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10 pieces of spooky classical music that everybody should know

Editorial Staff

By Matthew Parsons

Halloween was made for classical music. I mean, really: what other genre of music can do spooky without also being tacky?

Classical composers have access to the perfect tools to shock and scare us. Of course, there are the big orchestras and organs, which can startle us with a sudden fortissimo blast. But the thing that really gives classical composers the edge when it comes to creeping audiences out is their willingness to play it soft. Nothing says, "There's a serial killer in the hallway," like a string section playing a menacing melody as quietly as they can.

So, if you're finding that you're not in the mood for the "Monster Mash" or Edgar Winter's "Frankenstein" this Halloween, check out the list below for 10 pieces of the best classical creepiness.

1. Bach: Toccata and Fugue in D minor

Obviously. Bach’s most recognizable tune has “horror movie” written all over it. Since its appearance in the title sequence of the 1931 film Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the Toccata and Fugue in D minor has been musical shorthand for “frightening things are about to happen.”

2. Weber: The wolf’s glen scene from Der Freischütz

Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freischütz is one of the creepy classics of the opera house — and it’s all thanks to this final scene at the end of Act 2. The hero calls upon the demon Samiel to help him make seven magical bullets with which to win a shooting contest. The only thing that could make this music creepier is if there was human skeleton onstage the whole time — which may have actually happened.

3. Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique, v. 'Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath'

Hector Berlioz was the Edgar Allan Poe of composers, and the fifth and final movement of Symphonie Fantastique is his “Fall of the House of Usher.” Between the uneasy string passages that open the movement, and the violent trombone honks that close the symphony, Berlioz conjures a sound world of witches, shades and monsters.

4. Tartini: Violin Sonata in G minor, 'Devil’s Trill'

One night in 1713, Giuseppe Tartini was visited by the devil. Or, so he claimed. To hear him tell the story, the most remarkable thing about the prince of darkness wasn’t the horns or the cloven foot, but his violin skills. The day after Tartini’s hellish encounter, he started writing this famous sonata in G minor, popularly called “Devil’s Trill.” But, as Tartini freely admitted, it wasn’t nearly as good as the real thing.

5. Mussorgsky: Night on Bald Mountain

When Mussorgsky composed this musical tale of a witches’ sabbath atop a barren mountain, he had a different horror-laden holiday in mind: St. John’s Eve. Think of it as an Eastern European version of Halloween that takes place in July. But, the piece’s slithering strings and menacing brass port over flawlessly to our autumnal spooky season.

6. Schoenberg: Erwartung

Nothing scares off audiences like Schoenberg. But this “dramatic monologue” for soprano — called Expectation in English — might be his most frightening work of all. It tells the story of a woman who finds her lover’s dead body in the forest. The music fluctuates between nervous anticipation and abject terror. It’s probably no coincidence that every horror movie score written in the years since Schoenberg composed this sounds something like it.

7. Saint-Saëns: Danse Macabre

Here’s a piece that was actually written with All Hallows' Eve in mind. There’s an old superstition that every Halloween at the stroke of midnight, death walks the Earth. And, like the devil in Tartini’s dream, he plays the fiddle brilliantly. So brilliantly, in fact, that the dead rise from their graves and dance about until the rooster crows in the morning. Saint-Saëns animates this legend — so to speak — with his trademark French lustre.

8. Liszt: Mephisto Waltz No. 1

What is it with musical virtuosos and the devil? First there was Tartini. Then, centuries later, there was the “demon violinist,” Niccolo Paganini, who was rumoured to have sold his soul in exchange for unlimited technique. And then, there was Franz Liszt. One would think Liszt’s soul was secure, given his status as a clergyman. He was, in fact, ordained as an exorcist, among other qualifications. But that was after he’d written his devilish Mephisto Waltzes for piano. Maybe his soul needed saving, after all.

9. Mahler: Symphony No. 7, iii. Scherzo

Mahler called his seventh symphony “Song of the Night.” In the third movement it suddenly turns into the song of the night terrors. This scherzo is actually a sort of deranged waltz. Think of it as a zombie version of “Blue Danube.”

10. Shostakovich: String Quartet No. 8, ii. Allegro molto

Sometimes, real life is scarier than any monster. Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich spent the bulk of his career living in fear that the KGB would show up at his door and “disappear” him. He dedicated his eighth string quartet to “the victims of fascism and war,” though he may have had the victims of his own government in mind as well. In either case, the second movement is one of the most terrifying pieces of music ever.