This post is the second in a series called "A Parent's Guide: Listening to Classical Music," which is designed to help parents discover, enjoy and discuss classical music with their children. Read the first post here.
For centuries, composers have been scaring the breeches off their audiences with spooky music. Some pieces depict horrifying tales, and some are hair-raising all on their own. Just in time for Halloween, here is my list of top 5 spooky classical music pieces, perfect to set the tone for pumpkin carving and costume designing.
1. Danse Macabre by Camille Saint- Saens
Based on a legend that death appears every Halloween at midnight, this piece begins with twelve harp's notes, representing the clock. The skeletons rise from their graves and dance for death (represented by the solo violin). Listen all the way to the end for the rooster's crow, played by the oboe, which signifies the dawn of the new day.
2. Night on Bald Mountain by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov
Known best for the arrangement found in Disney's Fantasia, this piece was composed in 1886 by Rimsky- Korsakov, based on a previous version by Modest Mussorgsky. The music depicts the Russian legend of a witches' Sabbath on St. John's night on the Lysa Hora (Bald Mountain), near Kiev. As in Danse Macabre, listen for church bells at the end, which signifies daybreak and the resolution of the piece.
3. March to the Scaffold by Hector Berlioz
This is the fourth movement of Berlioz's epic five-movement symphony, Symphonie Fantastique. At this point in the piece, the main character is being marched to his death at the scaffold. The movement culminates with the horrific slice of the guillotine near the end of the movement (this was 19th century France, after all). What instrument depicts the last thought of the main character before his death?
If this wasn't gruesome enough for you, listen to the terrifying movement that follows, Dream of a Witches' Sabbath.
4. Toccata and Fugue in D minor by Johann Sebastian Bach
I'm not sure if Bach intended for this piece to sound creepy, but it definitely does. This organ piece opens with a doom-impending toccata, distinguished by its improvisatorial nature. The fast section that follows is the fugue, which isn't nearly as spooky-sounding. For fun, listen to this version played on the piano. Which instrument sounds scarier, the organ or the piano?
5. In the Hall of the Mountain King by Edvard Grieg
This piece is a short movement taken from the larger Peer Gynt Suite and was originally written to accompany a play by the same name. The frantic increasing tempo makes it sound like a chase scene, but in fact, the music is meant to depict the main character entering the hall of the mountain king, where trolls, gnomes, and goblins erupt into mayhem. You may have to turn up the volume at the beginning, but definitely don't keep it on full blast for the wild ending!
I hope you enjoyed listening to this spooky music with your kids! We'll have more kid-friendly classical music for you soon.
Rebecca Lane is the director, founder, and owner of Upper Beaches Music School. She firmly believes that learning a musical instrument happens at home as much as during the music lesson. Rebecca teaches at the school on Saturdays, but most days you can find her chasing after her three young children, one of whom is in the Suzuki violin program at UBMS.