Strong responses to terrifying music can actually cause changes in our mental state and may even bring on physical manifestations such as chills, changes in heart rates or hair standing on end. Evil mythological beings have been depicted time and time again in classical music. From ancient Russian witches to German child-snatching ghosts to medieval French allegories of skeletons, the terror depicted in classical music can be very vivid. Just as with storytelling, music can play around with our senses and stay rooted in our memories.
Modest Mussorgsky’s Night on a Bald Mountain (1867) depicts a witches’ sabbath, inspired by Russian mythology. As well as terror, Mussorgsky brings a sense of the primitive earthiness of Russian pagan rites celebrated on St. John's Eve. From the very outset, there is a menacing atmosphere, a definite feeling that something unpleasant is brewing. A sense of fear rises up with the shrill strings, blasting winds and the weaving of a Dies Irae-style melody. The story centres around a group of witches in their yearly hangout, on a mountain where not a single tree or shrub can grow. There they perform satanic rituals around a fire and beckon their leader, the devil himself. Mussorgsky named the movements: Assembly of the witches, their talk and gossip; Satan’s journey; Obscene Praises of Satan; Sabbath. Mussorgsky’s ending was one of savagery and chaos, with earth-shattering dissonances.
Witch of Endor by the Russian realist painter Nikolai Ge, 1857
Mussorgsky was still in his teens when he conceived the idea to compose Night on a Bald Mountain, yet it was not performed until 5 years after his death, when he would have been 47. It is interesting to take note of the youthful exuberance of the musical ideas used to make the work sound so successfully hair-raising. Deemed unsuitable in his lifetime due to its brashness, it made it into the public forum thanks to Rimsky-Korsakov’s revisions. (Although in Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestral revision, which is the most widely performed version, he made it somewhat polite in comparison, ending with dawn church bells bidding farewell to the demons of the night before.)
In Franz Schubert’s song Erlkönig (1815), a child and his father are riding on horseback in the dead of night. The child has the ability to see and hear a certain evil being. It is intriguing how in literature, music and film, innocent children are often portrayed as having an extra sense of the supernatural that adults simply don’t possess. The Erlkonig, an evil “Erl King” comes to capture the young boy and bring him away with him, not by force but by means of charm, using tempting, tantalising words to entice the child away with him. The father repeatedly comforts his child, insisting that all is well, that there is absolutely nothing to fear, but finally, when their late-night journey ends, the father looks down and realises he is not holding his living breathing son, but a corpse. The Erl King has succeeded. Schubert set his sumptuous musical ideas to Goethe’s 1782 poem of the same name, drawing on an ancient ghost story from Germanic mythology.
Erlkönig illustration by Moritz von Schwind
In Camille Saint-Saëns’ Danse macabre (1874), the title literally means ‘dance of death’, derived from an old French superstition. In medieval times, references to death dances, depicted in French manuscripts and paintings from as early as 1424, had the function of teaching the people a lesson, reminding them that life is fragile, that death is inevitable and that they should all lead responsible lives. “Death”, the Grim Reaper appears at midnight on Halloween, beckoning the skeletons from their graves until the cockerel crows the next morning. Saint-Saëns does this with a hauntingly rich descending melody, accompanied by a feeling of urgency. The rattling of bones is symbolised by the xylophone. Interestingly, the Dies Irae Gregorian chant of death appears skewed (that is, in the major key, not the usual minor one!) The work is based on a deathly poem by Henri Cazalis:
‘Zig and zig and zag, Death sets the rhythm Striking a tombstone with his heel Death at midnight plays a dance Zig and zig and zag, on his violin One hears the rattling bones of the dancers But psitt! Suddenly the dance ceases They push each other, they flee, the cock has crowed’.
Michael Wolgemut's Danse macabre, 1493
It was originally intended for voice and orchestra, but Saint-Saëns eventually replaced the vocal line with solo violin. It was transcribed for solo piano by Saint-Saëns’ good friend Franz Liszt and was even arranged for the solo organ, which is perhaps one of its eeriest settings.
The Romantic resurgence of interest in ancient tales brought back to life many age-old stories of an unsettling nature. To this day, ghost stories are continuing to be brilliantly depicted by contemporary composers, such as John Corigliano in his Ghosts of Versailles and Dirk Brossé’s Halloween Dances, proving that the combination of the supernatural and the arts are a ceaselessly epic combination.