Conductors choose chilling music
Francesco Milioto, conductor of the Skokie Valley Symphony Orchestra and the Highland Park Strings, was among those who named “Danse Macabre” by Saint Saens as a chilling piece of music. It depicts the devil dancing at midnight with skeletons.
Updated: October 25, 2012 8:42AM
Halloween has become the second biggest holiday in the United States, with decorations and lights proliferating on front lawns all through October.
So it is no surprise that symphony and choral conductors are tempted to program music that reflects the eerie nature of the holiday, in which ghostly souls are purported to roam the night prior to the Christian feast of All Saints Day Nov. 1.
We’ve polled some of our area conductors to ask them to pick their favorite “scary” music, and why it so often ends up on programs in October.
“Symphony Fantastique by Berlioz,” replied Larry Eckerling, music director of the Evanston Symphony Orchestra, “and its ‘March to the Gallows.’ The subtext provides imagery which contributes to the scariness,” he continued.
Berlioz’s powerful work depicts a young artist, under the influence of opium, who dreams he is being taken to the guillotine after supposedly killing his beloved. It is packed with brass calls and swirling strings and finished with drum rolls and dense chords depicting the falling blade.
It has been called the best movie music ever written before there were movies, and Eckerling rightly notes the power of film scores to create frightening atmosphere. “John Williams’ Symphonic Suite from ‘Jaws,’” he said, adding “Who could forget that music?”
Allan Dennis, founder and director of Midwest Young Artists in Highwood, also cited Symphony Fantastique’s “The Dream of the Witches’ Sabbath.”
He described the reaction of one of players in one of his youth ensembles. “I actually had an orchestra member leave rehearsal once because she was so frightened when she opened the page and saw the title,” he said, adding, “(but) it might have been because it is so difficult to play as well!”
Both “Witches’ Sabbath and “March to the Gallows” are first on the list for Northwestern University faculty member Stephen Alltop, director of music for Alice Millar Chapel in Evanston and music director/conductor of the Elmhurst Symphony. He also mentioned “Gnomus” and “The Hut on Fowl’s Legs” from Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.”
Dennis, Alltop and Francesco Milioto, conductor of the Skokie Valley Symphony Orchestra and the Highland Park Strings, all mentioned “Danse Macabre” by Saint Saens as another chilling piece of music. It depicts the devil dancing at midnight with skeletons, whose clattering bones are represented by the xylophone.
The “Dies Irae” from the Verdi “Requiem” owes no musical debt to the Gregorian chant used in the Catholic Mass for the Dead. But the Latin words chronicling the Last Judgement, are the same.
“Hell fire, trumpets, swooping strings, bass drum,” declared Milioto. “Excellent scary music.”
Bernard Herrmann, Alfred Hitchcock’s main composer, was cited by Dennis for his terrifying score for “Psycho,” with strings screeching upward again and again in the terrible shower scene.
“Certain harmonies make music scary,” explained Eckerling. He mentioned diminished chords, in which the second note and third note in a major triad are each taken down half a step.
“The relentless use of diminished chords, which are not consonant and yet do not necessarily demand resolution, leaves the listener floating out in no man’s land, which is unsettling,” he declared.
Timm Adams, conductor of the Chicago Chamber Choir, spoke about the musical elements that contribute to a composition’s fright quotient.
“Minor keys instead of major keys, unresolved dissonance, with lots of minor seconds and tritones, diminished chords and other non-traditional harmonies,” he explained.
“And repetitive rhythmic or melodic gestures, and I mean repetitive to the point of playing with your mind,” he added. “Think the theme from ‘Jaws’.”
“Obviously,” he continued “the primary difference between choral/vocal music and instrumental or orchestra music is the addition of text, which immediately helps the listener understand the context and the intent of a song.”
Jay Friedman, principal trombonist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and music director of the Symphony of Oak Park and River Forest, named the spooky and exciting music from the second movement, itself 25 minutes long, of the Gliere Symphony No. 3 as a favorite.
“In it the Russian hero Ilya Mourometz goes to the enchanted forest to kill a hideous creature called Solevei,” Friedman explained. “The music portrays in great detail his fear and trepidation. He eventually shoots a flaming arrow into the monster’s eye, ties him to the stirrup of his horse and takes him to the court of the Kingdom of the Sun.”
The creature in this movement is portrayed by a contrabassoon, which is featured as a solo instrument through much of the piece, he declared, adding “The deadly nightingales are the flutes chirping throughout.”
Friedman continued: Ilya Mourometz’s fear is perfectly depicted by a combination of oboes, English horn and solo cello. The moment that the hero sees the hideous creature is starkly orchestrated by a fortissimo trill in the upper woodwinds, like a shriek of horror.
When the hero summons his horse to dispatch the monster and shoot the flaming arrow, a brilliant rhythmic figure starting in the clarinets; dud-it, dud,it, dud-it etc, recreates the sound of hoof prints perfectly, he declared.
“All this in a so-called slow movement!” he exclaimed. “The battle between Ilya and the creature is brilliantly captured by outbursts of the low brasses and tuba, as if a giant reptile-like creature was writhing in agony.”
According to Friedman the movement is so varied in pictorial detail that it almost stands alone as a symphony.
Allan Dennis recalls conducting a particularly affecting piece of music, “Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima” by Penderecki. “I was doing this one summer with a 75 member Suzuki string orchestra in Stevens Point, Wisconsin on the 30-year anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima.
“Remember this was the Japanese Suzuki Institute,” he added. “We had invited other faculty/students/parents to come and hear the children play it through, so the place was packed.
“I still get choked up thinking about it because when we finished, there were audible sobs throughout the room. Many of the students were crying and no one spoke as they left the room.
“It was scary because it depicted a horrible actual event.”