Halloween-Appropriate Compositions


I used to work at a store where some of us employees liked to dress up for Halloween. One year the young woman I worked with that day dressed in her full Goth regalia (this is someone with a spiderweb tattoo), and when one customer said to her, "I love your costume," she replied, coldly and seriously, "It's not a costume." Ever since then I have thought of Halloween as the one day each year when Goths "fit in."

From whence does "Goth" come as a description of this subculture? Not from the original Goths, Germanic barbarians who sacked Rome and later founded the kingdom that eventually became Spain and Portugal. Rather, it comes from "Gothic fiction," an English literary movement (so called in reference to the architecture of castles) that dates from Horace Walpole's 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto.

Such famed literature as Bram Stoker's Dracula, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and many stories by Edgar Allan Poe further defined the genre, which could broadly be considered a combination of Romanticism and horror, sometimes dark and brooding, sometimes darkly humorous in a parody of the genre's excesses.

Just as Goths had been around for centuries before Brandon Lee starred in The Crow, one could say that Goth music existed before Siouxie & the Banshees, The Smiths, and Bauhaus. So with Halloween upon us, I pondered what Goth classical music fits the Halloween mood. I don't mean generically scary music, I mean music actually depicting subjects that fascinate Goths -- the supernatural (especially the occult), death, evil, excesses -- but yes, scary. A top ten, in chronological order with recommended recordings.

Mozart: Don Giovanni

Eberhard Wächter; Joan Sutherland; Elisabeth Schwarzkopf; Luigi Alva; Graziella Sciutti;Philharmonia Orchestra; Carlo Maria Giulini (EMI Classics)

This retelling of the Don Juan story predates German Romanticism, but its ending foreshadows it. There's lots of depravity (tawdry seductions, murder, etc.), of course, which if not specifically Goth certainly overlaps some of the culture's obsessions, but the main point here is that it culminates in a statue coming to life and dragging the titular figure down to hell, which is Goth as fuck. So maybe not the whole opera qualifies as Goth, but for five minutes near the end it could scare the crap out of you, especially if you're a heartless womanizer. Oh, and it was premiered on October 29, 1787.

Weber: Der Freischütz

Elisabeth Grümmer, Rita Streich, Hans Hopf, Alfred Poell, Oscar Czerwenka, Kurt Böhme, Karl Dönch, Claus Clausen, Otto Edelmann, Vienna State Opera Chorus; Vienna Philharmonic; Wilhelm Furtwängler (Music & Arts)

The first major German Romantic opera (1821), Der Freischütz(The Marksman) tells a supernatural tale of a forester trying to win a shooting contest who lets an evil acquaintance talk him into making magic bullets with the assistance of the supernatural being Samiel, the Black Huntsman. The terrifying scene in the Wolf's Glen, where this is done, proved hugely influential upon German opera. There are, I know, recordings with better sonics than this 1954 Salzburg Festival performance, but nobody surpasses Furtwängler's sense of drama and dark foreboding.

Marschner: Der Vampyr

Franz Hawlata; Jonas Kaufmann; Regina Klepper; Anke Hoffmann; Markus Marquardt; Thomas Dewald; WDR Radio Choir & Orchestra, Köln; Helmuth Froschauer (Capriccio)

Goth as hell (pun intended), this German Romantic opera from 1828 builds on the success of Der Freischützbut takes it much farther out: A vampire has to sacrifice three women in one day to get another year of life. For good measure there are also witches and goblins.

Mendelssohn: Die erste Walpurgisnacht

Juan Oncina; Robert Amis El Hage; Giovanna Fioroni; Chorus & Orchestra of the Torino Radio Symphony; Peter Maag (Arts Archives)

Witches seem to like to get it on the night before saints' days. Halloween, of course, is the primary example (Halloween being a contraction of All Hallow's Eve, All Hallow's Day also being known as All Saints Day), but there are others, one being Walpurgis Night, the night before St. Walpurga's Day. German folk tradition says that the witches party on the Brocken, the pinnacle of the Harz Mountains. (The witches, being pagans, would say that they are actually starting the celebration of May Day.) Mendelssohn based this 1843 secular cantata, The First Walpurgis Night, on a poem by Goethe celebrating the ancient Druids, who have been forbidden by the newer Christians from their celebration; the Druids trick the Christians by scaring them away by dressing as Satan and demons; then the Druids go on with their traditional celebration of the arrival of Spring. The parallel with modern-day Goths' condemnation by mainstream society is obvious.

Mussorgsky: A Night on Bald Mountain

Chicago Symphony Orchestra; Fritz Reiner (RCA Living Stereo)

Similarly, in Russia it was believed that the witches partied on Bald Mountain on St. John's Eve. Initially inspired by a Gogol short story, Mussorgsky eventually came to make his much-revised and reused piece a depiction of a witches' Sabbath, at which Satan is summoned and celebrated. Its purest form is the 1867 version, but here we hear Rimsky-Korsakov's arrangement.

Saint-Saëns: Danse macabre

French Orchestral Music: NBC Symphony Orchestra; Arturo Toscanini (RCA Red Seal)

This one's actually set on Halloween. At midnight, Death brings the dead out of their graves and their skeletons do a freaky little dance to his fiddling. Death and dancing? Super Goth. Saint-Saëns's 1874 tone poem is a masterpiece of orchestration, with the devil's fiddling depicted vividly, the skeletons embodied (pun intended, again) by xylophones, etc.

Ravel: Gaspard de la nuit

Sarah Cahill (New Albion)

Ravel's 1908 solo piano suite Gaspard de la nuit consists of three movements: "Ondine," about a water sprite seducing men who then drown; "Le gibet," picturing a hanged man as bells toll at sunset; and "Scarbo," depicting the nighttime capers of a goblin. The latter was, at the time it was written, the most difficult-to-play piece in the piano literature.

John Cage: The Perilous Night

Margaret Leng Tan (New Albion)

Nothing supernatural or bloody here, just sheer psychological terror expressed in sound (Cage said this six-movement 1944 piece depicts "the loneliness and terror that comes to one when love becomes unhappy") through altering the solo piano's sound by placing various objects on/in the strings, transforming the instrument into a series of buzzes and clangs and thumps. Nobody else has ever made a piano sound this scary.

Shostakovich: String Quartet No. 8

Emerson String Quartet (Deutsche Grammophon)

A friend of gloomy Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich says he wrote this in 1960 as his epitaph, intending to commit suicide afterwards. He didn't, and the Soviet government covered up its inspiration by imposing a phony dedication, "to the victims of fascism and war," on the published text. When the Borodin Quartet, in preparation for their 1962 recording, played it for Shostakovich, seeking his advice on its interpretation, all the composer did was put his head in his hands and cry. The sadness of the two Largo outer movements is sharply contrasted by the shocking violence and raw dissonances of the second movement and the grim black humor of the Allegretto.

Tod Dockstader: Apocalypse (Starkland)

Before laptops, before the wide availability of synthesizers, "electronic music" was made by manipulation of sounds on magnetic tape, a painstaking process. Mostly this was done in academic settings that could afford the equipment, but Dockstader, an outsider artist, created his during down time at the studio where he worked. His groundbreaking 1961 piece Apocalypse presumably, based on its title, depicts the end of the world as we know it, and sure sounds like it. - Steve Holtje


Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based composer, poet, and editor who recently composed and recorded the soundtrack for director Enrico Cullen's film A Man Full of Days.