FRANZ SCHUBERT - THE ELF KING
One of Schubert’s most famous songs gets a rousing orchestral treatment from Hector Berlioz. Inspired by a poem of Goethe (that master of the macabre), it depicts a father and son galloping on horseback through the forest as the child is haunted by the voice of the evil Elf King.
CAMILLE SAINT-SAENS - DANSE MACABRE
Saint-Saëns’s creepy 1874 tone poem is a Halloween classic, depicting the revelry of the Grim Reaper at midnight every year at this time. With his cursed fiddle, Death summons the dead from their graves to kick up their heals until dawn. In this vintage Disney animation, listen out for the xylophone sound of rattling bones.
W.A. MOZART - DON GIOVANNI
It's probably safe to say that being dragged into the depths of hell is a potentially scary situation. But few could make it sound as terrifying as Mozart manages to in Don Giovanni. Listen to the booming bass of the Commendatore as he announces his arrival. Yikes!
EDVARD GRIEG - IN THE HALL OF THE MOUNTAIN KING
Perhaps Grieg’s most famous piece, this hair-raising number is from the Norwegian composer’s incidental music to Henryk Ibsen’s play Peer Gynt. In this scene, the not-so-heroic Peer Gynt is in the hall of the troll mountain king surrounded by trolls who wish to kill him. Yikes!
ANTONIN DVORAK - THE WATER GOBLIN
A mother warns her beautiful young daughter not to go too close to the lake, lest the amorous water goblin try to make her his bride. So much for good advice.
ANTONIN DVORAK - THE NOON WITCH
A mother scolds her misbehaving child with tales of the Noon Witch, who appears at midday to steal naughty children. Little does she realize the witch is real…
NICOLO PAGANINI - THE WITCHES DANCE
During his life, Paganini was rumored to have sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his wickedly good violin skills. While this tune may be familiar to many Suzuki Method violin students, the real piece is so difficult that only the best violinists can manage it. These variations are based on a theme by Franz Xaver Süssmayr, the composer who completed Mozart’s Requiem.
SERGEI RACHMANINOV - THE ISLE OF THE DEAD
In the solemn opening strains of Rachmaninov's symphonic poem, we hear plaintive oboe and gloomy clarinets as the composer depicts the sound of the oars of Charon cutting through the waters of the river Styx, bringing our immortal souls ever closer to the underworld. In short, a bit of a downer. Inspired by Arnold Böcklin’s mysterious paintings, this piece (like many others on this list) is based on the Dies Irae, the traditional Catholic chant for the dead.
BELA BARTOK - ADAGIO FROM MUSIC FOR STRINGS
Bartòk's haunting, strangely delicate "night music" in the third movement of this 20th-century masterpiece is so atmospheric and suspenseful that Stanley Kubrick used it in the soundtrack to his horror film The Shining. Listen out for the unusual timpani glissandi effect (the low, other-worldly sliding bass) that underscores the unsettling mood.
GUSTAV HOLST - ODE TO DEATH
ARNOLD SCHOENBERG - ERWARTNUNG
For some listeners terrified of atonal music, almost anything Schoenberg wrote could have made this list. But the German composer's one-act opera Erwartung (Expectation), an extended monologue for solo soprano, is one of his most confronting, intensely paranoid psychological experiences. A lone woman wanders through the woods at night searching for her lover. When she stumbles upon a tree trunk that she believes to be his dead body, a tirade of fears and emotions is unleashed. At the cruel climax of the work, she discovers the real body. It's no walk in the park.
FRANZ LISZT - TOTENTANZ
Liszt loved to flirt with death. The great Romantic was obsessed with all things macabre and diabolical, themes he explored in works including La lugubre gondola, Funérailles, Pensées des morts and the Mephisto Waltz). Totentanz (Dance of the Dead) is one of his most thrilling and schockingly modern compositions, from the strident, menacing opening to the truly diabolical virtuosity demanded of the solo pianist.
MARSCHNER - DER VAMPYR
The vampires in tabloids and teen novels today have nothing on the 19th-century European variety. The creatures of the night enjoyed a brief vampire craze in theatre and opera of the early 1800s, well before Bram Stoker's Dracula emerged on the scene. Heinrich August Marschner's grand opera Der Vampyr (1828) is based on a fragment of a novel by Byron, which was completed by the poet’s doctor. Lord Ruthven Earl of Marsden, a newly created vampire, has asked the Vampire Master for another year on earth before being dragged into hell for eternity. This he is granted, provided he can sacrifice three young ladies by the following midnight. Marschner’s sinister chromatic writing and chorus of witches and hobgoblins is enough to put Twilight to shame.
PAUL DUKAS - THE SORCERER'S APPRENTICE
Inspired by Goethe's poem, this bewitching tone poem was made famous in Disney’s original Fantasia. Dukas' impish theme will forever be associated with images of Mickey Mouse attempting to chop up an army of possessed mops.
NIGHT ON BALD MOUNTAIN - MODEST MUSSORGSKY
Inspired by Russian legend, Mussorgsky's tone poem depicts the dark ritual of a witches' sabbath. Sadly, it was never performed in his lifetime, but the arrangement by his friend Rimsky-Korsakov has become a concert blockbuster.
BERNARD HERMANN - PSYCHO SUITE
Even without Hitchcock's horrific shower scene burned on our retinas, Bernard Herrmann's massed string dissonances in his score for the 1960 film Psycho instantly create an atmosphere of fear and disturbance.
WAGNER - DIE VALKYRIES
This battle-cry is actually quite a triumphant event in the original staging of Wagner's Ring Cycle, but thanks to the piece being used to soundtrack helicopters flying through war-torn Vietnam in Francis For Coppola's Apocalypse Now, it's safe to say that this is officially a scary piece.
HECTOR BERLIOZ - SYMPHONIE FANTASTIQUE MVMT. 4
FRANZ SCHUBERT - DEATH & THE MAIDEN
In this song, death confronts a young maiden and attempts to coax her into his icy embrace. This song was famously the inspiration for the Andante of Schubert’s String Quartet No. 14 in D minor.
JOHN WILLIAMS - JAWS THEME
It doesn't seem logical that just two notes could cause such a sense of foreboding, but John Williams managed it. His soundtrack to Spielberg's Jaws has been keeping people out of the sea since 1975.
ALEXANDER SCRIABIN - "BLACK MASS"
Piano Sonata No. 9 Op. 68 While Scriabin didn’t actually give this sonata its nickname, he did approve of it. With its intensely chromatic harmonies, it certainly sounds demonic when played by Vladimir Horowitz!
TARTINI - The "DEVIL'S TRILL" VIOLIN SONATA
Here’s what Tartini had to say about this piece, his most famous composition: “One night, in the year 1713 I dreamed I had made a pact with the devil for my soul. Everything went as I wished: my new servant anticipated my every desire. Among other things, I gave him my violin to see if he could play. How great was my astonishment on hearing a sonata so wonderful and so beautiful, played with such great art and intelligence, as I had never even conceived in my boldest flights of fantasy. I felt enraptured, transported, enchanted: my breath failed me, and – I awoke. I immediately grasped my violin in order to retain, in part at least, the impression of my dream. In vain! The music which I at this time composed is indeed the best that I ever wrote, and I still call it the “Devil’s Trill”, but the difference between it and that which so moved me is so great that I would have destroyed my instrument and have said farewell to music forever if it had been possible for me to live without the enjoyment it affords me.”
ANDRE CAPLET - MASK OF THE RED DEATH
The harp isn't usually associated with fear and death, most often relegated to music of a "nymphs and shepherds" variety. André Caplet, who composed many of the loveliest works for harp in the repertoire, took the instrument out of its comfort zone with some incredibly ethereal, chilling music based on Edgar Allan Poe's short story The Mask of the Red Death. In the original tale, a prince holds a lavish masked ball, where he confronts a mysterious figure wearing a ghoulish mask and bloodstained robe. When the prince falls dead, his other guests forcibly remove the mask to reveal no solid form underneath: it is the spirit of the "Red Death" plague come to claim them all.
J.S. Bach - Toccata & Fugue in d minor
Bach's towering monument of organ music, with its deep sense of foreboding, will forever be associated with imagery of spooky old castles and a phantom's lair...
HECTOR BERLIOZ - SYMPHONIE FANTASTIQUE
In the final movement of Symphonie fantastique (1830), described by Berlioz as a “diabolical orgy”, a lovelorn artist who has attempted suicide by opium poisoning (but not with a lethal dose as intended) has a tripped-out vision of witches, sorcerers and monsters assembled at his funeral.