Category Archives: Songs and Pieces

Classical Music for Halloween Playlist

Halloween and classical music are a natural fit. Shrieking violins, demonic trills, spooky organs: the range of sounds available to the classical composer can conjure up visions of demons and ghosts, witches and warlocks.

Halloween is particularly well-represented by Romantic music — that is, music composed after about 1825 to the beginning of the twentieth century. This is Romantic with a big “R” — big feeling, big fears, big mysteries, big stories. Before the Romantic period, composers didn’t reserve a whole lot of creativity for titles, and we got stuck with something like “Sonata in A minor.” And one million “Minuets.”

But the Romantics, now that’s different. Thematic music told whole stories, without words. In Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture,” we can listen to Napoleon’s invasion of Russia; we hear the prayers before battle, the horns and drums of marching cavalries, snippets from the French national anthem, folk dances around the soldier’s campfires, and the flaming retreat from Moscow.

Not to say that other composers didn’t have their share of spooks. From Bach to the moderns, Halloween and related myths — full of ghostly stories, mysteries, and the grand feelings of passion and death — are well-represented.

Commerce with the Underworld: The Sale of Souls and Dancing with the Devil

One of music’s most enduring myths is that of the musician who sells his soul to the devil. The Faustian bargain, described in poetry by Goethe, found a receptive audience among concert-goers, who were more than willing, for example, to believe that the great violinist Niccolo Paganini sold his soul to the devil. (So, according to legend, did the twentieth-century blues master, Robert Johnson; indeed, one can visit the highway crossroads where the transaction is said to have taken place.) 

  • Carl Maria von Weber, Der Freischutz. This piece describes the forester who meets the devil in a forest, and agrees to sell his soul. Cheap? Expensive? The price was seven magic bullets.
  • Camille Saint-Saens, Danse Macabre. It’s based on a poem where Death appears on Halloween to call the skeletons from their graves. How much spookier do you need? 
  • Franz Liszt’s Totentanz. This piece recalls the work of 14th Century artists, who depicted the Dance of Death. This one is based on a poem by Henri Cazalis.
  • Franz Liszt: Mephisto Waltz. Liszt wrote this to depict Mephistopheles, who plays his violin at a local pub and seduces the villagers into following him.

Myths and Fairytales

The ghosts and goblins, the legends and myths, of medieval Europe have found a home in the music of the 19th and 20th centuries. As composers experimented with changing keys, new tonalities, dissonance, and sound effects, they found plenty of ways to depict the macabre, the thrilling, and the mysterious.

  • Modest Mussorgsky, Night on Bald Mountain. This depiction of a witch’s sabbath was included in Walt Disney’s Fantasia.
  • Modest Mussorgsky, Baba Yaga  from Pictures at an Exhibition. Another witch’s sabbath, this one atop Mt. Triglav. in this version, the old hag witch flies through the air and lives in a hut make of chicken bones.
  • Charles Gounod, Funeral March of a Marionette. You’ve heard this: It’s the famed Alfred Hitchcock theme.
  • Franz Schubert, Erl King. The dark and spooky nighttime forest of the 19th century European Romantic makes another appearance in Schubert’s famous lieder. This one is based on a poem by Goethe, which describes the frantic nighttime ride of a father trying to save his son. He fails.
  • Cesar Franck, The Accursed Huntsman. Another nobleman, another forest: In this morality tale, a huntsman skips mass to go hunting, and is cursed by the devil.
  • Paul Dukas, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Who can forget this Halloween favorite, also based on Goethe (Is anyone else seeing a pattern here?) Mickey Mouse portrayed the hapless apprentice in the Walt Disney classic, Fantasia.
  • Edvard Grieg, Peer Gynt Suite. Scandinavian myths, with trolls and dwarf-like beings come alive in this Norwegian composer’s classic work. In The Hall Of The Mountain King builds from a slow, portending start to a frantic ending. Whoever is in that hall sounds like they in a massive panic to get out.
  • Maurice Ravel, Gaspard de la Nuit. This piano suite depicts a seductive water fairy, a hanged corpse, and mischievous goblin. The last movement, Scarbo (that would be the goblin) is considered one of the most difficult piano pieces ever written.
  • Claude Debussy, La Cathedrale Engloutie (“The Engulfed Cathedral”). This piece recalls  a story where the devil floors a city by opening the gates to a dike. The bells of the underwater cathedral still ring on occasion.
  • Adolphe Adam, Giselle. A nobleman, a peasant girl, love, betrayal, and death by grief. In the second act, he meets here spirit in the forest, and she and her friends start to dance him to death. But she spares him in the ballet’s final moments. 

Just Plain Scary Music 

Does a piece of music have to have a story or a myth? Does it have to be about the devil, or can it just — evoke mystery, evil, weirdness, fear? Listen to these, and you tell me:

  • Johann Sebastian Bach, Toccata and Fugue in D minor.  Can you think of scary piece of organ music? Yup, that’s the one. A stalwart of old movies, its first notes virtually guarantee midnight other-worldly trouble. One of the keystones of the organ repertoire — but musicologists debate its authorship.
  • Léon Boëllmann, Toccata (fourth movement of Suite Gothique.) This menacing pieces is probably the best known work of this nineteenth-century French composer. The Gothic title tells you all you need to know.
  • Olivier Messiaen, “Quartet for the End of Time”.  A piece of music written while the composer was a WWII prisoner of war; the subject is the end of the world. What more to say?
  • Giuseppe Tartini, Violin Sonata in g minor. “The Devil’s Trill” takes place in the double-trills of the the final movement — scary to musician and audience alike. Music legend tells us that the devil himself played the music to Tartini in a dream. 
  • Hector Berlioz, Symphonie Fantastique. The Musical autobiography of a demented artist soul, suffering from all the usual things — despair,  unrequited love, and let’s not forget an opium trip that shows him his own death (“March to the Gallows”) and the subsequent orgy with witches (“Dream of a Witch’s Sabbath).
  • Carol Orff, ”  O Fortuna”   You have your basic church choir; then you have… THIS. Based on 11th and 12 century poems written in part to satirize the Catholic church, this 20th century adaptation sounds intense? Evil? Epic? And really…  it’s used to introduce Simon Cowell and his fellow judges in the X Factor: How much spookier do you need? 

Songs for A Hurricane

What do a bunch of musicians do during a hurricane? Put playlists up on Facebook: Here’s a compilation of songs suitable for a storm.
A Mighty Wind (from the eponymous Christopher Guest movie)
Against the Wind
Blowin’ in the Wind
Blown’ (BTO),
Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain
Coloured Rain
Come On Irene
Conversations of the Wind and Sea (from Debussy’s La Mer).
Dust in the Wind.
Everyone Knows it’s Windy
Feels like Rain
Fire and Rain
Fool in the Rain
Four String Winds
Get Off of My Cloud
Goodnight Irene
Have You Ever Seen the Rain
How High’s The Water, Mama
I Can See Clearly Now
I Can’t Stand the Rain.
I Wish it Would Rain
I’m Only Happy When it Rains
It Never Rains in California (It Pours)
Kentucky Rain
Let the Thunder Roar
Lightning in the Sky
Like a Hurricane
Listen to the Patter of the Falling Rain
November Rain
Purple Rain
Rain – Beatles
Rain – Peter Gabriel
Rain King
Rain Song – Zeppelin
Raindrop Prelude (Chopin)
Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head
Rainy Day Women 12 & 35.
Rainy days and Monday’s
Riders on the Storm
Rock you like a Hurricane
Shelter from the Storm.
Singing in the Rain
So. Central Rain
Stormy Monday
The Wind Cries Mary
They call the Wind Mariah
‎Who’ll Stop the Rain
Wicked Rain

Best Campfire Songs Ever: Part Two, The Silly Songs

Last week, I posted a list of favorite campfire songs of the “folky” kind. Here are some memorable goofy songs. Feel free to add to the list in the comments section:

John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt
Henry the Eight
Dem Bones Gonna Rise Again
Going on a Lion Hunt (variation: bear hunt)
Wishy Washy Washerwoman
The Froggie He Am a Queer Bird
Little Bunny Foo Foo
Boom Boom Ain’t it Great to be Crazy
Do Your Ears Hang Low
Head Shoulders Knees and Toes

Got more? Please add them!

Best Campfire Songs Ever

Summer’s coming, and a good number of my students are headed off to camp, where with any luck they will stay up past bed-time, ride horses, catch fireflies, make friendship bracelets, weave lanyards, cook burnt inedible marshmallows, and sing around a campfire. Maybe some of them will return wanting to learn to play guitar. (Music doesn’t have to be a spectator sport, you know.)

When my students tell me they are going to camp, I find myself asking them about what they are looking forward to. If their parents went to camp, we end up reminiscing, and it doesn’t matter what camp they went to, we all know the same songs. It brings back that incomparable feeling that all it takes for things to be right in the world are a couple of guitars and the high-pitched voices of children.

I lost my camp-era book of songs and guitar chords many moons and moves ago. Here’s a list of songs, although its brevity shows that I’ve gotten to that point where I’m forgetting more than I’m remembering. So please add to it in the “comments” section below.

Today (Today while the blossoms still cling to the vine…)
Blowing in the Wind (How many roads….)
Coral Bells (White coral bells upon a slender stalk…)
Circle Game (Yesterday a child came out….)
Dona Dona (On a wagon, bound for market…)
Where Have all the Flowers Gone (…long time passing….)
Leaving on A Jet Plane (Don’t know when I’ll be back again)
Let it Be (When I find myself in times of trouble…)
500 Miles (Lord I’m one, lord I’m two …etc.)
Day is Done (Tell me why you’re crying, my son)

It’s sad, I think, that there are so few opportunities today where people just get together and sing songs we all know. (Although to be be fair not everyone has the same sentimental attachments: One of my brothers-in-law thinks that the list above is about the most depressing thing he’s ever heard, and he is devoutly hoping that his kids don’t come home with my generation’s repertoire of mournful protest songs, not to mention Dona Dona, which, he points out, is about a dying cow. Chacon son gout.).

But summer nights with guitars and fireflies change things up, make these songs soft and pretty and peaceful. And the very best news: Most of these songs can be played with no more than three or four chords!

I’ll betcha you’ve got some tunes running through your head now, right? Be warned: No promises, but if I can make my mind go in that direction, the next installment is the goofy list: You know: songs like “John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt” (however it’s spelled…)  Don’t say I didn’t warn you…