|Phantom of the Opera – neither scary nor artsy|
At this time of year, people are thinking about scary music, so I've put together my top five list of scary art music:
5. Ligeti's Lux Aeterna - I don't think this music was meant to be scary, but gained that connotation after it was used in conjunction with the black monolith in Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.
4. Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring - I've been thinking about this work a lot, as this weekend UNC–Chapel Hill hosted an international musicology conference dedicated to the Rite and the Carolina Performing Arts series is programming Rite-related concerts all season long
3. Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, movement 5: "Dream of a Witches Sabbath" - Berlioz evokes a trip to hell in which his ex-beloved dances an "infernal orgy" at his own funeral. You can't beat the lengthy parody of the Dies Irae, a chant from the liturgical Requiem for the dead.
2. Crumb's Black Angels - An electric string quartet with dark overtones of just about everything evil, reportedly finished on Friday the 13th.
1. Penderecki's Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima - a pretty amazing work for string orchestra written with graphic notation and producing amazing, never-heard-before sounds.
Honorable mentions: Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain (also check out the disco version), and Saint-Saëns's Danse Macabre.
This brings up an important question: what does it mean for music to be scary? Is it ugly? Microtonal? Dissonant? Does it feature screeching violins (the fiddle has long been characterized as the Devils music)? Does it mean sudden contrasts that might startle you? Instruments mimicking scary things like clouds of insects or bats? Well, it's complicated. All five are scary in their own way.
I will be the first to say I'm being overly reductive of these five "scary" works. All of these works have sections that could easily be described as beautiful, probably the opposite of scary. What is very interesting, though, is that all five either are given a programmatic element, or had one thrust upon them. Perhaps we need that extra touch of reality to let the music set our imagination loose. Or maybe the composer was able to create a link between their music and our emotions associated with the scary thing.
Another trait all these pieces share is that they are pretty much each composer's most popular work. Coincidence? Maybe not. Ever try and watch a horror movie without the music? Not very scary. It turns out that we're used to having composers manipulate our emotions with music, and we like it. And when composers can manipulate you with as strong emotion as fear, people will remember and want to hear it again. If it's a really good piece, as these are, the fear will come again.
What do you think makes music scary? Do you have your own nominations for scary art music?
Vocab: programmatic, liturgical
[Note: musicologists often prefer the term "art" music instead of "classical" music, mostly because to them, Classical music is a specific period of art music (c.1750-1825)]