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Classical Spooktober!

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"Things that go bump in the night" will be the least of your concerns once our Halloween playlist unfolds. Read on...if...you...dare...

Who, to this day, doesn’t shudder when the ominous repeating notes of the “shark’s theme” from the movie Jaws start to play? How about the screeching, high pitched strings from the movie Psycho? Thanks to John Williams and Bernard Hermann many of us will forever have nightmares because of the scenes the music enhanced.

Through the generations some classical music pieces have been written specifically to describe the supernatural and the downright frightening, and some darker sounding pieces were just “adopted” by modern day audiences to be the soundtrack to horror and Halloween. Here are a few of our favorites.

Good ol’ Bach is credited with composing the quintessential Halloween piece, although it wasn’t written for Halloween. The Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 565, was written as an organ piece originally. That’s probably the only thing we know for certain. Everything else about the piece – from when it written to whether it describes a raging storm or not – has been argued and disputed by several Bach biographers, especially over the last 200 years.

This version is with Australian organist Kurt Ison, at the Sydney Town Hall:

You might recognize the theme music to the 1955 TV show “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” It was note for note The Funeral March of a Marionette by Charles Gounod.

Camille Saint-Saëns set to music a poem by Henri Cazalis, that describes the figure of Death playing his fiddle for the skeletons dancing on their graves on Halloween. That description alone is enough to send one ducking under the covers. This video shows a drawing from a Medieval text that illustrates the point of the poem: that regardless of our lot in life, once we are skeletons, we are all the same. Here is Angèle Dubeau and her ensemble, La Pieta:

The “Funeral March” is the third movement from Frederic Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2. It was played at Chopin’s own funeral. It is “the” go-to theme that TV shows and movies use to indicate doom. Without knowing what the piece actually was, it was also sung by the kids in my neighborhood to indicate someone was in real trouble.

What would Halloween be without trolls and goblins? Edvard Grieg included them in his Peer Gynt. The movement titled “In the Hall of the Mountain King” has an introduction that reads: “There is a great crowd of troll courtiers, gnomes, and goblins. Dovregubben sits on his throne with crown and sceptre, surrounded by his children and relatives, Peer Gynt stands before him. There is a tremendous uproar in the hall.”

And lest you think that women composers don’t venture into the dark and mystical, consider these two pieces. First, music Rachel Portman wrote for the movie The Duchess. In under two minutes she captures the dread any parent will feel in a piece titled “Never See Your Children Again.”

And how about Amy Beach setting up a truly eerie scene in her piece “The Old Chapel by Moonlight,” Op.106? The performer is Kai Adomeit:

The most jovial composer, as he was known, Antonín Dvořák, was not above traveling to the dark side. His The Water Goblin is scary enough, but as a mom, nothing is worse than the thought of your child being taken. In The Noon Witch, Dvořák tells an old scary legend, through music, about a witch who takes away children who misbehave. Charles Mackerras conducts the Czech Philharmonic, with spooky pictures adding to the scene.

Coda:  There are numerous other eerie, scary classical pieces (looking at you, Liszt), but we’ll save those for next Halloween. Meantime, here are a few more scary tunes from movies and pop culture. Have a spooktacular Halloween night …