Spooky Music for Halloween


We enjoy being frightened, don't we? But only for amusement, of course – and just for a short time. Movie-makers have endlessly cashed in on that. And, with a similar desire to scare us, classical composers learned how to quicken our heartbeats. In this fun Active Minds program, we'll hear some familiar and unfamiliar “scary” music just in time for Halloween, from Alfred Hitchcock's famous theme to that glorious “Night on Bald Mountain.” Boo!


In centuries past, the battle between Good and Evil served as a constant and highly effective theme in churches throughout Europe and the New World. It was God and his angels in an unending war against Satan and his minions. If you don't think that Halloween is rooted in that struggle, look again. The holiday's most popular, and most often-heard, classical work is Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain (not its original title, but that's how it's known in the Western world). As depicted in Disney's marvelous animated setting in Fantasia, the menacing evil spirit living on that mountain calls forth all the departed souls – shades of the Day of Judgment – who dance in his hands and tumble into the flames. And what saves the day? The tolling of the church bells. God and the angels have won the struggle taking place on what was long known as All Hallows' Eve. Before the 20th Century arrived and chased away so many fear-inducing myths of the past, there was nothing more frightening to church-goers than the prospect of eternal damnation. And so, the eight syllables, “Dies Irae, Dies Illa,” sent chills down the spines of parishioners. The words of the ancient Latin chant ominously described the “Day of Judgment, Day of Wrath,” and the simple melody sung sternly to those words earned a permanent place in the music of succeeding generations. It was an instantly recognizable symbol of lost hope. As the world collapses around the love-struck hero of Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique, the brass sounds the tune of the “Dies Irae.” When Liszt wrote his diabolical (and diabolically difficult) piano work Totentanz, a Dance of Death, that familiar theme occurred repeatedly. The great Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff was so enthralled with the tune – and, we assume, its significance – that he inserted those notes into numerous pieces. Yes, even if they really didn't belong, as in his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. That said, the inclusion of the “Dies Irae” in the text of the Latin Requiem did not necessarily dictate quoting the ancient chant in a musical setting. In their versions of the Requiem, neither Mozart, Berlioz nor Verdi favored that tune. Fact is, the latter two composers created some of music's most harrowing, spine-chilling moments without going near it – Verdi calling for repeated syncopated strikes of the bass drum, to hammer home his point amid the chorus's agonized cries. But then, not every “scary” piece of music is tied to the eternal battle of Light and Dark. In his charming Danse macabre, French composer Camille Saint-Saens playfully portrayed the Devil as a fiddler (a common image back in the old days), cranking out an ugly three-note harmony known as a tritone, more familiar to music-lovers long ago as “The Devil in Music.” And how can we help but smile when we hear that quiet little melody that served as Alfred Hitchcock's theme for decades? Few who became familiar with it realized it was by another Frenchman, Charles Gounod, who titled it Funeral March for a Marionette. What makes a piece of music “scary”? Consider the use of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor as a soundtrack for all those haunted houses that spring up around Halloween. It certainly wasn't meant to frighten its listeners, but in the right context, it can. Same with the powerful “Infernal Dance” from Stravinsky's magical ballet The Firebird. Its crashing chords explode right after a soothing lullaby, causing unsuspecting listeners to jump out of their seats. When you think about it, a section of violins playing a soft tremolo is nothing to get excited about – but when it accompanies the sight of a teenager walking fearfully through a darkened hallway in some horror movie, one's skin involuntarily crawls.

Exploration Questions

  • How and why did Berlioz and Verdi employ multiple brass choirs in the “Dies Irae” sections in their Requiems?
  • What is the origin of Gounod's Hitchcockian Funeral March of a Marionette? What story does it tell?
  • What is the plot of the folktale that inspired Stravinsky's The Firebird, and how did Parisian audiences react to it when the ballet premiered in 1910?

Reflective Questions

  • Do you enjoy scary movies and TV shows? If not now, did you in years past?
  • What elements are used in music to create a scary mood?
  • What's your favorite scary piece, and what memories does it stir?

More to Explore

Books for Further Reading

  • Kelley, Ruth Edna. The Book of Hallowe'en: The Origin and History of Halloween. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform. 2014. 126 pages. Although this delightful book dates from 1919, it has lost none of its charm and has yet to be exceeded in abundance of facts and range of related subjects.
    Click here to order
  • Culhane, John. Walt Disney's Fantasia. Harry N. Abrams. 1999. 222 pages. Those interested in the creation of the amazing Night on Bald Mountain segment in this timeless Disney classic will find much useful information here. Plus, naturally, there is plenty of fun chapters on the film's other magnificent segments.
    Click here to order