Six of the best pieces of music for Halloween
Welsh National Opera conductor James Southall chooses some of the best spooky works of classical music to listen to this October
Berlioz: ‘Sabbath Night’s Dream’ from Symphonie fantastique
In this programmatic symphony, a young artist has fallen under the spell of a woman of near ideal beauty. Alas, it doesn’t end well. In this opium-fuelled dream we encounter spirits, sorcerers and monsters which are assembled for his funeral - listen out for the spooky woodwind glissandos.
The ‘idée fixe’ (his beloved’s musical theme) has now become a trivial and grotesque dance in 6/8 and is then combined with the tolling bells of the Dies Irae. This is one of the most visionary pieces of music ever written and Berlioz’s sense of drama and his use of the orchestra are incredible.
Mozart: Commendatore scene from Don Giovanni (Act Two finale)
The statue of the Commendatore (who was killed by the Don at the start of the opera) comes to life and exacts his revenge. The Commendatore insists that the Don repent for his sins, but the Don is steadfast in his refusal. Soon after, an underground chorus of demons sings and the Don is pulled into the abyss.
Mozart’s imagination really ran riot with this libretto. After the Don has gone, there is a plagal cadence and a tierce de picardie in the blazing orchestra, both of which have overtones of solemn church music.
Tchaikovsky: The Queen of Spades - Act Three, Scene One
This is the scene during which the ghost of the Countess visits Herman and reveals the secret of the cards. Tchaikovsky employs a harmonious seven-part chorus instructed to ‘sing loudly from a distance’ which invokes the Countess’s ‘panikhida’, or burial service. Herman wonders if it is the wind.
There is both chromaticism and whole-tone harmony, which complement Herman’s deranged state of mind. Ethereal, fast, contrary-motion scales and the composer’s characteristic method of building intensity through rising harmonic sequence all add to the very eerie atmosphere. His superb orchestral touch is also evident here, through wonderful use of the bass clarinet.
Listen to our Halloween playlist here:
Shostakovich: Allegro molto from String Quartet No. 8
There are no imaginary demons here. The second movement seems to be an expression of fear - a very real terror, which gets my pulse racing when I listen to it. There is something unbearable about four string instruments screaming, being forced to the limits of their expression, especially when the Hebrew melody bursts in.
Shostakovich dedicated the whole quartet to the victims of fascism, but the meaning of this music has provoked debate. With the cryptogram DSCH (his musical signature) running all the way through it (as in the First Cello Concerto and the Tenth Symphony), there is something personal here that is hard to ignore.
Schubert: Der Erlkönig
Apart from being a nightmare for the pianist - the repeated right-hand triplet quavers are a real test of stamina - this short ballad tells the chilling story of a night-time horse-ride. In the hands of an imaginative singer we can hear all four characters coming through (father, son, Erlking and narrator).
Schubert’s flair for story-telling through music is at the fore - a three-minute miniature that has you in its thrall from beginning to end.
John Williams - Jaws
An example of how a stunningly simple idea, brilliantly orchestrated, can create an emotive response in the viewer. The two-note bass ostinato, which gradually gathers momentum mirrors the panic we experience on screen. But this score holds much more interest than those two notes.
Does the tuba theme perhaps suggest a lone shark on the hunt? John Williams seems to conjure the expanse of the ocean with a broad, rolling theme in the strings. There are unpredictable off-beat brass accents, which add to the suspense.
The Pier Incident sends shivers down the spine - even though nothing particularly bad happens, the music signifies that something might. Spielberg said that half of the success of Jaws was due to its music - it is easy to see why.
Words by James Southall, a conductor with the Welsh National Opera.
James Southall is a conductor, pianist and coach with the Welsh National Opera. He has also worked with leading opera companies and orchestras including English Touring Opera, Sinfonia Cymru, L'orchestra Haydn di Bolzano e Trento, Camerata Nordica and Opéra de Baugé. He has also been Assistant Conductor to Carlo Rizzi, Tomáš Hanus, Lothar Koenigs and Mark Wigglesworth. As a pianist, James has performed recitals at Wigmore Hall, Cadogan Hall and live on BBC Radio 3.