Danse Macabre by Camille Saint-Saëns
In this creepy classic, the violinist represents the figure of death, though Saint-Saëns’ grim reaper has a fair dose of Gallic suavité.
The Isle of the Dead by Sergei Rachmaninoff
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.
In the Hall of the Mountain King by Edvard Grieg
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!
The “Devil’s Trill” Sonata by Giuseppe Tartini
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.”
Le Streghe, or “The Witches’ Dance” by Niccolò Paganini
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. Incidentally, the Houston Symphony will be performing Mozart’s Requiem this November.
Piano Sonata No. 9 “Black Mass”, Op. 68 by Alexander Scriabin
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!
The Noon Witch by Antonín Dvořák
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…
The Water Goblin by Antonín Dvořák
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.
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Paul Dukas
Inspired by Goethe’s eponymous poem, this bewitching tone poem was made famous in Disney’s original Fantasia.
Death and the Maiden by Franz Schubert
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.
Der Erlkönig (The Elf King) by Franz Schubert
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.
Night on Bald Mountain by Modest Mussorgsky
While Rimsky-Korsakov’s arrangement of Mussorgsky’s original material is the most famous version, the original version is even wilder. To read a famous literary version of the legend that inspired this piece, check out Gogol’s story St. John’s Eve.
Totentanz by Franz Liszt
In Liszt’s “Dance of Death,” the pianist represents the figure of death swooping down on defenseless denizens of the Middle Ages. See if you can recognize the Dies Irae in this one!
Did I miss your favorite? Post it in the comments below! Stay spooky, and Happy Halloween!