and fear was rampant, these composers have managed to produce pieces that stir supernatural awareness or simply appeal to the human desire to look beyond the everyday real world.

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