Thursday, 27 October 2016


 Unraveling Musical Myths


Let's finish where we left off with a little Shostakovich. Grab your safety blankets, you'll soon be cowering underneath them!


VII. ALLEGRO MOLTO – String Quartet No. 8 in C Minor, Op. 100 (Mvmt. 2) - Dmitri Shostakovich

This ravenous quartet for strings boasts a back story as frenzied and unsettling as its mania-inducing rapid tempi.

Shostakovich’s 8th, the so-called “War Requiem” was composed bearing a heavily burdened and fearful mindset by the 54-year old musician in just three days at Dresden in 1960.
Not only had the Soviet composer been recently diagnosed with an incurable affliction of the heart and a motor neuron disease (now known as Lou Gehrig’s disease), Shostakovich was fresh off the heels of joining - with much hesitation - the Communist party of the Soviet Union. The 8th quartet, in particular it’s allegro molto was fashioned by the emotionally overwhelmed composer as an exposé on the brutality and the destructive nature of war.

Shostakovich, who dedicated the piece to victims of war and fascism, was said to have become so overwhelmed by memories of wartime, that he buried his face in his hands and openly sobbed upon hearing the work performed for the first time. Led Lebedinsky, a confidante of the composer, would later claim the work to be a manifesto for the composers’ suicide, which Lebedinsky believed was imminent.

VIII. COLD SONG – King Arthur, or the British Worthy - Henry Purcell

One can actually feel the icy chill in their bones upon listening to English composer Henry Purcell’s Cold Song (What Power Art Thou Who From Below) from the third act of his 1691 semi-opera King Arthur. In this standout aria, the cherubic Cupid awakens the so-called “Cold Genius” and orders him to freeze over the land.

The Cold Genius responds to this rather rude awakening in a frighteningly frosty tone:
“What power art thou, who from below
Hast made me rise unwillingly and slow
From beds of everlasting snow?
See'st thou not how stiff and wondrous old
Far unfit to bear the bitter cold,
I can scarcely move or draw my breath!
Let me freeze again to death.”
Shivering strings and well-timed gasps for breath by famed countertenor Andreas Scholl make this chilling aria come to life:

IX. TABERNA QUANDO SUMUS – Carmina Burana - Carl Orff

Like Saint-Saëns Danse Macabre, Taberna Quando Sumus aims to frighten using the tactic of lighthearted spook. Orff's Carmina Burana, which held it's premiere at Frankfurt in Nazi Germany in 1937, is a frequent contender when it comes to lists showcasing creepy classical music. It makes an appearance here too – but it’s not the movement you are thinking of.

I have selected for inclusion on this frightening list the scenic cantata’s 22nd movement. Originally fashioned as a drinking song, Orff’s employment of ominous sounding strings and jarring percussion serving alongside Latin chant makes this selection more suited for a horror film than a drunkards' festivities.

X. VESTI LA GIUBBA – Pagliacci - Ruggero Leoncavallo

Leoncavallo’s famous tenor aria “Vesti la Giubba” from his 1892 opera Pagliacci may be performed on stage by a singer donning the threads of a clown, but make no mistake, dear reader, Vesti La Giubba is no laughing matter. The impassioned and lugubrious aria, translated into English as “put on the costume” is quite simply just as it's title states: when Canio (a successful clown act) discovers his wife has been unfaithful, he opts to bury all of his angst and rage behind a thick layer of face paint and the costume of a fool and takes the stage in an arguably sociopathic effort to rid himself of true emotion by relishing in the cheering and applause from a fleeting crowd.

The aria’s most poignant – and frankly, most depressing – line:
"ridi, Pagliaccio, e ognun applaudirà!" (laugh, clown, so the crowd will cheer!)


The title says it all: this horrifying piece by Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev serves as soundtrack to a sacrifice wherein an ‘Evil God’ accompanied by seven ‘monsters’ engage in furiously frenzied and possessed dance.


Fans of 19th century author Oscar Wilde will be familiar with the Irish writer’s treatment of the biblical tale of Salome, step-daughter/niece to the ruler Herod and his wife, Herodias and the prophet John the Baptist which he had produced for the stage in 1891. Strauss, who borrowed Wilde’s treatment for his own libretto for his 1905 opera of the same name, spared no creative expense when it came to scoring and staging his version of the debauched fable.

In the video below, we find Salome engage the severed head of John the Baptist (whom she had ordered beheaded in exchange for a sinfully – and frankly incestuous - exotic dance before king Herod) in a passionate kiss – as a final coup de grâce over the dismembered cadaver, who had the fatal misfortune of rejecting the advances of the princess while he was alive and well.

The final scene in Strauss’ Salome is notorious in the operatic sphere for being one of the most gruesome finales to ever appear on stage.


Bartók’s underrated 1918 opera, Bluebeard’s Castle deserves a mention on this most frightening list due to the exquisitely scored suspense that begins in the first act and carries throughout.

Based on the French folktale “Le Barbe Bleue,” Bartók takes us in the first scene inside one of the darkened corridors of what audiences will soon learn is the entrance to a blood-drenched castle. We meet Bluebeard, a wealthy and diabolically insane aristocrat, and his bride-to-be, Judith - who he had forced into betrothal – discussing the many closed doors and the lack of sunlight into the fortress. This is merely a prelude - a distraction of sorts - to a ghastly series of horrors that begin to unfold as the opera progresses (later, we find Judith at the threshold of a door she demanded opened by Bluebeard, taking in a most grisly scene: blood, (assumed to belong to his 3 ex-wives, who all suffered mysterious disappearances) splattered and smeared across the walls and floors, (the novel has the corpses hanging from hooks on the wall, drenched in blood) and a silvery lake, which Judith accuses is full of the tears of his mutilated former wives.


SYMPHONY NO. V - Per Nørgård

Not since Liszt's spine-tingling Totentanz have I heard such a genuinely horrifying piece. The name of Danish composer Per Nørgård is one not well known in the Americas, but it very well should be. This terrifyingly picturesque number was written by the composer for the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra and it's resident conductor, Esa-Pekka Salonen in 1990. It has been rightly referred to as "a walk with a fire-breathing dragon" - more like a debauched waltz with Beelzebub, if you ask me:

ENSUITE - Stefen Prins:

Far from conventional and delightfully twisted, 21st century Belgian composer Stefan Prins’ bizarre “Ensuite” for cello could be the perfect backdrop for any horror flick or haunted house.

Commissioned for Canadian cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras, Ensuite employs a most - unusual - playing technique, which delivers most unusual, and frightening results.

Listen to an excerpt from this creepy number below:

BONUS! More Honorable Mentions – the best of the "Best Clichéd Works!"

Below you find listed my personal favorites for the Halloween Season.

These mentions are for those who seek to find the best of the Halloween clichés: works commonly found on “Most Frightening” lists. There is no need to go into much detail on these selections, as the lists featuring these pieces are legion and therefore their back stories are not incredibly difficult to find.

What separates this BONUS list apart from those ‘popular’ lists is the selection of orchestra and conductor for each piece - each personally considered by the author of this blog as being exemplary renditions of each work. They are as follows (click links to listen on YouTube):

  • DANCE OF THE KNIGHTS - Romeo & Juliet - Sergei Prokofiev: The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Mark Ermler 

    and that concludes this edition of 13 Most Frightening Pieces of Classical Music.

    If you missed PART I of this entry, be sure to check it out here.

    Happy Halloween!


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