Top Five Pieces to Raise the Dead (or Undead)

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Orcagna, Triumph of Death, Santa Croce, Florence, detail Orcagna, Triumph of Death, Santa Croce, Florence, detail (Wikipedia Commons)

It’s not pure coincidence that classical composers wind up on soundtracks to horror flicks and slasher movies. Their music can raise the hairs of listeners even without scary special effects and synthetic blood splashed across a screen. And frequently, their compositions depicted horror movie-type scenarios with ghosts, vampires and other deceased creatures eerily coming back to life.

Here are five such ghoulish pieces. You can also vote for the work that you find the creepiest in our online poll, and then listen to Q2’s 24-hour Scarathon on Halloween to see if it's sufficiently frightening to make our cut.

1. Mozart's Don Giovanni

"You have invited me to dinner, and I have come,” says the Commendatore to Don Giovanni in Mozart’s titular opera. It’s not exactly a bone-rattling statement, except that the Don killed the Commendatore in the previous act. Now his ghost has embodied the statue created in his memory to ask Giovanni to repent his philandering ways. When the sinner refuses, he is swallowed down into the fiery depths of Hell.


2. Liszt's Totentanz 

Something is awry in Franz Liszt’s Totentanz from the start as the pianist starts hammering away. Soon the motif from the "Witches Sabbath" in Hector Berlioz’s similarly spooky Symphonie Fantastic emerges in the brass and woodwinds over the cacophony in the piano. It's also the same progression as the Dies Irae. In what translates to “Dance of the Dead,” Liszt’s Totentanz was inspired by a medieval panting, Orcagna’s “The Triumph of Death,” in Pisa, Italy, which shows death pursuing her victims. Death in this case, is quite virtuosic.


3. Saint-Säens: Danse Macabre

Camille Saint-Säens was inspired by both Franz Lizst and a Czech poem by Henri Cazalis in writing his Danse Macabre, which is a waltz influenced by the Dies Irae. Originally conceived for voice and piano, Saint-Säens later expanded the work into a symphonic poem. In his sonic rendering, Death plays a creaky violin that stirs up the rest of the instruments into a frenzy until dawn causes them to return to the grave.


4. Tan Dun’s Ghost Opera

The Chinese composer looks to raise friendlier spirits than the horror flick-worthy ones from the Western repertoire. Inspired by 4000-year-old Chinese traditions that invite spirits from the past, present and nature to co-mingle, Dun invokes the legacies of Bach, Shakespeare as well as Chinese folk music into this five-movement piece.


5. Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman

Perhaps the most famous undead character wandering through the opera repertoire is Wagner’s Flying Dutchman. Doomed to sail the seas until a women professes her love for him, the Dutchman and his ghostly crew traverse the world on his cursed ship, only making port once every seven years to find a potential love interest. Though the Dutchman strikes an eerie figure, it’s the chorus that truly chills to the bone when the local sailors encounter the boat and invite the crew to join in their celebration in Act III. The ghost chorus unleashed a storm both literally and musically that sends the sailors scattering off stage (see below, about 10:30 in).


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Comments [4]

I vote for Mussorgsky's "A Night on Bald Mountain", as well as his "Songs and Dances of Death". He must have seen strange things in his vodka bottles!

Oct. 25 2013 12:27 PM
concetta nardone

The film Dracula starring Gary Oldman had a very fine score. Not classical music but a good score and Interview with the Vampire had a score that sounded very operatic. The scene in the graveyard whereby DonGiovanni invites the statue to dinner is one of my favorite musical scenes in that opera.

Oct. 25 2013 10:47 AM
Bernie from UWS

I'm getting the sense that Mr. Fischbein really doesn't like contemporary music. That is his perogative but why the constant hectoring about it on this site? Classical music isn't only a museum art form. It exists as a living thing and composers continue to create, long after Haydn, Beethoven and Mozart died. Tan Dun is one of the most successful composers of the modern era. No need to bash him just because it didn't live up to someone's expectations.

Oct. 25 2013 06:51 AM
Charles Fischbein from Front Royal, Va.

Tan Dun's first and thankfully only shot at The Met was his three million dollar flop, The First Emperor. If his new music is the same, it is truly only for the dead.
Thought I would never see his name again, referencing Dun is really reaching into the morgue of contemporary composers . God Speed, Charles Fischbein

Oct. 24 2013 08:10 PM

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