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The annual celebration of Halloween on October 31 marks a life-and-death occasion, when the living remember the departed. Different countries have their own traditions for the commemoration, with many using humour to dilute the disturbing notion of the finality of death. Fear is one of the toughest emotions to portray in music, but the challenge has been met by plenty of composers. The following selection of compositions ranges from spooky sounds to tales of terror to dates with the devil. Don't turn off the light.


Naxos 8.557527
SCHOENBERG, A.: Pelleas und Melisande /
Erwartung (Schoenberg, Vol. 9)


The final scene in Erwartung, Schoenberg's monodrama for soprano and orchestra reaches a terrifying climax when The Woman sees a bench and a man's body lying on the ground next to it, glazed eyes staring lifelessly, blood dripping from a chest wound. She touches the face, hair, mouth, and, placing one of its cold hands on her breast, recognises the corpse as her lover's.

MAXWELL DAVIES, P.: The Boyfriend Suite / The Devils Suite / Seven In Nomine / The Yellow Cake Revue
Maxwell Davies, Aquarius, N. Cleobury

The Suite from The Devils is derived from the score that Maxwell Davies wrote for Ken Russell's film The Devils of Loudun, which depicts lust, corruption, exorcism and execution within a medieval religious setting. The music gives a good account of the extremes of violence and introspection which are contained within the film as a whole.

Naxos 8.572408
Naxos 8.660109-10
BRITTEN: Turn of the Screw (The)

Based on Henry James' novella of the same title, Britten's The Turn of the Screw is a dark opera revolving around two children, angelic and seemingly perfect in behaviour, who are soon shown to have disturbing elements within them. This is apparently the result of their corruption by the man-servant Peter Quint and their former governess, Miss Jessell, both now dead. Returning as ghosts, they lure the children into evil.

BARTÓK: Concerto for Orchestra /
Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta

No supernatural subtext in Bartók's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, but the eerie sounds of this work's third movement will have you thinking that there is. An example of the composer's noted night-music mood, the atmospheric sounds will have your goosebumps transfixed.

Naxos 8.550261
Naxos 8.572886
BERLIOZ, H.: Symphonie fantastique /
Le corsaire

Lyon National Orchestra, Slatkin

The final movement of Berlioz's imaginative orchestral extravaganza Symphonie Fantastique (Fantastic Symphony) depicts a dream about a witches’ Sabbath, a wild orgy of diabolic celebration. Amid the clattering of broomsticks, the death knell is heard and the sound of the traditional chant of the Dies irae, the hymn of the Day of Judgement from the Requiem Mass, mingles with the dance, as the work draws to an end.

LISZT, F.: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 / Totentanz
Nebolsin, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, Petrenko

Liszt is believed to have written Totentanz(Dance of Death) after viewing a fresco in Italy of The Last Judgement. Comprising a set of variations for solo piano and orchestra, the work echoes Berlioz's symphony as a paraphrase of the Dies irae, the sequence from the Mass for the Dead.

Naxos 8.570517
Naxos 8.555777
LIGETI, G.: Etudes, Books 1 and 2 (Biret)

The devil takes pride of place in Ligeti's two sets of piano studies: the longest is titled L'escalier du diable (The devil's staircase), a driving toccata which zig-zags its way across the keyboard and displays more than a touch of Lisztian diablerie at its technical core.

SALTER / SKINNER: Monster Music

With music from the films Son of Frankenstein, The Invisible Man Returns and The Wolf Man, this disc is the perfect accompaniment for an evening spent carving out those spooky Halloween pumpkin lanterns!

Naxos 8.557705

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