5&1, Part 5: A Dark and Stormy Night

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This is the fifth in a weekly series that will seek to break down the mists and myths that put people off the vast treasure house that is classical music. Each time, I’ll take a theme and choose 5 pieces or excerpts (from over 600 years’ worth of music) and then round it all off with one larger work.

Hence 5&1 from 600!

You’re probably unaware if you’re reading this in the States, but we don’t really do Halloween in Britain; or at least, we didn’t until Hollywood instructed us and the rest of the world how to do it. I remember seeing E.T. in the cinema when it came out (jeepers—I can’t believe that it was 38 years ago!) and being totally confused about everyone wandering around as Frankenstein’s monster or Dracula. Just weird. But I totally get that it might be fun. And since composers have gone to town over the centuries with the ghoulish and macabre, it’s as good a time as any to pick out a few chillers from the archives.

So in recognition of Snoopy’s contribution to great literature, this is the kind of music to play on a dark and stormy night:

Night on Bald (or Bare) Mountain 

—Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881, Russian)
(Marinsky Orchestra, Valery Gergiev)

A brilliant but troubled prodigy who published his first composition aged only 12, Mussorgsky died at only 42 having never been able to break the grip of alcoholism and insanity. His musical legacy is remarkable, though (his opera Boris Godunov, a Russian Macbeth-type story, is one of my favourite pieces). This is a tone poem (a musical depiction of a scene or narrative) which evokes some very dark goings-on to commemorate St. John’s Eve (June 23rd). He completed the composition on that very day in 1867. But it would take the orchestration by his friend Rimsky-Korsakov for it to become really well known. Shivers… 

Peer Gynt suite: In the Hall of the Mountain King 

—Edvard Grieg (1843-1907, Norwegian)
Iona Brown (violin), Sir Neville Marriner & Academy of St Martin in the Fields

The great Norwegian dramatist, Henrik Ibsen, asked his compatriot Grieg to compose incidental music for his satirical play Peer Gynt. It is a staging of the fairy-tale about a character who sets off from Norway’s mountains and travels south all the way to the deserts of Northern Africa. The result is some of Grieg’s most popular music. ‘Mountain King’ is the English name, even though the original Danish (the language of Norway at the time) means something like ‘Troll King.’ As it happens, the king is just a figment of Gynt’s imagination, which explains why the music conveying the dangers from the troll is slightly tongue-in-cheek.

Erlkönig, D. 328 (Op.1):Wer Reitet So Spät

—Franz Schubert (1797-1828, Austrian)
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (baritone), Gerald Moore (piano)

Schubert could evoke charm, lightness and happiness one moment, but the next could witness him plumbing the depths of horror and despair. Here in his setting of Goethe’s poem, we find him making the hairs on your neck stand up with just a singer (who voices several characters) and fairly simple accompaniment. You can hear the breathless pace of a father carrying his son through the night on his horse in the music. But our fears intensify as the boy vainly tries to convince his father that the Erlkönig (the Elf King) is coming for him… Read a translation of the poem here.

The Return of the King (The Complete Recordings disc 4): 1. Mount Doom

—Howard Shore (1946- , Canadian)
Renée Fleming (soprano), Howard Shore (conductor), London Philharmonic

Howard Shore uses all the idioms and techniques of the great classical composers who went before him. The way he uses leitmotiv (musical ideas associated with individuals, locations or themes) is something that Wagner’s operas are famous for (especially The 4-opera Ring cycle, which Tolkien insisted, perhaps a little too vociferously (!), had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with Middle Earth). Shore uses the technique brilliantly—as well as the whole range of aural colour available to an orchestral composer. I think he is particularly effective in the LOTR films when things get darker…

Danse Macabre (Op. 40)

–Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921, French)
Kyung Wha Chung (violin), Charles Dutoit (conductor), Philharmonia Orchestra

There was an old French legend that Death would appear at midnight on Halloween each year to rouse the skeletons of the dead in a sinister dance (hence “Danse Macabre”), leading them with his violin. They would continue all night until the crowing of the cockerel at dawn (heard in the orchestra on an oboe). Its first performance in Paris apparently provoked widespread feelings of anxiety.

So imagine the vast Parisian catacombs suddenly coming to so-called life and echoing to the jangling of old bones and be afraid . . . very.

Isle of the Dead (Op. 29, 1908)

—Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943, Russian)
Vladimir Ashkenazy (conductor), Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra

Rachmaninoff was inspired to write this stand-alone so-called ‘symphonic poem’ by seeing one of a series of paintings (of the same name) by the Swiss painter Arnold Böcklin. The latter’s baby daughter had been buried near Böcklin’s studio, at the English Cemetery in Florence, and the series seems loosely based on that place despite of course being on land.

In the music, we can hear the lapping of the water and the relentless movement of the oars as we approach this strange and sinister island. There is lightness and even a little levity in the music from time to time, perhaps as we look at the natural beauty all around us. But we can’t escape the inevitable, and the closer we come to our destination, the more menacing and overwhelming the music becomes. We can never escape our mortality, however much we try to avoid going gently into that good night. Memento mori as the ancients constantly reminded us: remember that we die. Previous generations were far better at doing this than ours is, because we have believed the lie of eternal youth or that ‘it will never happen to me.’ That’s why we want to avoid being ‘morbid’ at all costs. 

But here’s the original purpose of All Hallows’ Eve (from which the word Halloween derives): Hallows is an old term for saints (holy ones) and All Saints’ Day (November 1st) was set aside for remembering those loved ones in Christ who have died before us and therefore represent a model for our own discipleship. But because the night before became associated with some practices like praying for the dead or seeking protection from evil, it developed a paganistic life of its own when shorn of its Christian moorings. Perhaps this piece might challenge us to reflect as our ancestors have.

Click here to listen on Spotify and here to listen on Apple Music.

This playlist will be updated each Friday with new music recommendations from Mark Meynell.


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