This Is What Terror Sounds Like

10 pieces to guarantee the Halloween shivers

Michael Johansson/Flickr

Whether depicting supernatural phenomena, acts of earthly terror, or otherworldly states of mind, classical music can provide a perfect soundtrack for the days leading up to Halloween. Here are some sublime pieces that ought to provide plenty of chills.

1. Franz Schubert, Erlkönig (1815, revised 1821)

Goethe’s ballad “Erlkönig” depicts a father and son on horseback, homeward bound on a windy night. Although the boy appears to be safely burrowed in his father’s arms, he fears that the demonic fairy known as the Erlkönig is after him. Hoping to lure the boy away, this Erl King tempts him with promises of games, flowers, and golden clothing. When the boy pleads for help, the father dismisses his fears as products of a fevered imagination. So the Erl King persists, threatening to take the boy away by force if he doesn’t come along willingly. The boy screams, convinced he’s being seized. Only upon reaching home does the father realize that his son has died.

From this eerie poem Schubert fashioned one of his earliest and finest songs: a terrifying bit of scene painting that demonstrates the composer’s mastery of tone color and mood. It’s a tricky lied to sing, as well, given that each of the four characters is assigned a different vocal range. Listen to the driven piano introduction, with the triplets impelling the line on, in imitation of a galloping horse. Also note how the Erl King’s lines are appropriately delivered in the major mode (as if to make temptation all the sweeter). Each time the boy appeals to his father, the pitch rises, increasing the anxiety and drama, and in the astonishing last line, the father’s naked grief is conveyed by the nearly total absence of the piano.

Listen to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau sing Schubert’s Erlkönig, with Gerald Moore on the piano.

2. Georg Friedrich Haas, in vain (2000)

I cannot think of a contemporary piece that has attracted as much of a cult following as Haas’s mesmerizing, disorienting, and utterly moving in vain. It begins with a swirl of sound in which the cascading runs suggest a sense of falling, yet as these lines rise in pitch, there’s a feeling of upward motion, too—the musical equivalent, as many commentators have noted, of M. C. Escher’s staircase, descending and ascending all at once. Soon after a hair-raising crescendo, the listener is plunged into another realm, in which microtonality seems at war with conventional tuning. The sounds pulse like flashes of light through an abiding darkness, which is not only metaphorical but also literal, for in a live performance, the house lights gradually dim and are then cut. (Unable to see either their music stands or the conductor, the performers must play extended sequences of very complex music from memory.) Out of this darkness, a new world of sound emerges, something elemental—familiar but strange—with the textures and harmonies undergoing subtle transformations. Just when it seems as if some redemptive moment will arrive, the music becomes frustratingly dizzying once again. Indeed, listening to in vain can feel like being trapped in an anxiety dream from which you almost manage to escape, but ultimately cannot.

Turn off the lights, then watch Michel Galante conduct the Argento Chamber Ensemble in Haas’s in vain.

3. Hector Berlioz, Symphonie fantastique (1830)

Berlioz’s most famous work is classic Halloween fare. I listen to it every October 31st—a happy autumn ritual. With its innovative sonorities, harmonies, instrumentation, and form, this most fantastical of Romantic symphonies still seems revolutionary. And its depiction of ill-fated, obsessive love just happens to reflect the composer’s own feelings toward the Irish actress Harriet Smithson. The symphony tells the story of a young musician afflicted of spirit, madly in love with a woman who does not share his feelings. In a fit of desperation, he overdoses on opium. The resulting hallucinations, at first melancholy, elegant, and pastoral, become increasingly more frightening, with an intense march to the scaffold followed by a witches’ Sabbath and the ominous tolling of the Dies Irae, the hymn conjuring up visions of the Day of Judgment.

Listen to Ataulfo Argenta lead the Paris Conservatory Orchestra in Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique.

4. Arnold Schoenberg, Erwartung (1909)

Schoenberg’s Expressionist monodrama for soprano and orchestra is a 30-minute depiction of a nightmare. By the time he began Erwartung (or, “Expectation”), the composer had loosed the bounds of traditional tonality, liberating the dissonance, as he famously described the process. Although the soloist’s monologue is often comprised of longer lines, the orchestral accompaniment is constructed from a series of non-repetitive melodic fragments and gestures. The music is intense—in the manner of Edvard Munch or the Blue Rider canvases of Wassily Kandinsky—yet the sonorous combination of harp and celesta often produces lines of luminous beauty. The story of this opera goes like this: on a moonlit night, a woman finds herself at the edge of a forest, confused and frantic, in search of her missing lover. Stumbling into the forest and haunted by its shadows, she eventually discovers her lover’s corpse, although just who might have killed him is never made clear—an elliptical quality most appropriate for so harrowing and powerful a depiction of madness.

Listen to Phyllis Bryn-Julson and Simon Rattle perform Erwartung, with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.

5. Alban Berg, Wozzeck (1922)

In his monograph on Schoenberg, the composer Egon Wellesz had this to say about Erwartung: “It is quite certain that nothing approaching this for daring and novelty has ever been written for the stage.” He published those words in 1925—the same year that saw the premiere of arguably the most daring opera of the 20th century and one of that century’s masterpieces: Wozzeck. In Act III, Scene 2, the soldier Wozzeck, tormented by the unfaithfulness of Marie, the woman he loves, walks with her in a forest and begins to question her fidelity. It’s an agonizing scene, bewitchingly scored, and when Marie attempts to break free, Wozzeck kisses her, convincing her to stay with him on their walk. Then, as Marie notices how red the rising moon appears, Wozzeck takes out a knife and, as the music crescendos, stabs her to death.

Watch Toni Blankenheim as Wozzeck and Sena Jurinac as Marie in Act III, Scene 2 of Berg’s Wozzeck.

6. Carl Maria von Weber, Der Freischütz (1821)

I have a soft spot for Der Freischütz, one of the most emblematic of German operas—noble, stirring, and beautifully constructed, but one that is, alas, rarely staged outside Germany. At the end of Act II comes a most macabre scene. The young forester Max, keen to win a test of marksmanship that will not only grant him the title of head forester but also win him the hand of his beloved, Agathe, is lured to the haunted Wolf’s Glen at night. There, he’s told, he will witness the casting of seven magic bullets that he may use in the shooting contest. Instrumental in this act of dark magic is Samiel, the Black Huntsman. Neither a chorus of spirits nor visions of Agathe and Max’s dead mother can keep our hero from entering the glen. As each of the seven bullets is cast, he witnesses a different supernatural phenomenon, until finally, Samiel himself appears. This wondrously frightening music makes significant use of the chord known as the diminished seventh, which Schoenberg elucidated upon in his 1911 theoretical work Harmonielehre: “Whenever one wanted to express pain, excitement, anger, or some other strong feeling—there we find, almost exclusively, the diminished seventh chord.”

Listen to Eugen Jochum conduct the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in this performance of the Wolf Glen’s scene from Der Freischütz, with soloists Kurt Böhme, Richard Holm, and Ernst Ginsberg.

7. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Don Giovanni (1787)

The diminished seventh chord also figures prominently in the most terrifying passages of Don Giovanni. In the opera’s penultimate scene, the unrepentant rake Giovanni is enjoying a grand meal (his last supper, it turns out), much to the surprise of his envious servant, Leporello. After the forsaken Donna Elvira fails in her final attempt to get Giovanni to change his ways, she departs. Then, the shade of the Commendatore (killed by Giovanni at the beginning of the opera) appears at the door in the form of a giant white statue. The scene that follows—full of fire and demons, the music spiraling in agony, with scales rising and falling—culminates in Giovanni’s descent into hell. It’s one of the most frightening and unforgettable scenes in the repertoire.

Listen to Samuel Ramey, Paata Burchuladze, and Ferruccio Furlanetto sing the Commendatore scene from Don Giovanni, with Herbert von Karajan leading the Berlin Philharmonic and the Chorus of the German Opera Berlin.

8. Béla Bartók, Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta (1936)

That Stanley Kubrick included excerpts from this evocative work in The Shining makes Bartók’s piece an obvious choice for this list, but the score is chilling enough without the extra-musical associations. The third-movement Adagio, an unsettling depiction of the night, begins with the xylophone tolling a series of high Fs, gradually accelerating and then slowing down, with the strings then exhaling breath-like phrases, creating a mood of restless despair. The atmosphere is heightened by the innovative effects—glissandi in the timpani, for example, and florid runs in the celesta, harp, and piano—and by one of the creepiest melodies ever written, a sordid chromatic lullaby played high on the E string by two solo violins.

Listen to Herbert von Karajan conduct the Berlin Philharmonic in the third movement Adagio from Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta.

9. Joachim Raff, Prelude to Macbeth (1879)

This symphonic poem by the Swiss-born Raff might seem an unlikely choice for a list of this kind—for one thing, it isn’t particularly scary, even if the play it depicts is full of presences and nocturnal noises, to say nothing of all that spilled blood. In the music associated with the three Weyard Sisters, however, Raff spins out a delightfully eerie passage, the roiling woodwind lines suggesting the chanting of the sisters as they work their magic and prophesize the fate of the thane who would be king. Raff—who wrote three other Shakespearean tone poems, each unfortunately as little known today as his 11 symphonies—had a knack for portraying the sinister. The scherzo of his Symphony No. 8, for example, is a musical evocation of Walpurgisnacht, the night each spring when witches cavort atop a mountaintop with the Devil.

Listen to Hans Stadlmair conduct the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra in Raff’s Prelude to Macbeth.

10. George Crumb, A Haunted Landscape (1984)

The title of Crumb’s spacious and picturesque orchestral poem might seem to say it all. But the feeling of terror that’s so superbly evoked is not so much a rendering of anything specific or tangible as much as it is an exploration of a state of mind. Or rather, various states of mind. A Haunted Landscape, Crumb has said, “reflects my feeling that certain places on the planet Earth are imbued with an aura of mystery. The contemplation of a landscape can induce complex psychological states,” as the musical lines explore the realm “between the subliminal and the unconscious.” The tone colors Crumb summons forth cover the spectrum from dark to light, from ethereal to harsh, with the many quiet passages making the sudden violent expressions all the scarier. The strings are prominent here, lovely and plush. But some of the more exotic instruments—including kabuki blocks, steel drums, and a hammered dulcimer (as well as an amplified piano)—really help convey the feeling of an otherworldly unknown.

Listen to Thomas Conlin conduct the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra in Crumb’s A Haunted Landscape.

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Sudip Bose is the editor of the Scholar. He wrote the weekly classical music column “Measure by Measure” on this website for three years.


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