Friday, 20 May 2016


Scroll down to view my selections!
A note on this article: As mentioned in my posting on May 14, I will be posting for a brief period at a slower than usual rate due to external obligations outside of this blog.

The following entry was meant to be published last Friday (the 13th of May), but was not yet complete by the date desired (and remains a work in progress – hence the splitting of this entry into two postings - the second of which will be up as soon as I can dedicate the time to finish editing the piece). It is, however, my goal to not leave my audience without fresh material for extended periods, and so, in that vein, I present to the reader part I of my new article “13 Decidedly - and Unexpectedly - Frightful Works from the Realm of Western Classical Music,” based on works that I personally deem as either overtly horrific, or as naugthy devils in the disguise of beautifully melodic music (who appear as wolves in sheep's clothing).

Keep checking back often for updates, as I will continue to post as my schedule permits. Part II of this entry will be up soon!*

*(after a brief period as top posts, both entries will become backdated under the date of the 13th of May).

The post-in-progress (I-VI):

To celebrate this month’s superstitious Friday the 13th, unravelingmusicalmyths has gathered together thirteen of the most spooky and spine-tingling sounds to come out of the world of western classical music.

I have made every attempt to steer clear of the stereotypical/clichéd “Hallowe’en” favorites (such as Camille Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre, Giuseppe Verdi’s Dies Irae chorus from his famous Requiem Mass or Modest Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain) in favor of arias and lieder that are atypical of the common ‘horror genre’ of western classical music. Hidden amongst some intentionally frightful scores are works I personally deem to be horrifying in their own right: gooseflesh-inducing music which relies more on subtle and muted tones than in sudden startles and jumps bursting out from the orchestral fray.

Among the horrifying gems I have selected for inclusion on this list of most frightful works include pieces of music that appear both pleasant and melodic on face value - but which have rather macabre undertones laying just beneath the surface, cleverly disguised within sinister lyrics.

Now, without further discourse, I present to the reader a motley brew of sorcery, spirits and plain ole' spook to set your spine a-shiver: 


The first entry on the list of most spooky pieces of classical music is from late 19th – early 20th century Austrian composer Gustav Mahler’s 1909 ‘symphony’ Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth). Der Abscheid (The Farewell), the work’s sixth and final movement, remains as controversial today (in terms of representation) as it was prior to it’s premier performance (in terms of the ‘negative’ subject matter).

Was Der Abscheid – or indeed the symphony itself - an ode to fin de siècle Vienna, or to man’s own mortal nature/mortality? Most scholars agree that Mahler’s artistic ‘intent’ in composing Das Lied lay somewhere in between both very plausible polarities – perhaps the best interpretation of the work lay in the category of art imitating life: Mahler famously penned the masterpiece whilst in mourning: the composer had only recently lost a young daughter to scarlet fever and diphtheria, and had around the same time faced dismissal from his post as Director of the Vienna Court Opera due to a rise in anti-Semitism across Europe (a post of which he had little choice but to resign), and had been diagnosed with a congenital heart defect. Certainly, it is plausible that such emotionally disastrous events would force the composer into a period of deep introspection – pondering man’s unanswerable questions of purpose of life, death and the possibility of reincarnation. It only seems fitting that the 49-year old Austrian would draw upon the musical arts as a means to a psychological outlet.

Listen below to Der Abscheid by Gustav Mahler, as sung by German mezzo-soprano Christa Ludwig under the baton of German-American conductor Otto Klemperer:

Suggested Reading:
  • Der Abscheid Text (Deutsch and English): at Wikipedia 


The second entry on the list may be familiar to the reader: (I had previously posted this haunting symphonic work in February of 2016 as part of my second installment of Trivia and Humor: Fun Opera Facts.  I am re-featuring 19th century Hungarian composer Franz Liszt’s Totentanz (Dance of the Dead) as this orchestral masterpiece is just too horrifying to ignore. Why this symphonic work is not a go-to staple piece for the many projects of Hollywood horror is beyond me.

Inspired in part by French composer Hector Berlioz’s macabre adaptation of the ancient Gregorian Dies Irae chant who had interfused a bastardized version of the hymn within the final movement of his 1830 epic Symphonie Fantastique, Liszt’s twisted symphonic work for piano and orchestra is sure to make the listener’s blood begin to boil and heart begin to race as he begins a morbid journey, walking down the valley of the shadow of death - wherein a perverted and convoluted chanting of the dead awaits the tortured soul at the gaping maw of hell.

This autumnal work boldly deigned to remind both child and elder, pauper and prince, destitute and rich – that none can escape the crooked claw of the reaper – and that we are all worm food in the end.

Listen below to Liszt’s Totentanz under the baton of Japanese maestro Seiji Ozawa with pianist Krystian Zimerman as soloist:


The following entry is an example of a work that was not intended to startle the listener into an immediate state of fright – at least not in an overt and conspicuous manner – and is instead what I like to call “accidentally spooky.”

Selected from Late 19th – early 20th century French composer Gabriel Fauré’s eighteenth opus, III songs for voice and piano, the work’s third and final song Automne (Autumn) presents to the listener a dark and controlled sense of brooding upon the theme of melancholy – in specific, despair over the present and regret over the past as represented by the transitional season of Autumn - in which the aged and withered are cast off in preparation for the infinite cycle of rebirth – a metaphor for the infinite continuum of life – which persists un-interrupted even in the face of aging, and ultimately, death.

A source of inspiration for Fauré in composing his op. 18 is said to lay in the annulment of the composer’s engagement to one Marianne Viardot, daughter of 19th century mezzo-soprano and fellow composer Pauline Viardot). Although the subject matter of the text to Automne is rather tame in comparison to other entries on this list of most spooky compositions, the work’s famously daunting piano score adds a distinctive and foreboding aura to an otherwise monotonous work.

Indulge in the delectably dark and rich coloring of French contralto Nathalie Stutzmann as she performs
from Gabriel Fauré’s 3 Songs for Voice and Piano (op. 18, no. III), accompanied by pianist Catherine Collard:


Ahi desperate Vita (Alas, Desperate Life) by murderous Composer-Prince Carlo Gesualdo can be interpreted from the viewpoint of art imitating life. In this third madrigal from Gesualdo’s 1595 Madrigali libro terzo, anonymously supplied lyrics speak for themselves:

“Alas, desperate life,
which, fleeing from my beloved,
falls in misery into a thousand torments.
Ah, turn back to the kindly, restorative light
Which seeks to provide you comfort”

Unravelingmusicalmyths has previously gone into much detail on the life and times of Carlo Gesualdo and his sadistic and masochistic exploits (See: The Prince of Darkness).

According to music scholars of the Italian Renaissance to which Gesulado and his oeuvre belonged, the (allegedly) remorseful Prince would flee the region of Naples for Avellino in southern Italy following the brutal slaying by the composer of his first wife Donna Maria D’Avalos and her lover Fabrizio Carafa, and the alleged murder by Gesualdo of his infant son. The common school of thought on this most troubled composer suggests that the so-called “Prince of Darkness” was plagued not only by a deep depression in his final years, but also by a formally undiagnosed case of schizophrenia.

Upon analyzing the text of this most troubling madrigal, and contrasting it against what we know of Gesualdo’s life, one ultimately finds in the lyrics metaphors for a life plagued by intrigue, scandal and insanity - very much akin to the composer-prince’s real life. The words “Fleeing from my beloved…”  which follows into a “misery [of] a thousand torments” certainly seems to be in reference to the Lady d’Avalos, whose brutal murder prompted Gesualdo to flee Naples, upon which he would wed himself to what he believed was a “witch” (quite literally), in whom he would find himself the ‘victim’ of mugumbo – before slipping into a perpetual state of 'misery' in the form of madness. “Turn[ing] back to the kindly, restorative light,” could be a reference to the happier times of days past (although it remains uncertain if there were any), but is more likely to be symbolic of the invasive psychological urgings toward suicide and the great beyond – thoughts encouraged by a possible case of schizophrenia. Indeed, such ponderings could very much be further indicative of the previously mentioned “thousand torments.” It is said Gesualdo suffered upon himself the controversial practise of self-flagellagtion in his final years, in a possible display of penance for the brutal slayings.

In early September of 1613 the composer-prince died a neurotic recluse, some twenty years after departing from Naples - almost half of which he spent in near-isolation. Much like the subject of Ahi, Disperata’s madrigal, the Prince Gesualdo would at last “find comfort” - in death.

Listen below to Carlo Gesualdo’s Ahi, Disperata Vita, as performed by the Ensemble Basiliensis:


My fifth selection for this frightful list is yet another example of music in which the horror of the piece appears as a metaphorical wolf in sheep’s clothing: masquerading itself behind the sweet, melodic – even virginal – sounds of an all-female choir, who sing the role of a young woman in deference to her father (represented by a collective male voice), begging of him to honor her very unsettling request to save for her inamorata his life as the young maiden’s paramour is scheduled for execution by hanging the coming morn.

The stunning finality of the lyrics of the father, who finds his daughter "weeping" in front of the tower which holds her condemned lover is what sets this work over the top for me into morbid territory. There is no romantic movement about this request - the entire fate of the prisoner is shored up in two short sentences: "you won't have him," and "he will be hung at dawn on the morn."
The shocking chanson ends with the daughter committing herself to death - in a final show of true love, she informs her father she will prove to the world the veracity of her affections - by sharing with the condemned his grave.

I can't speak for the reader, but for me, the shocking display of indifference as displayed by the father, combined with the stalwart determination of the daughter, even until death and the beyond - makes this chanson's placid and melodic theme seem quite unsettling in the face of such finality. The exceptionally insouciant nature of the father - as contrasted by the calmness of the daughter - even as she methodically plans her own death in and of itself is rather macabre - but what sets this chanson over the top and into creepy territory for me is the depiction of the story by a virginal sounding female chorus spouting forth such insolent lyrics which makes this 20th century French song  exceptionally spooky.

Listen below to expertly disguised – and very macabre - La belle se sied a pied a la tour (the young maiden
sits before the tower) from French mélodiste Francis Poulenc’s 1945 Chansons Françaises:

Suggested Reading:
  • La Belle Se Sied a Pied a la Tour Text: at


Based on the famous poem of the same name by German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (of Faust fame), this 1821[1] lied (a music genre with which Schubert would become synonymous), tells the haunting story of a desperate father literally attempting to outrun death: the reaper “appears” in the form of the Erlkönig – the ghoulish “elf-king” of ancient Germanic folklore, which manifests itself as a goblin-esque spirit to the father’s young and ailing son, whom he cradles close to his body as he makes a mad dash ‘home’ on horseback (the 'home' , or 'hof' being the only - quite vague - final destination provided by Goethe’s poem), where, presumably, the sickly child’s needs could be met.

The suspense of this thrilling chase lay in the character of the father himself more so than the dying son or even the Erlkönig sent to collect his soul. As the man furiously spurns on his horse in a race against death through the woods during one blackened night, he clutches his ailing son to his body, finding himself in constant need to reassure he young child of the supposed innocence of his son’s visions of the Erlkönig, who appears to be following the duo (the rapid triplets played throughout the piece by the pianist provides to the listener an intense sense of urgency as they rhythmically depict the frenzied hoof beats of the horse as both father and son attempt to literally outrun death).
"Dost see not the Erl-King, with crown and with train?"

the son asks his father, to which he replies:

"My son, 'tis the mist rising over the plain."
In the background, looming just above the father’s shoulder, is the spirit of the Erlkönig, attempting to lure the sickly boy into the infinite abyss of death with promissory indulgences:
"Oh, come, thou dear infant! oh come thou with me!
For many a game I will play there with thee;
On my strand, lovely flowers their blossoms unfold,
My mother shall grace thee with garments of gold."
Again, the child asks of his father:
"My father, my father, and dost thou not hear
The words that the Erl-King now breathes in mine ear?"
His dad replies:

"Be calm, dearest child, 'tis thy fancy deceives;
'Tis the sad wind that sighs through the withering leaves."

Is the boy's father playing dumb - purposely mis-translating the promises of the Erl-King in an effort to keep his son from giving himself over to the reaper and to death? Or can he really not see the ghoul?

The son continues to provide audience to the Erlkönig, who himself continues to proffer gifts unto the child - upping the ante to include the love and companionship of his daughters (elverkongens datter in Germanic folklore), whom the shade assures the boy 'will sing [him] to sleep’:
"Wilt go, then, dear infant, wilt go with me there?
My daughters shall tend thee with sisterly care;
My daughters by night their glad festival keep,
They'll dance thee, and rock thee, and sing thee to sleep."
The son continues to inquire of his ‘visions’ to his father, who continues to offer rational excuses for his offspring's apparitions.

The Erlkönig begins to lose patience, threatening the son:
"I love thee, I'm charm'd by thy beauty, dear boy!
And if thou'rt unwilling, then force I'll employ."
..before finally capturing the boy’s soul - who offers forth to his father what will be his final words as he draws into his lungs his final breaths:
"My father, my father, he seizes me fast,
For sorely the Erl-King has hurt me at last."
The lied ends on a most mournful note:
“The father now gallops, with terror half wild,
He grasps in his arms the poor shuddering child;
He reaches his courtyard with toil and with dread, –
The child in his arms finds he motionless, dead.”
What horror!

Whilst the composition of music to the subject matter of the deaths of children would be met with much controversy today, the topic was anything but taboo in the mid 19th – early 20th century. Goethe’s poem and it’s setting to music by Franz Schubert was just one of many artistic renderings of the all-too commonplace events in that period of child mortalities – their collective source material gathered from experience within the unfortunate primitive health care and scientific sectors, notably, in regards to the consequences of the lack of immunization for illnesses such as scarlet fever and diphtheria – presently curable diseases then thought untreatable – and which would be responsible for a slew of infant deaths across Europe.

The Austrian composer Gustav Mahler, whose young siblings and, later, his 4 year old daughter would all perish from the diseases, would also set the risqué subject matter to music when he created his Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the death of children), itself composed after the works of the famous German poet Friedrich Rückert, who had penned some 428 poems on the subject matter following the deaths of his two young children from scarlet fever. Whilst the retrospective theme of Rückert’s collective works appear to be from the perspective of the ‘five stages of grief’ with the final stage (acceptance) representative of man's ultimate solace in the eternal nature of death, Schubert’s extraction exists in the present moment, and as such does not offer any form of hindsight.  It is this lack of finality in terms of the emotional state of the father after the death of his son, and the poems' many unanswered questions (and it's overall highly scrutinizable nature) that, for me, sets this frightening work into the horror territory: did the boy’s father intentionally lie to his son about his visions? Did he know he was being followed? What would have happened if they had reached ‘home’ before the Erlkönig collected from the boy his soul?

Sung by Baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau:


[1] final version.




No comments:

Post a Comment