7 Spooky Classical Pieces For Your Halloween Playlist

Tuesday, October 25, 2016 - 10:18 AM

Danza macabra, detail Clusone, Bergamo, Italia (Bergamo Clusone/Wikimedia Commons)

You’ve placed skeletons in the doorways and put the finishing touches on your jack-o-lanterns. Pumpkin seeds are roasting and there’s more candy than you know what to do with. All that’s left are the tunes. So, in the spirit of the season, we're sharing some creepy classical jams that no Halloween playlist should be without.

Danse Macabre (Camille Saint-Saëns)

The "Danse Macabre" ("Dance of Death") is a motif from medieval art that serves as a reminder that death awaits us all. The paintings often featured parades of skeletons gleefully leading everyone — rich and poor, old and young — to the grave. Saint-Saën’s musical representation of the dance starts sweetly enough. It opens with a tranquil harp, but when it strikes 12, the death’s violin waltzes on in.

Der Erlkönig (Schubert)

In Der Erlkönig, a father races home on horseback. His son is safely with him ... or so he thinks. The boy cries out that he is being attacked by the Erlköning, or evil king of the fairies. But parents just don’t understand, and the father assures his son that the frightening specters are just the wind, fog and rustling trees. But when they reach their destination, he finds his son is dead.

Toccata and Fugue in D minor (Bach)

First thing's first: we aren’t entirely sure who composed this frightful favorite, but the oldest attributions are to J.S. Bach. But seriously, what is it about the organ in this piece that’s so creepy? Maybe it’s the intense layering of sinister sounds. Or the notes sneaking upwards, only to cascade down into a sonic soup. Whatever the reason, no classical Halloween playlist is complete without this favorite.

Devil’s Trill (Giuseppe Tartini)

One night in 1713, Tartini had a wild dream. The devil appeared and a classic deal was struck: in exchange for his soul, the devil would be the Tartini’s faithful servant. Tartini went on to test the devil’s musical abilities by giving him a violin. It turns out that the devil was pretty good, and produced the greatest sounds Tartini ever heard. When the composer woke up, he scrambled to write down what he could remember. The result? This fiendishly difficult violin sonata.

"Don Giovanni, a cenar teco", from Don Giovanni (Mozart)

In this scene, professional sleaze Don Giovanni is confronted by the haunted statue of a man he had killed. The statue gives Don Giovanni multiple opportunities to repent for his chronic womanizing, but he refuses. Justice is administered — the earth opens and Gio is dragged into the depths of hell.

Totentanz (Liszt) 

Franz Liszt was obsessed with death and the macabre, and it really shows with Totentanz. For starters, the piece extensively quotes the Gregorian chant Dies Irae, a spooky tune in its own right. Liszt also alternates between flowing melodies and percussive — at times violent — counterpoint. It’s pretty intense, just like life itself.

“Witches Sabbath” from Symphonie Fantastique (Berlioz)

Like Totentanz, the final movement from Symphonie Fantastique incorporates elements of Dies Irae. But the frights here are next-level. As Berlioz noted in his original program notes, the music is meant to conjure up images of "a hideous gathering of shades, sorcerers and monsters of every kind." With those ominous horns and that foreboding bell, Berlioz made his ghastly vision come to life.

There’s so much more classical music that could be in your ultimate Halloween playlist. What will you be listening to on fright night?


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Comments [15]

Louise from Jersey Shore

I don't know if anyone finds this piece spooky, but I'll add Piece Heroique by Cesar Franck to the list. It sends chills down my spine.

Oct. 28 2016 10:52 PM
Bob from Huntington from Huntington, NY

How about the penultimate scene from Don Giovanni. Il Commendatore always struck me as a bit spooky.

Oct. 28 2016 04:04 PM
Barbara from Florham Park, NJ

I also thought of Night on Bald Mountain and the Walpurgis Night music from Faust.

Oct. 28 2016 01:10 PM
CastaDiva from New York, NY

What a wonderful compilation! I wasn't familiar with the Schubert piece, and enjoyed it very much. The singer enunciates the words so clearly, that even with a smattering of German, it is easy to follow the gruesome tale.

Oct. 27 2016 10:21 PM
Anne Villers from Jersey City

You forgot Night on Bald Mountain!

Oct. 27 2016 03:42 PM
Lisa R Ragsdale from Minneapolis, MN

A few others from the 20th century: George Crumb's "Songs, Drones, and Refrains of Death" as well as selections from his Volume 1 of Makrokosmos; "The Phantom Gondolier," "The Abyss of Time," & "Dream Images, (Love-Death Music)." And another favorite is Schoenberg's "Pierrot Lunaire" which, compared to other of his works, is actually easy listening! I have CD's of both the above mentioned Penderecki and Rautavaara works and find both to be fine pieces of music that are quite scary.

Oct. 27 2016 03:39 PM
queenofswords from Buenos Aires

"Under strandens granar" by Sibelius. A boy plays by the side of a lake and he attracts the desire of a water spirit. The spirit seeks to entice the boy first as an old man, then as a young man, and finally as a playful horse. The boy follows the horse and the sprite grabs him and drags him to the bottom of the lake. Then the child´s mother appears, looking desperately for her son. The water spirit tries to entice her as he did with the boy, without success, and then he assumes the form of the missing boy. The mother runs after what she thinks is her son and she is too grabbed by the spirit and drowned. It is a great companion-piece for Erkönig, as both fill you with fear and anguish even if you don´t understand either German or Swedish.

As the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor... definitely. I wasn´t aware of the fact that the Bach authorship was in doubt, but whoever wrote it was a genius.

Oct. 27 2016 03:03 PM
David from Westchester, NY

How about the screeching violins of the shower scene music from Hitchcock's "Psycho" score, by Bennie Herrmann?

Oct. 27 2016 02:35 PM
Bill Vaughan from Central Florida

Please name the organist and instrument for the Bach.

Oct. 27 2016 02:27 PM

How about Gounod's "Funeral March of a Marionette" and Chopin's Piano Sonata 2
AKA - "Funeral March"?

As kids, we used to hum these often, the first few bars, whenever one of us was in trouble or something scary was going on. We thought it was cartoon music! Who knew? Dum-da-dum-dum...Doomed for sure!

Oct. 25 2016 02:51 PM
jeffrey h gorsky from washington D.C.

The Ghost's High Noon from the G & S operetta Ruddigore.

Oct. 25 2016 01:46 PM

Don't forget "Night on Bald Mountain" by Mussorgsky.
The music itself is fitting, but adding to this is the
animation of the piece on the original Fantasia. I do
believe that it is viewable on YouTube.

Oct. 25 2016 01:44 PM
Concetta Nardone from Nassau

Greaseball is a derogatory term that was and might be still used for people of Italian descent. Did the writer realize this?

Oct. 25 2016 01:39 PM
ens from nyc

a couple of these i had heard, but most i had not....want to play them all now, but i'm alone! will it be too creepy?!

also, scariest classical piece i've heard--threnody for the victims of hiroshima by penderecki. maybe i shouldn't say i've "heard" it, because i get scared and turn it off so have never made it to the end.

Oct. 25 2016 12:46 PM
Carol from NYC

The most terrifying music I've ever heard is Rautevaara's "Angels and Visitations" - I will never listen to it when I'm alone.....!!

Oct. 25 2016 12:41 PM

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