Classical music has long been a magnet for the spooky and mysterious. From orchestral works to songs, there’s no shortage of pieces that either sound frightening or have some sort of bizarre or sinister backstory associated with them. So, to celebrate the month of October, here are six pieces to spark the imagination and send shivers up your spine:
1. Carlo Gesualdo: “Moro, lasso, al mio duolo” (1611)
The life of the Italian composer Carlo Gesualdo is similar in many ways to that of a character from a horror film. First off, in terms of his music, many of Gesualdo’s pieces make ample use of dissonance and other “crunchy” harmonies. Although this doesn’t seem too odd on the surface, some of these harmonies wouldn’t be widely used until the nineteenth and twentieth-centuries, which gives Gesualdo’s music an eerily modern feel for the time period in which they were written. Regardless, his use of dissonant harmonies in this particular madrigal (the title of which translates to, “I die, alas, in my suffering”) fits the poem’s theme of longing and emotional agony quite effectively.
Oh, and it just so happens that Gesualdo was also a murderer! One night in 1590, Gesualdo returned to his home in Naples to discover his wife in bed with another man. Furious, he flew into a rage and killed both of them in cold blood. And if this isn’t shocking enough, it turns out that after a thorough investigation, Gesualdo was eventually acquitted. (He was born to a well-off family and held some noble titles, so it clearly must have paid off to know the right people!) Today, Gesualdo has become one of the most infamous figures in music history, both for his stunningly original music and strange biography.
(For those who are interested in reading more about this fascinating figure – and for more grisly details – the music critic Alex Ross wrote a great article about Gesualdo for The New Yorker in 2011, which you can read here.)
2. György Ligeti: Musica ricercata – Movement II. Mesto, rigido e cerimoniale (1953)
Although his name might not immediately ring any bells, the groundbreaking twentieth-century Hungarian composer György Ligeti might be more familiar than you think. Ligeti, who is well-known among musicians for his “sound mass” compositions, has been granted almost pop star-like status thanks to the film director Stanley Kubrick, who made use of Ligeti’s music in three of his films. Who can forget the expansive, cosmic spectacle of the “Stargate” sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey or the madness lurking inside the Overlook Hotel in The Shining? Both films made prominent use of Ligeti’s otherworldly music, which add an extraordinary aural dimension to Kubrick’s visual spectacles. (Kubrick did get into some trouble though when he used Ligeti’s music in 2001 without the composer’s permission, but that’s another story…)
In Kubrick’s last film, Eyes Wide Shut, the second movement of Ligeti’s early piano work Musica ricercata is used to unsettling effect. Even without the visual element though, the piece is still quite discomforting. This is partially because the entire movement contains only three notes – E# (or F-natural) and F#, which form a firm, yet anxious foundation, and a seemingly out-of-place G-natural, which intermittently pierces the musical texture like the sharp jab of a knife. Simple? Maybe. Effective? Definitely.
3. John Williams: Close Encounters of the Third Kind – “Barry’s Kidnapping” (1977)
Undoubtedly, John Williams’s score for Steven Spielberg’s sci-fi masterpiece is most famous for its five-note motif, which not only plays an important role in the underscoring but also serves as a crucial plot device. (It also spawned a truly funkalicious disco cover.) However, the most terrifying moment in the film – when little Barry Guiler is abducted by the aliens – is accompanied by some of the most spine-chilling music that Williams has penned. The scene itself is a masterful exercise in suspense and the action is appropriately underscored by a cacophonous mass of screeching strings, dissonant brass, and groaning voices. (There are definitely clear echoes of both Ligeti and Penderecki’s music here.) Some of Williams’s music for this scene ended up on the cutting room floor during post-production, but the full track is preserved on the original soundtrack in all its (creepy) glory.
4. Franz Schubert: Der Tod und das Mädchen (1817)
Schubert penned over 600 lieder (“songs”) during his short lifetime and was no stranger to exploring darker subject matters in his literary settings. One of his most well-known and haunting songs is “Der Tod und das Mädchen” (“Death and the Maiden”). Set to a poem by Matthias Claudius, the scene is established immediately in the brooding key of D minor, which represents the figure of Death. The ill young maiden frantically tries to shoo the specter away, but Death responds sweetly in the key of F major, inviting her to come with him. We can assume that she succumbs to his offer, as the music ends softly and at peace. Spooky stuff. Schubert would later reuse some of the musical material from this lied in his String Quartet No. 14, which is subtitled “Death and the Maiden.”
5. Anton Webern: Six Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 6 (1909)
Atonal music can sometimes get a bad rap in classical circles and lead to many heated discussions over its value and worth. While I believe that there are some absolute gems in this niche corner of the repertoire (one being Alban Berg’s Three Pieces for Orchestra), let’s set aside preexisting notions for now and admit that, at surface level, some of this music is just plain creepy-sounding!
Anton Webern was a member of the so-called “Second Viennese School” of composition (which included Berg and their teacher, Arnold Schoenberg). His Six Pieces for Orchestra are a shining example of the composer’s gifts for writing atonal music in short, compact forms and for creating sparse, yet intriguing musical textures. In a program note for the LA Phil, Herbert Glass described these little pieces as “flickering nightmares, with vagrant touches of breathtaking beauty,” and rightly so. Consider the fifty-three second third movement (bookmarked in the video below). A few seconds in, after some odd chords and short comments from various instruments, a brief whiff of a tonal melody appears in the flute and glockenspiel. (In my mind, this conjures up images of a creaky old carousel at an abandoned carnival.) However, before it can develop any further, this small inkling of tonality is swallowed back up into the amorphous texture surrounding it, never to appear again. Webern excelled at writing this sort of music, which is masterfully constructed but teeters precariously on the brink of comprehension and insanity.
Sadly, Webern’s life was cut short after the conclusion of World War II. One evening in September 1945, he stepped outside his house to enjoy a cigarette, when he was accidentally shot and killed by a U.S. soldier stationed nearby. (The exact reasons for this are somewhat hazy, but in any case, it’s an unfortunate end for a composer who left us with only about three hours of music total.)
6. H.K. Gruber: Frankenstein!! (1976-77)
We end with a piece that falls more in line with the definition of “spoopy” rather than “spooky.” (Yes, “spoopy” is a word.) Composed by the idiosyncratic Austrian composer H.K. Gruber, Frankenstein!! is officially labeled as “pan-demonium” for orchestra and chansonnier – a sort of singer, reciter, vocalizer, and actor all rolled into one. The musical language, while quirky, is delightfully accessible and effortlessly cycles through a potpourri of styles, imitating everything from cabaret songs to religious music. To make it even more clear that this piece is not meant to be taken too seriously, Gruber unabashedly includes an assortment of toy instruments that are to be played alongside the traditional ones (think kazoos, whirly-gigs, slide whistles, and other fun things of the sort). The text of work itself comes from a handful of odd children’s rhymes by the late Austrian poet H. C. Artmann, which feature a cavalcade of both Halloween and pop culture figures, such as vampires, John Wayne, Superman, and Dr. Frankenstein himself.
In the recording of the piece posted below, the part of the chansonnier is stunningly performed by Gruber himself, who, in his thick Austrian accent, sings, yells, screeches, whistles, and puts ons various character voices to make the texts come fully alive. (He even plays a few of the toy instruments at certain points.) In the end, this may not be a piece that’ll keep you up at night, but it’s sure a heck of a lot of fun.
(A full recording of the piece in its English translation is posted in the Spotify playlist, but below are two excerpts – one from that same English recording and another from a live performance by the Berlin Philharmonic of the chamber orchestra version, in the original German language.)