Written by Don Kaplan

Here’s an eclectic collection of music appropriate for Halloween you might not have heard before or listened to in this context. This assortment ranges from ballet, movie, and orchestral works to operas and an operatic musical. It includes appearances by the Devil, a ghost or two, music on the subject of death, a costume party (of sorts), and a cautionary tale (for educational enrichment). Sorry – no rock, pop, or old MTV clips here: Every composer has a major classical music or musical theater connection.

Herrmann/Music From the Great Movie Thrillers/Bernard Herrmann, cond. (Decca LP) Bernard Herrmann composed many chamber and concert hall works including suites (Welles Raises Kane, The Devil and Daniel Webster), a cantata (Moby Dick), a symphony (Symphony No.1), and an opera (Wuthering Heights). But he’s best known for his film scores, especially the ones he wrote for several Alfred Hitchcock films. The soundtracks for North by Northwest and Psycho, two of the director’s best films, easily qualify for inclusion at a Halloween party attended by people who aren’t what they appear to be.

Listening to the North by Northwest  “Overture” will get you in the mood for this column’s selection of musical tricks and treats. It’s a thrilling, rhythmically exciting few minutes that starts softly but quickly develops into gripping music that pulls you right along with it. The “Overture” is based on a hemiola, a rhythmic trick that gives music the impression of speeding up…an ideal device for building tension and moving the action forward as the film’s story of murder and mistaken identities unfolds. [1]

If that isn’t enough to get you in the mood, try “Psycho (A Narrative for Orchestra)  from a film that centers on a very different kind of mistaken identity. It includes the slashing sounds Herrmann used for the iconic shower scene: You’ll recognize the murder when you hear it. Like the “Overture,” it’s an outstanding recording with a wide and deep soundstage, although the perspective isn’t similar to what you would actually hear in a concert hall. 

“North by Northwest: Overture”


“Psycho: A Narrative for Orchestra”


Britten/The Turn of the Screw/Benjamin Britten, cond. (Decca CD) Every Halloween celebration should incorporate at least one ghost story, and Benjamin Britten’s opera The Turn of the Screw, based on a novella by Henry James, fits the bill perfectly. The “Prologue” sets the scene:

It is a curious story.
I have it written in faded ink – a woman’s hand,
governess to two children — long ago.
Untried, innocent, she had gone first to see their guardian
in London, a young man, bold, offhand and gay,
The children’s only relative…
This then would be her task [as their governess].

But there was one condition: he was so much engaged;
affairs, travel, friends, visits, always something, no time
at all for the poor little things – she was to do
everything – be responsible for everything – not to worry
him at all – no, not to write, but to be silent, and do her best.

She was full of doubts….

As well she should have been. Disturbing and frightening things follow but this isn’t your usual haunting: aspects of the story are open to interpretation and the reason for the ghosts’ appearance is ambiguous.

Related: You don’t have to wait for a special occasion to enjoy the elegant and creepy The Innocents (1961), a psychological horror film based on the same Henry James story but without Britten’s music. It stars Deborah Kerr, has a screenplay adapted by Truman Capote and playwright William Archibald, is available on YouTube, and – it’s in CinemaScope!

The Turn of the Screw/“Prologue” (CD)


The Innocents (Film)


Monteverdi/L’Orfeo/Emmanuelle Haïm, cond. (Virgin CD) Recognized as the first true opera, Claudio Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo (1607) with a libretto by Alessandro Striggio [2] tells the story of what occurs when Orfeo, who is about to marry Euridice, finds out she has died of a snake bite. Orfeo resolves to recover her from Hades and travels there to meet with Pluto, King of Shadows and the Underworld. Pluto decrees Euridice can go back to Earth on one condition: As Orfeo leads her out he can’t look back. Of course, he does look back to make sure Euridice is really behind him and she fades away as a result. Having lost Euridice a second time, Orfeo returns to Earth alone and the chorus comments on the paradox of a man who can conquer Hades but not his own emotions.

Before the wedding Orfeo sings “Vi ricorda, o boschi ombrosi” about how fortune has changed her tune and turned his griefs to joy. (“Vi ricorda” incorporates a hemiola – the  same rhythmic alteration used by Bernard Herrmann over 400 years later.) In “Tu se’ morta, mia vita,” sung after Euridice’s death, Orfeo contemplates softening Pluto’s heart through the power of music so he can bring Euridice out of Hades “to see the stars again: or, if adverse destiny denies me this, I shall remain with you among the dead. Farewell, Earth; farewell, skies; and Sun, farewell.”

“Vi ricorda, o boschi ombrosi” from Act II (Video: Le Concert des Nations/Jordi Savall,  cond.)


“Tu se’ morta, mia vita” from Act II (CD)


Stravinsky: The Soldier’s Tale/Igor Stravinsky, cond. (Sony CD) The Devil plays an important part in Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale (L’Histoire du soldat), a theatrical work performed by several actors, dancers, and instrumentalists. It’s a cautionary story based on a Russian folk tale – the parable of a soldier who trades his soul (symbolized by a violin) to the Devil for a magic book that can tell the future and make him rich. However, he soon discovers that money does not bring happiness. The soldier manages to break his contract with the Devil and return to the way things were only to have the Devil prevail in the end by retaking the soldier’s soul. After the “Triumphal March of the Devil” the narrator closes the tale by stating the moral of the story:

You must not seek to add
To what you have, what you once had;
You have no right to share
What you are with what you were.

No one can have it all,
That is forbidden.
You must learn to choose between.

One happy thing is every happy thing:
Two, is as if they had never been.

“Triumphal March of the Devil”


Gould: Fall River Legend/Morton Gould, cond. (RCA LP) You’ve heard it before:

Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done
She gave her father forty-one.

True story: Lizzie’s father and stepmother were hacked to death and it became “the trial of the century” in part because the murders were so bloody. [3] Despite Lizzie’s acquittal in 1892, the question of this gentle woman’s guilt has never been resolved.

Fall River Legend is Morton Gould’s music for Agnes De Mille’s 1948 ballet of the same name. The story is retold as it might have existed in the minds of people who were there at the time, and Lizzie is hanged in the ballet version. The “Epilogue” brings together many elements of the story: the respectable household, confusion surrounding the murders, questions about whether Lizzie’s quiet personality was masking a murderess, the Puritan New England manner presented as psychological repression, hymn tunes, Lizzie’s and the Pastor’s mutual attraction, and her hanging.



Berlioz/Symphonie Fantastique/Colin Davis, cond. (Philips LP) Just about everyone enjoys a costume party and at a BBC Proms concert in 2019, the Aurora Orchestra members wore masks for a performance of the “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath” from Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique.

Symphonie Fantastique (1830) is a program symphony [4] from the early Romantic period. Through its five parts it tells the story of “an artist, gifted with a vivid imagination, [who falls in love with] a woman who embodies the ideal of beauty and fascination that he has long been seeking…. [5] Having become certain that his love goes unrecognized, the artist poisons himself with opium. The dose of the narcotic, too weak to kill him, plunges him into a sleep accompanied by the most horrible visions. He dreams that he has killed the woman he had loved, that he is condemned, led to the scaffold, and that he is witnessing his own execution.” [6]

The final part describes the artist’s satanic dream. The artist “sees himself at the sabbath, in the midst of a frightful assembly of ghosts, sorcerers, monsters of every kind, all [coming] together for his funeral. Strange noises, groans, outbursts of laughter, distant cries which other cries seem to answer. The beloved melody [idée fixe] appears again, but it has lost its character of nobility and reticence; now it is no more than the tune of an ignoble dance, trivial and grotesque…” [7] Images are reflected in the music by a variety of spooky sounds, like the clattering of dancing skeletons produced by striking violin and viola strings with the stick of the bow (col legno).

If you’ve been searching the record bins for a great performance of Symphonie Fantastique, try to find the Colin Davis LP recommended above. Davis was a Berlioz specialist and the LP was produced during Philips best-sounding years. Davis’ later CD version is fine, too, but you won’t be able to treat yourself to that larger LP cover depiction of witches painted by Goya.

“Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath” (Video)


Crumb: Songs, Drones, and Refrains of Death/Ensemble New Art (Naxos CD)

George Crumb was well-known for his use of extended instrumental and vocal techniques. [8] Death-Drone III,” the final movement from “Drones,” uses some of these techniques to create an eerie ambiance.

According to Crumb, “From 1962 until 1970 much of my creative activity was focused on the composition of an extended cycle of vocal works based on the poetry of Federico Garcia Lorca. The cycle includes Songs, Drones, and Refrains of Death (1968) for baritone, electric instruments, and percussion…the largest in conception and the most intensely dramatic in its projection of Lorca’s dark imagery…. Lorca’s haunting, even mystical vision of death, which embodies, and yet transcends the ancient Spanish tradition, is the seminal force of his dark genius….”

Death-Drone III” isn’t a Charles Bronson action film. It’s perfect Halloween music: mysterious, spooky, and ritualistic sounding…even if that wasn’t the intention. Keep the lights on for this one.

“Death-Drone III” (CD)


Sondheim: Sweeney Todd/Original cast album (RCA CD) “More hot pies!” demand the customers at Mrs. Lovett’s pie store. What the unwitting customers don’t realize is that the barber Benjamin Barker, who was exiled to prison on a trumped-up charge by the villainous Judge Beadle Banford, has returned to London. He now goes by the name Sweeney Todd and has been slaughtering men indiscriminately until he can take his revenge on the Judge. Todd disposes of his victims by slitting their throats during a close shave, then causing their bodies to fall through a trap door. The tunnel below leads to a bakehouse, where the ever practical Mrs. Lovett bakes their flesh and serves it as an ingredient in her delicious meat pies.

I used to be a horror film fan. When I heard about “The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” I couldn’t imagine how the story could be made into a musical (some refer to it as an opera because there are only a few minutes of dialogue). But Sweeney is a winner both literally – having received a Tony Award for Best Musical as well as awards for the movie version – and figuratively.

“The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” sets the scene. To help you recover from that ominous start, move along to the comforting “Not While I’m Around” sung by Tobias Ragg, an orphan who serves the pies and reassures Mrs. Lovett during the calm before the stormy ending.

Related: For those with similar appetites but lighter tastes, The Little Shop of Horrors, a 1960 movie about a people-eating plant by schlock film director Roger Corman, was transformed into a successful Off-Broadway musical, then into a very funny movie. The musical had a plant that not only eats people and talks (“Feed me!”), but generated a hit song as well (“Suddenly Seymour”).

When you’ve finished listening to these selections, relax. Have a piece of pumpkin pie. No need to be afraid of homicidal barbers, killer plants, hatchets, showers, or mistaken identities once Halloween is over. You can go back to reading this column without fear. At least until next October.

“The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” (CD)


“Not While I’m Around” (Video)


The Little Shop of Horrors/“Suddenly Seymour” (Video)

[1] A hemiola is a musical rhythmic alteration in which six equal notes may be heard as two groups of three or three groups of two. Using numbers instead of notes and counting each number equally, two groups of six notes in a hemiola would sound something like this: 1,2,3 / 1,2,3 / 1,2 / 1,2 / 1,2.

[2] For more about Striggio see “Size Counts” in “The Mindful Melophile,” Issue 138.

[3] A hatchet was actually used to do the deed, not an axe. And her father got up to 10 or 11 whacks, her mother 19. After the trial “Lizzie inherited her parents’ money, moved into a large modern house in a different neighborhood, and lived until age 66 in relative isolation.” Sam Frizell, “5 Crazy Things You Should Know Before Watching Lifetime’s Lizzie Borden Took An Axe,” Time, January 25, 2014.

[4] Instrumental music that carries an extramusical meaning, e.g., a literary idea, scenic description, legend, or personal drama.

[5] The woman he loves is represented by a theme (idée fixe) that appears throughout the symphony. An idée fixe is related to a leitmotif or leitmotiv – a short, recurring musical phrase associated with a particular person, place, or idea.

[6] From Berlioz’s own program for the symphony.

[7] Ibid.

[8] See “Whatever Happened to Honk, Bonk, Boing and Blomp?” in Issue 126.

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