A Classical Halloween: Pt. 1 -What Should We Add?

Oct 29, 2014

It's that time again! If you have any classical-music Halloween favorites, write to us at classical@iowapublicradio.org. Here are a few possibilities to get the conversation started; in Part 2 I'll post a few more later, bringing my total to 13. And then on Monday, Halloween, I'll add a Part 3 with all your suggestions (at least 13!).  To start things off:

The "Black Cat" from 1934 was the SECOND horror talky to use the Toccata and Fugue
Credit https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3702908

 1) It's not just that Bach didn't associate Halloween with the Toccata and Fugue in D minor, it's that he may not even have known the piece existed. Peter Williams, who wrote the book on Bach's organ music, observes that nobody attributed this work to Bach until long after he was gone, that no copies exist in Bach's hand, and that it's not really in his musical style. Williams came to two counter-intuitive conclusions that have won some scholarly acceptance: first, that the familiar organ version is a transcription of a lost original for solo violin, and second, that neither was written by Bach. But does it matter? The organ piece is thrilling, and thanks to the 1931 horror flick, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and 1934 Bela Lugosi/ Boris Karloff scare-fest The Black Cat, it's as hard not to associate with Halloween as to forget the Lone Ranger when you hear Rossini's William Tell overture.


2) Offenbach -  The mythical character Orpheus, whose music was so beautiful that it charmed the Furies into giving him a free pass in and out of the nether world, has inspired composers since at least 1607, when Monteverdi wrote the first great opera, Orfeo. That work would be a fine choice for this list, as would the lovely treatment by Gluck, Orpheus and Eurydice (the source of  the Dance of the Blessed Spirits). But I'll go with Offenbach's send-up of the operatic tradition - Orpheus in the Underworld - because in it, the Furies dance a can-can. 

3) William Bolcom was among the first major composers to embrace American vernacular styles, and there's no better example than his  The Graceful Ghost Rag (one of three Ghost Rags). Bolcom wrote this gentle piece as a tribute to his late father, but it has become a Halloween favorite, partly because music lovers want any possible excuse to play it one more time: 

4) Beethoven belongs on the Halloween list - but which piece? The obvious choice is the Piano Trio. no. 5, nicknamed "The Ghost" because of its spooky slow movement. But I'm gonna go with a long shot: the Piano Sonata. no 14. That's the one we call "The Moonlight" because someone compared its first movement to moonlight on a rippling lake. But that connection was made decades after Beethoven's death. I'm convinced by pianist/ composer Gianluca Cascioli that what Beethoven himself had in mind was a spooky scene in Mozart's Don Giovanni. The ghost of the Commendatore (whom the Don had slain at the beginning of the opera) appears near the end to drag the Don to eternal punishment. Mozart's ghost sings, accompanied by uncanny triplets in the bass - and Beethoven transmuted these notes, says Cascioli, into the triplets in the first movement of the Sonata no. 14. (Moonlight? - ha!) As for what's in the sonata's right hand - that repeated-note motif - it's based on the first words the Commendatore sings. This movement is my nomination for overlooked Halloween greatness! (Don Giovanni also belongs on this list - we'll get to it tomorrow). 

5) Ravel's piano collection Gaspard de la Nuit portrays more than one supernatural character. But from a pianist's standpoint, the final piece, Scarbo, is the ultimate in fright - just to play the notes requires technique that's almost supernatural. Here's the young Israeli pianist Inon Barnatan making it look easy: 

6) Mahler - Gotta have some Mahler on a list of Halloween music, but which piece? The third movements of the first two symphonies would work, but I'm gonna go with the Fourth Symphony's second movement, which was inspired by a figure from Medieval art, "Friend Henry," a skeleton who plays the violin: 

7) Russians have written some of the spookiest music about the supernatural - just thinking of Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain can make you shiver - but I'm running with Mussorgky's younger colleague Anatoly Lyadov and his two tone poems about Slavic witches,  Baba Yaga and Kikimora. Either would be great for Halloween, but I'll post the former because the words Baba Yaga are fun to say.   

8) Giuseppe Verdi - Falstaff:  the "Moonlight" scene from Act III. Verdi was 79 when he wrote this Shakespeare-based masterpiece, his first comic opera in five decades. The Halloween connection? In the last scene, the locals teach a gentle lesson to the dissolute old knight, Sir John Falstaff, by luring him to the woods for what he thinks is a midnight assignation. There he's suddenly surrounded by outraged elves and sprites (in fact, the townies in costumes that would be perfect for trick-or-treating); their "fairy music" is magical to our ears, and their ruse takes in the superstitious Falstaff. Yet even though he's terrified, he keeps up his irreverent punning (when the townies sing Fallo pentito Domine!  - "Make him penitent, Lord" - the portly knight interjects, Ma salvagli l'addomine "But spare my potbelly").  It's hilarious, and even better, it ends with a lovely affirmation of forgiveness, acceptance, humanity, and community. You gotta see it if you haven't; here's a start: 

Next, in Part 2: music of Purcell, Schubert, and others will appear here, and then on Monday, Part 3 will bring your suggestions and other finds. What are YOUR classical Halloween hits? Let us know! at classical@iowapublicradio.org or on Facebook.