Sunday, 22 May 2016


Part II of my 13 Most Frightening Works is now complete! * RECAP: I present to the reader part II 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 naughty devils in the disguise of beautifully melodic music (who appear as wolves in sheep's clothing).*

There is much to cover, so let’s dive right in!

* View Part I of this entry here.


The Overture and infamous Commendatore scene[1] from Mozart’s 1787 opera Don Giovanni aside, it is considered a rarity to find amongst the 18th century Austrian maestro’s oeuvre truly horrific works. One exception to that rule lay in Mozart’s deeply brooding piano concerto No. 24.

Composed in 1785 over the course of a year, this spooky number has been likened by modern musicologists as a means to a creative outlet for Mozart, wherein he could freely express to his audiences his “darker” side (possibly to avoid becoming a niche composer of humor) after having composed several comic operas.

Have no qualms about the piece, dear reader – this concerto is undeniably spooky:

[1] both of which are equally horrific pieces themselves, and worth checking out if looking for a truly frightful evening spent cowering under the sheets. In the interest of selecting for this list works that are unconventionally spooky in lieu of clichéd (yet otherwise creepish) pieces commonly found on similar lists, I have not included them here, but have provided links to videos in the titles themselves.


This battle-inspired work was penned by German composer Ludwig van Beethoven in 1807 for Austrian dramatist Heinrich Joseph von Collins' tragic play Coriolan – a re-enactment of the legendary Roman general Gaius Marcius Coriolanus at the point in which he is about to invade Rome following an attack on the empire by the Volscians and Coriolans arriving from Antium and Corioli.

Beethoven’s overture begins full of testosterone-infused terror in an undeniably apt depiction of the Roman soldiers, full of rage and filled to the brim with visions of battle-infused debauchery - of forcing the enemy to their knees in bloody defeat. The tension is so thick you couldn’t slice it with a well-edged gladius.

Just as the listener’s blood beings to boil at a furious pace, a more tender, placid theme infiltrates the frenzied orchestral fray: it is several years later following Marcius’ triumph over the Volscians and the Volsci territory of Corioli (upon which he had earned the cognomen “Coriolanus”): Coriolanus has been living in exile following a dispute with the fickle Roman public over the distribution of grain and having been convicted by the tribunal as having been too harsh. His haven of choice? Living amongst the Volsci, who oddly, have embraced the former warlord. The listener soon discovers the defeated’s motive: the champion in battle had become engaged to turn his rage back upon Rome – the Volsci using Coiolanus’ anger (induced by his forced exile from his home) to their benefit: together they would wage war upon the empire. The brief and tender symphonic interlude that ensues is in the form of Veturia, mother to Coriolanus, who, alongside the general’s wife and sons, beg of him to cease engaging in battle with Rome.

It is here, once both music and plot break from previous tensions, that we find Coriolanus moved, not only to the point of cessation of war, but to the point of immense sorrow for his actions. Not to worry, though, the plot ends in bloodshed: 

Coriolanus' resolve for turning his back on Rome? Why, to kill himself of course.

This is the “most frightful” list, after all.

Listen below to a rare live recording with the Berlin Philharmonic of the tempestuous Overture from Beethoven's Coriolanus, his 62nd Opus, under the baton of maestro Carlos Kleiber (BPO Concert, 28 June 1994):


This 16th century work is yet another example of a beautifully sung piece with arguably the most macabre subject matter on this list. This short chanson for 5 voices by late-Renaissance composer Orlande de Lassus (Orlando di Lasso) sounds exquisitely harmonic and even soothing at first listen. It is only upon digesting the work’s text that the true horror of this piece makes it’s way out of hiding: from the dark and into the light, where the listener can gaze upon it for all of it’s sinister charms.

Based on the 16th century verse by contemporary poet Guillaume Guéroult, the work depicts a celibate nun, who is about to experience a violation upon her chastity by a gang of elder heathens (which, believe it or not, took it’s inspiration from the biblical book[1] of Daniel: in the story of Susanna and the Elders which takes the assault even further: upon hearing her cries of rape, villagers come running under the guise of concern, only to make of the victim a whore upon hearing the concocted story provided by the heathens: that Susanna had been caught in flagrante delicto with a young man who had since flown the coop).

Knowing of the violent act about to ravage her body and mind, the nun vows to her would-be assailants – and presumably to heaven – to suffer instead a most painful and drawn out death in lieu of sacrificing her virginity. (In the Book of Daniel, it is ‘explained’ that the character of Susanna, failing to sacrifice her chastity to the heathens, faced having her character besmirched as a promiscuous woman – which, according to the custom of the day, would mark the accused for what would be little more than a show trial, whereupon the presumed guilty would be convicted and sentenced to death for having been “caught” engaging in the act of fornication).

This is just the type of work that would invoke an outrage if composed today.

Listen below to the beautiful - yet wholly macabre - Susanne un Jour by Orlande de Lassus, as sung by
the exceptionally talented Vox Luminis Ensemble:

[1] from the Old Testament Apocrypha


As reigning king of the highly evocative lieder genre, it is perhaps unsurprising to find on this list another entry by Herr Schubert. Appropriately titled "Death and the Maiden," this time we eavesdrop on a conversation between a young woman and the reaper himself, who attempts to lure the young maiden into accepting the 'gift' of eternal slumber as he coyly begs for her hand (which he requires) to allow for her soul to cross over to the ‘other side’.

This haunting lied, inspired by a poem written by German poet Matthias Claudius, begins with a piano playing a slowly paced and darkly brooding theme (that is eerily precursive of Chopin’s later Funeral March from his Piano Sonata No. II), and remains slowly brooding throughout as the reaper attempts to steal from the unwilling maiden her soul:

The text (public domain):

Das Mädchen:
Vorüber! Ach, vorüber!
Geh, wilder Knochenmann!
Ich bin noch jung! Geh, lieber,
Und rühre mich nicht an.
Und rühre mich nicht an.

Der Tod:
Gib deine Hand, du schön und zart Gebild!
Bin Freund, und komme nicht, zu strafen.
Sei gutes Muts! ich bin nicht wild,
Sollst sanft in meinen Armen schlafen!
The Maiden:
Pass me by! Oh, pass me by!
Go, fierce man of bones!
I am still young! Go, rather,
And do not touch me.
And do not touch me.

Give me your hand, you beautiful and tender form!
I am a friend, and come not to punish.
Be of good cheer! I am not fierce,
Softly shall you sleep in my arms!

Listen below to Der Tod und das Mädchen by Franz Schubert, as sung by contralto Nathalie Stutzmann,
with Inger Sodergren on piano:


This list is undoubtedly Schubert heavy, however it would be something of a blasphemy to ignore the maestro’s 1827[1] lied Der Leiermann, the last of a 24-part song cycle entitled Winterreise.

Der Leiermann (The Hurdy-Gurdy Man) is an all-around unsettling piece. Scored for voice and piano, this final lied of the Winterreise cycle represents one man’s inevitable resignation to his own mortality and is depicted through the metaphor of an agèd beggar, who, with one foot already in his own cold grave, plays for an audience of none (save for the protagonist himself, who is in reality looking inward toward his own person) what was once beautiful music - now so tarnished and out of tune, that, much like attempting to play from a scratched album on record player, just getting the music’s opening measures off the ground requires the hard labor of turning a crank on the lowly instrument of the hurdy-gurdy. So uncouth is this sad substitute for a violin that even the "neighborhood dogs begin to growl"[2] upon hearing the wheel-fiddle screech out its first note.
a Hurdy-Gurdy player
“Strange old man. Shall I come with you? Will you play your hurdy-gurdy to accompany my songs?” the protagonist inquires of his shade – in a miserable state of self loathing, the unattached and much failed Romeo requests a silly musical accompaniment to mimic his own misfortunes in love, and his own perception of uselessness in old age as he “go[es] with” his spirit into the infinite abyss of the great beyond.

What makes this rather sad tale even more unsettling is the period in which Winterreise was composed: it would be during Schubert’s final (and fatal) stages of advanced syphilis[3] that Schubert would complete the composition of the monumental work (he would expire less than one year later in November of 1828). It has been suggested by musical scholars in contemporary Europe and in the present era that the entire Winterreise cycle is, in essence, a semi-autobiographical work. The roots of this assumption lay in the claims of fellow musicians / artistic intelligentsia who had attended the composer’s private concerts known as Schubertiade, and thusly, who knew Schubert quite well. The Austrian poet and librettist Johann Mayrhofer would go on to describe for his contemporaries a deeply melancholic Schubert, who he describes as having the ‘winter (death) upon him,’ and that the composer felt that in his old and decrepit state that ‘life had lost it’s rosiness.’ Mayrhofer goes on further to quote from Schubert himself:
“come…today [to Schubertiade] and I will play you a cycle of terrifying songs; they have affected me more than has ever been the case with any other songs."
Adding further torment to the miserable makings of Der Leiermann and Winterreise, the text for the cycle, selected from celebrated German poet Wilhelm Müller’s 1824 anthology Poems from the posthumous papers of a travelling horn-player, was never enjoyed (as set to Schubert’s music) by the poet himself – Müller would die in 1827 – the same year Schubert was putting his final touches on the massive tome.

Listen below to this excellent performance of Der Leiermann by baritone Thomas Quasthoff, whose
exceptionally rich and deliciously dark hues provide the perfect mood for setting to life this sad and
sombre table of woe. With maestro Daniel Barenboim on piano:

[1] date of completion of Part One of Winterreise.
[2]from program notes: "24. Der Leiermann (The Hurdy-Gurdy Man) Behind the village stands a hurdy-gurdy man, cranking his instrument with frozen fingers. His begging bowl is always empty; no one listens to his music, and the dogs growl at him. But his playing never stops. “Strange old man. Shall I come with you? Will you play your hurdy-gurdy to accompany my songs?”
[3] the official cause of death then listed for Herr Schubert was that of Typhoid fever. However, many later scholars of medicine and of music agree upon a finding of death caused by the consequences of the tertiary stages of neurosyphilis.


Neo-classical contemporary composer Philip Glass is known for shattering the pre-conceived mold of classical music, providing for modern audiences highly avant-garde operas (such as his incredibly bizarre Einstein on the Beach), and grossly evocative scores for mainstream film. The following video is just one of many such examples of a composer who refuses to pen clichéd works or play it very close to vest with his music.

I have selected for this list Glass’ “Dark Kitchen” from Hollywood film director Martin Scorsese’s 1997 biopic Kundun. This soundtrack is unusually spectacular for a Hollywood film score - it was difficult to select this track over several other dark and highly emotionally-charged works (some of which feature the exotic art of Mongolian throat singing - a vocal technique so uncommon in the West, it is easy for the listener to have been conditioned to feel not it's undeniable beauty, but rather it's strangeness, which can easily be interpreted as spooky. It is for this reason I have hesitated to select for this list those pieces).

The following orchestral work displays a haunting blend of traditional and modern Eastern and Western instrumentation, with sublimely spine-chilling and extraordinarily exotic results:

Listen below to Dark Kitchen from the soundtrack of 1998 biopic Kundun:


My penultimate entry for this list of most frightful music is the 1st movement of Ludwig van Beethoven’s 1805 Piano Sonata No. 23 in F Minor, the “Appassionata” (a posthumous moniker attached to the work by a publisher in 1838).

Perhaps this later attribution was coined in reference to what many believe to have been the inspiration for the highly dynamic work: it is said the composer penned the Appassionata for the sonata’s dedicatee – that is, the two sisters of one Count Franz von Brunswick, in whom Beethoven was said to be enamored.

The Appassionata’s premier movement fluctuates between a furious and frenzied to a rather placid and contemplative theme – said to be suggestive of the sisters of von Brunswick: Therese, in whom Beethoven admired of her her nature and spirit (placid and contemplative), and Josephine von Deym, in whom the composer admired her décolletage and postérieur (fast and frenzied). Both ladies unequivocally rejected the advances of the composer, and what the listener is left with is a frustrated entry in the musical diary of Herr Beethoven, wherein the famously moody composer is free to express his rage over unfulfilled sexual and noble desires.

Listen below to the first movement of Ludwig van Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 23 in F minor: the
Appassionata, as performed by maestro Daniel Barenboim:


What list of frightful works would be complete without making reference to the ancient Dies Irae Gregorian chant (of which the previously mentioned composer Liszt used (in part) as a source for his spine-chilling Totentanz?)

Perhaps it is solely due to the mainstream media’s overindulgence of the explosive Requiem of Verdi or the horrifically opium-induced Symphonie Fantastique of Berlioz that this many centuries-old Latin hymn has become synonymous with terror.

In reality, this plainchant depiction of the Christian doctrine of the “Day of Wrath,” is really quite beautiful - that is if one spares the hymn's rather macabre subject matter (the work surrounds itself at the biblical Armageddon – or the “Day of Judgment” in which all souls are 'summoned by the Lord' and judged to be either delivered or condemned, and likewise sentenced to an eternity in heaven at the Throne of God, or cast into the eternally unquenched fires of hell.

Listen below to the Dies Irae Gregorian Chant as performed by the Aurora Surgit Ensemble
and soloist Alessio Randon:

I hope you enjoyed my selections!

If you missed part one click here to view the first half of this article.

Thank you readers, for your patience with me in finishing this list (this one sure took a while!) I am thankful to announce that Part One has been a top visited post since it's publication, and it is my hope that the reader will enjoy the conclusion of this article as much as the first half.

As always, thanks for reading, and check back often for updates!




  1. This is perfect for my halloween soundtrack. It's nice to see some choices other than saint saens for a change. Beethoven's apassionata is so moody it sounds like it belongs in an old horror flick. Perfect compliment to halloween

    1. Thanks for your comment - I am pleased you enjoyed reading this post!

      Be sure to check out my new list, AUTHOR'S CHOICE: COUNTDOWN TO HALLOWEEN - 13 CHILLING COMPOSITIONS for more frightful pieces personally selected by Unraveling Musical Myths!