For many people, classical music often serves as background music after a stressful day. However, the classical music world boasts a fascinating repertoire that encapsulates a multitude of emotions with a unique sense of intensity, drama, and nuance. Nowhere is this more evident than during spooky season. This realm of music embodies different meanings, from whimsical melodies that evoke the rattling of bones in a cemetery to the despair of heartbreak caused by a witch or even human sacrifice through dance. The following list includes a variety of compositions, along with some cool recordings or excerpts that are perfect for exploring the world of classical music during October.
Igor Stravinsky – The Rite of Spring
There’s a lot to say about Igor Stravinsky’s famous composition, which, like much of his work, pioneered experimentation with tonality, unusual metrics, and dissonance. It sounds vastly different from what audiences expect from classical music. Its 1913 premiere even led to a riot. However, nowhere does this crystallize into a feeling of spookiness more than in its final moments: the Sacrificial Dance. The ballet, which depicts scenes of an imagined rite in Pagan Russia, concludes with a dramatic human sacrifice where a chosen young lady dances herself to death. The meter changes almost every measure, and the percussive nature of its melody, when combined with its expansive orchestration, creates tension, drama, and spookiness like no other.
György Ligeti – Atmosphères
The Hungarian-Austrian composer György Ligeti was fascinated with a concept he named micro polyphony, which essentially refers to the incremental transformation of static music over a prolonged time. He is famous for his crunchy harmonies and compositions that evoke a hazy, cloudy, and eerie atmosphere. Atmosphères, written in 1961 and featured in the soundtrack of Stanley Kubrick’s famous film 2001: A Space Odyssey, is no exception. Clusters of chords slowly morph as the piece progresses, creating a terrifying journey beyond the borders of tonality.
Sergei Rachmaninoff – The Isle of the Dead
Sergei Rachmaninov wrote this piece in 1909 after being moved by a black-and-white copy of an eponymous painting by Swiss artist Arnold Böcklin. The black-and-white aspect plays an important role, as the composer himself stated that if he had seen the painting in color, he would not have been inspired to write this terrifying piece that evokes images of a boat sailing with a coffin toward a desolate island and conjures the Greek myth of the River Styx.
Dmitri Shostakovich – ‘Allegro Molto’ from String Quartet No. 8 in C minor, Op. 110
Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich wrote his 8th string quartet in 1960 during a very complicated time in his life, marked by persecution from the Soviet government toward him and other artists in his circle. As a whole, this piece is full of references to Shostakovich’s previous works and is brimming with intensity, drama, and darkness. In fact, it is believed that he intended it to serve as a memorial for himself. He even signs it multiple times with a motif that references his own initials. While the whole piece is inherently spooky, the second movement dazzles with a high-speed showcase that takes advantage of the incisive texture of a string quartet to deliver sounds reminiscent of the fangs of a grand vampire.
Hector Berlioz – ‘Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath’ from Symphonie Fantastique
Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique is partly responsible for a significant expansion of orchestral instrumentation in the first half of the 19th century. Most importantly, it tells the story of an opium-induced trip where a young composer grieves over a romantic heartbreak.
Berlioz himself wrote this piece during a period of heartbreak after the Irish actress Harriet Smithson did not respond to his multiple love letters. The two actually got married after Berlioz manipulated her into marriage by reportedly swallowing a lethal dose of opium in front of her and quickly taking an antidote. Berlioz was a very strange individual. The 5th movement of Symphonie Fantastique, ‘Dream of a Witches Sabbath’ plays on the famous medieval chant Dies Irae, which means to depict the end of times, and uses it to portray his self-insert character witnessing his unrequited love turning into a witch and joining a coven as they party with the devil. It’s literally perfect for the spooky season.
Giuseppe Verdi – ‘Dies Irae’ from the Messa da Requiem
In addition to being a medieval chant about the end of times, the Dies Irae is a key part of the musical setting of a requiem, often exploring apocalyptic imagery. In his 1874 requiem, Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi infuses his vision of the end times with intense drama and choral lines that resemble screams, which return multiple times throughout the piece. There’s nothing better for the Halloween season than a harrowing depiction of the end of the world.
Camille Saint-Saëns – Danse Macabre
A list of spooky classical music would not be complete without French composer Camille Saint-Saëns’s famous symphonic poem, which is based on a poem by Henri Cazalis. Danse Macabre aims to portray death playing a melody on a violin as the spirits of the dead dance around it. The piece achieves this by giving the titular role to the violin soloist, who constantly interjects with eerie melodies. In addition, Saint-Saëns depicts bones dancing with percussion instruments, and there’s even an oboe solo intended to represent a chicken. This truly is the spookiest classical composition.