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Top Five Devilish Treats

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Last year, as All Hallows' Eve approached, we found the spookiest Halloween music. Now that it's coming around again, we’re looking at the figure who inspired much of that scary music: the devil.

Satan, Beelzebub, Mephistopheles, or whatever you may call him gets credit for his share of music. There have been sonatas, waltzes and operas written for him. He has an interval (the tritone) and an instrument (the violin), and is said to have captured more than a few souls of famous musicians. Here are the top five devilish treats:

1. The violin virtuoso and composer, Giuseppe Tartini dreamt one night that he gave his soul to the devil, and in return Satan agreed to grant him all his wishes. Tartini handed over his violin, and the devil played it with such skill, the musician awoke. He tried to duplicate what his dream figure had played in the aptly titled Devil’s Trill Sonata. Though it was Tartini’s best-known work, he later said, "how far inferior it is to the music the devil played in my tantalizing dream.”

2. It seems that the devil probably liked triple meter. Both Johann Strauss and Prokofiev wrote waltzes named for the devil, but Franz Liszt’s menacing version, the Mephisto Waltz is not only diabolical in its demands on the pianist, but the thorny harmonies throughout. It illustrates a scene from the familiar Faust fable. While at a village inn, Mephistopheles plays a rapturous melody on the violin that incites Faust to amorous conquests.

3. Stravinsky’s musical theater work, L’histoire du soldat, tells on an encounter between a soldier and the devil taken from traditional Russian tales. The soldier offers to teach the devil how to play a fiddle in exchange for lessons to read his book that tells the future. After much dueling and scheming, the soldier eventually defeats the devil, with a furious dance, Danse du diable, that the devil cannot resist.

4. The Devil is a character in so many operas, thanks in large part to Goethe’s popular Faust. The bass Samuel Ramey, compiled a CD of his arias called A Date with the Devil. Among the lot: Méphistophélès in Berlioz’s La damnation de Faust, Gounoud’s Faust and Boito’s Mefistofele, Bertram in Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable, and Nick Shadow in Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress.

5. Gyorgi Ligeti didn’t shy away from dark subjects. His only opera, Le Grande Macbre, features a grim-reaper type agent of the apocalypse, Nekrotzar. In his second book of Etudes, he also composed L’Escalier du diable, or "A Devil’s Staircase." Like Liszt, the piece is supposed to be played wickedly fast, climbing furiously up the keyboard over and over again.

Tune in to WQXR starting at 12 Noon on Sunday, Oct. 31 for a full slate of spooky pieces to accompany your Halloween festivities.