To celebrate Halloween, we’re taking a look at spooky classical music written especially for the human voice.
From cackling witches to scheming sorceresses to doomed doppelgangers to unscrupulous psychics, we’re about to meet all kinds of sinister, spine-chilling characters, and how composers brought them to life.
Grab your Halloween candy and let’s go! Here’s our chronological tour of thirteen of classical music’s scariest pieces of vocal music.
Henry Purcell: Witches’ Scene from Dido and Aeneas (c. 1688)
Around 1688, English composer Henry Purcell wrote an opera based on the story of Virgil’s Aeneid.
The first act opens with Dido, savvy queen of Carthage, on her throne. She is depressed that she has fallen in love with a foreigner named Aeneas. She is terrified that being in love will make her a weak ruler.
Her attendants encourage her to marry Aeneas, and she reluctantly agrees.
In the next act, Dido’s fears prove to be well-founded. A sorceress plots to destroy Carthage by sending a disguised representative to convince Aeneas that he should leave Dido to seek glory elsewhere. The hope is that Aeneas’s departure will devastate her so thoroughly that she will die.
The witches present all cackles at the diabolical plan, then disappear in a thunderclap.
George Frideric Handel: Morirò, ma vendicata from Teseo (1713)
George Frideric Handel’s opera Teseo premiered in January 1713 in London. It was the eighteenth-century equivalent to Game of Thrones, featuring mechanical dragons and other special effects.
The protagonist is the king’s son Teseo (the Italian name for Theseus, the character from Greek mythology).
The sorceress Medea has been publicly betrothed to the king. However, before their marriage he rejects her in favor of a princess, humiliating her.
Later, she is prevented from marrying the king’s son, Teseo, too. By the final act, she has gone mad with jealousy and decides to convince the king that Teseo is a threat to him and that he should poison his son’s drink.
Handel wrote incredible music portraying the crazed sorceress out-of-her-mind with jealousy.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Commendatore death scene from Don Giovanni (1787)
Don Giovanni’s eponymous main character is a hellish nightmare of a human being. He uses his wealth, power, and good looks to hurt and seduce women. (According to one aria, his little black book features over two thousand names.)
The opera opens with Don Giovanni attempting to assault the Commendatore’s daughter. To avenge his daughter, the Commendatore challenges him to a duel, and Don Giovanni kills him.
Toward the end of the opera, a statue of the Commendatore knocks on a door and invites Don Giovanni to repent of his sins. Don Giovanni refuses, and he is dragged down into hell.
Even today, this remains one of the spookiest pieces of vocal music of all time!
Joseph Haydn: The Wanderer (1795)
In 1795 Haydn published a collection of songs called Original Canzonettas, Set 2.
These songs were a project that he undertook with the help of a friend named Anne Hunter, the wife of London’s greatest surgeon, who befriended him during his British tours.
Anne Hunter actually wrote the English lyrics for this mournful, spooky song that describes an eerie late night walk.
To wander alone when the moon faintly beaming
With glimmering lustre darts through the dark shade,
Where owls seek for covert, and nightbirds complaining,
Adds sound to the horror that darkens the glade…
Felix Mendelssohn: Hexenlied from 12 Gesänge, Op.8 (1824-27)
In his 12 Gesänge (12 Songs), Op. 8, Mendelssohn set words by a poet named Ludwig Christoph Heinrich Hölty, a popular German poet whose works were set by Mendelssohn, his sister Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel, Mozart, Schubert, Beethoven, and Brahms, among others.
In this song, a witch sings vividly and at great length about her coven’s plans:
Our coven dances
And kisses his claw-like hands!…
Mendelssohn adds an appropriately spine-tingling accompaniment.
Franz Schubert: Der Doppelgänger from Schwanengesang (1828)
Over the course of his career, Schubert wrote many spooky or melancholy songs, but this is one of his most haunting.
“Der Doppelgänger” was written in 1828, the year of Schubert’s early death. Originally it was written for tenor and piano, but it has also been sung by contralto and piano.
The song sets a terrifying poem by Heinrich Heine, in which the narrator finds himself inside the house that his long-gone beloved once lived in.
The narrator notices a man looking to the sky, wringing his hands – then realizes, with horror, that this man is his double, or his Doppelgänger.
At the time, it was believed that if you saw a Doppelgänger, you were actually dead…so the narrator’s discovery is terrifying on multiple levels!
Modest Mussorgsky: Songs and Dances of Death (1875-77)
In the mid-1870s Modest Mussorgsky wrote four songs inspired by death.
The first portrays the death of a baby. Death comes for the child in the form of a babysitter, who rocks the infant to eternal rest.
The second reveals Death waiting outside the window of a young unmarried woman, behaving as a lover might.
In the third song, a drunken peasant stumbles outside into a blizzard and meets Death. Death invites him to dance the Trepek, a Russian folk dance, and the peasant ends up freezing to death.
In the last song, Death visits a moonlit field after a fierce battle. She tells the deceased that she is their new commanding officer, and that even though the soldiers had once fought on opposing sides, they are now comrades.
Engelbert Humperdinck: Hurr, hopp hopp! from Hansel and Gretel (1891-92)
In Engelbert Humperdinck’s opera Hansel and Gretel, two poor hungry siblings are sent out into the forest by their mother to look for strawberries.
The father returns home with a feast that he purchased after selling some brooms. He is terrified when he finds out where the children are, as the forest is home to a witch who lures little children into her home with the promise of sweets, then bakes them and turns them into gingerbread.
The children do end up meeting the witch, and, overjoyed at finding them, she sings this aria to describe how she rides her broomstick. The aria features an extremely memorable musical cackle.
Richard Strauss: Junghexenlied from 5 Lieder, Op. 39, No. 2 (1897-1898)
Here’s another German witch song, this time from Richard Strauss. It came from a collection of five songs and its title in English means “Young Witch’s Song.”
The story is a bit opaque. The narrator rides across the mountains on horseback while hearing a ringing sound. (Possibly the sound of bells, which can drive away witches, according to folklore?)
The narrator finds the ringing pleasant, comparing it to children’s voices or stroking a soft head of hair.
But then the ringing mysteriously stops. She reaches her hometown at night and looks down into the dark valley, seeing that her son has left a light on for her in her home.
Sergei Prokofiev: Act Five from The Fiery Angel (1919-1927)
Prokofiev’s opera The Fiery Angel had a long gestation that took the better part of a decade.
The protagonist, Renata, is a woman searching for her lost love: an angel who she believes has been reincarnated as a man named Count Otterheim. Otterheim had slept with Renata, as Renata wished, but then left her, and she wants to find him again.
She goes on a lengthy adventure to do so. Ruprecht, a knight she meets on her journey, falls in love with her, and the two dabble in sorcery.
Eventually Renata finds Otterheim and decides that he was not her reincarnated angel, after all, just a man who took advantage of her. She asks Ruprecht to avenge her in a duel, but Otterheim ends up overpowering Ruprecht.
Finally Renata and Ruprecht give up on Otterheim and move in together with each other, but in the end, Renata decides she wants to join a convent instead.
When she arrives at the convent in the fifth act of the opera, the religious leaders there accuse her of being possessed by demons. The other nuns also become possessed, and the Inquisitor condemns her to die at the stake.
Gian Carlo Menotti: The Medium (1946)
The Medium is a two-act opera written in English.
Its protagonist is a young woman named Monica, who is the daughter of a charlatan medium named Madame Flora.
Monica and Toby, a mute servant boy, are falling in love, and together they aid Madame Flora in her deceptions.
While giving a seance to a grieving family, the drunk Madame Flora feels hands closing around her neck. She believes it was an attack by Toby, but she has lost the ability to tell between the supernatural and reality.
Madame Flora is so upset and so drunk that, at the next seance, she reveals her tricks of the trade.
She also fires Toby, who returns to the apartment to see Monica and gather belongings after Madame Flora falls asleep. In the process, Toby accidentally wakes her up, hides, and is shot. Madame Flora cries out, “I’ve killed the ghost!” Monica flees to find help, and Madame Flora whispers brokenly, “Was it you?”
Benjamin Britten: Prologue from Turn of the Screw (1954)
Benjamin Britten’s English language opera The Turn of the Screw is based on the novella by Henry James.
The opera begins with a lone singer on stage. That singer describes the story of a governess who was hired by the uncle of two children to care for them.
There were three stipulations to her employment: she could never contact him about the children, she could never ask about the history of the house, and she could never leave the children.
A spooky story follows that is perfect for Halloween, featuring a mysterious pale man, the ghost of the children’s former governess, and other unspeakable holiday-appropriate horrors.
Libby Larsen: The Witches’ Trio (2000)
American composer Libby Larsen’s “The Witches’ Trio” is written for unaccompanied voices: two soprano parts and two alto parts.
The lyrics come from the song of the witches from Shakespeare’s Macbeth (the famous “double, double toil and trouble” excerpt).
The fiercely repeated lines end up sounding like an incantation. It is clear that these are very determined and fast-talking witches, determined to wreak supernatural havoc!
As you can see, classical music is full of spooky vocal music that’s perfect to listen to during the Halloween holiday…and these thirteen selections are only the beginning!
If you have any other favorite pieces of Halloween-friendly classical vocal music, be sure to share in the comments! In the meantime, happy Halloween and happy listening.
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