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31 October 2022, 12:31 | Updated: 31 October 2022, 16:03
Pick your poison from these 20 spooky pieces of classical music, from Saint-Saëns to John Williams...
Why does some classical music scare us? Is it loud noises, creepy sounds, or the terrifying stories music can tell?
This Halloween, find out which composers and pieces make us quiver with fear.
Grieg’s masterpiece of tension-building was supposed to evoke a cave full of trolls, gnomes and goblins. Grieg himself wasn’t a huge fan, though; he once said, “For the Hall of the Mountain King I have written something that so reeks of cowpats, ultra-Norwegianism, and ‘to-thyself-be-enough-ness’ that I can’t bear to hear it, though I hope that the irony will make itself felt.”
Voice Orchestra sings 'In the Hall of the Mountain King'
As the title suggests, this dark little dance by Camille Saint-Saëns has everything required to give the listener the willies. The piece tells the story of Death (a violinist, naturally) making the dead rise from their graves on Halloween and dance to his sinister tune.
Saint-Saëns' Danse macabre, played on flute *and* organ by Fluterscooter
It doesn’t seem logical that just two notes could cause such a sense of foreboding, but John Williams managed it. His soundtrack to Spielberg’s Jaws has been keeping people out of the sea since 1975.
FSO - Jaws - "The Shark Theme" (John Williams)
Beginning life as a tone poem called St. John’s Night on Bald Mountain, Mussorgsky’s most famous work was made more famous when it was revised by Rimsky-Korsakov, and then included in the soundtrack from Disney’s Fantasia. Whatever incarnation it’s in, it’s a frightening masterpiece.
Mussorgsky's 'Night on Bald Mountain' by Melodica Men
This one is perhaps more spooky and supernatural than outright scary, but nevertheless, Maurice Jarre’s score for Ghost is still worth a listen.
Unchained Melody (Orchestral Version) | Ghost (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
Hector Berlioz uses a range of orchestral effects to create the scene of a gathering of witches – violins using the backs of their bows to create bubbling cauldron sounds, the sound of a funeral bell and outbursts of musical laughter.
Berlioz - Symphonie Fantastique - Dream Of A Witches Sabbath
As Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane pulls up at the Bates Motel, suddenly what feels to have been set up as a romantic drama quickly unravels into Hitchcock’s groundbreaking 1960 horror-thriller. It famously features Bernard Herrmann’s iconic slasher string motif, which has become a cliché for cinematic horror.
Psycho // The Danish National Symphony Orchestra (Live)
This is one of the biggies when it comes to scary music. J.S. Bach’s thunderous Toccata and Fugue in D minor been used in classic horror films like The Black Cat, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and even in Doctor Who.
Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor played by violist Lech Antonio Uszynski
The Twilight Zone now seems like an old-fashioned spook-fest, but when it came to scoring the 1982 film version of the popular TV show, Jerry Goldsmith stepped in to make it as scary as he could.
Goldsmith: Twilight Zone: The Movie
When it comes to pure fury, few can rival Carl Orff. The stately opening of ‘O Fortuna’ from Carmina Burana is soon replaced by some intense, pulsing choral work, which basically erupts into a full-on orchestral blaze.
O, Fortuna (Cello Craziness)
Another classic thanks to the influence of a certain Walt Disney, Dukas’ impish theme will forever be associated with images of Mickey Mouse attempting to chop up an army of possessed mops.
P.Dukas. The Sorcerer's Apprentice
When it comes to spine-chilling music, it’s hard to beat Verdi’s ‘Dies Irae’, or ‘Day of Wrath’. Verdi’s Requiem is an epic achievement in every sense, but this depiction of the day of judgement is pretty unsettling stuff. Turn it up loud.
Verdi’s Requiem: “Dies irae”
It’s probably safe to say that being dragged into the depths of hell is a scary situation. But few could make it sound as terrifying as Mozart manages to, in Don Giovanni. Listen to the booming bass of the Commendatore as he announces his arrival. Yikes!
Don Giovanni - Commendatore Scene - EN Sub (Better Quality)
There are two moments in Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 (nicknamed ‘Resurrection’) where the composer attempted to capture the terror and pain of death in one musical gesture, what has become known as the ‘Death Shriek’. You can judge for yourself whether it works or not, but we advise you to sit down while you listen…
Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony
Liszt was obsessed with all things macabre and explored it frequently in his work. His Mephisto Waltz, Pensées des morts and La lugubre gondola all flirt with the notion of death and the after life. Totentanz (Dance of the Dead) is immediately recognisable by its menacing opening discordant notes in the orchestra and piano, which paves the way for a thrilling 15 minutes of virtuosic and unearthly piano music.
Liszt: Totentanz ∙ hr-Sinfonieorchester ∙ Bertrand Chamayou ∙ Jérémie Rhorer
Bartók was inspired to write his Sonatina in 1915 after collecting folk tunes in Romania, home to the legendary vampire stronghold, Transylvania. He named the suites the Transylvanian Dances when he arranged them for orchestra.
Béla Bartók - Tänze aus Siebenbürgen | WDR Funkhausorchester
It’s 1913, and Count Dracula arrives from Transylvania, ready to descend upon Mina Van Helsing and drink her blood. Horror, intrigue and suspense – so who better to compose the film’s soundtrack than movie music genius, John Williams?
Main Title & Storm Sequence
A plaintive oboe and gloomy clarinets depict the sounds of the oars of Charon cutting through the waters of the river Styx in the solemn opening phrases of Rachmaninov’s symphonic poem. The music transports our immortal souls to the edge of the underworld in this spooky piece.
Rachmaninoff - The Isle of the Dead, Op.29 - Vladimir Ashkenazy - Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
An adaptation of the Dracula tale, and inspired by the film Nosferatu, Copland completed Grohg around 1925. The music uses jazzy syncopations and cheery melodies with sinister undertones to add to the feel of unease. Copland used this ballet as inspiration for his later Dance Symphony.
Copland: Grohg - Ballet in one act (1922-5, rev. 1932) - 1. Intro and Cortège. Entrance of Grohg
This battle-cry is actually quite a triumphant event in the original staging of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, but thanks to the piece being used to soundtrack helicopters flying through war-torn Vietnam in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, it’s safe to say that this is officially a scary piece.
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra – Wagner: Ride of the Valkyries - Ring (Official Video)