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  • Writer's pictureScott M Williamson

Classical Halloween playlists...

Updated: Oct 26, 2021

Whether you'd find a playlist like this on Spotify, I can't say. This one is from the History of Western Music curriculum. It's a curated playlist of operatic and classical music favorites for Halloween.

I've been posting about mental health since this summer, but lately I've stepped away from that blog to concentrate on an upcoming concert I'll be giving in Lexington, and online via Livestream at WLU.

While this post and my program are both Halloween-themed, the artists are neuro-diverse and their entrances timed for National Coming Out Day (Oct. 11). Most of the composers and poets featured happen to be queer, manic-depressive and/or died tragically young. Without setting out to highlight such intersectionalities and identifications, I'm proud to share these voices and perform a few of their amazing and original stories via song.

I am lucky to be collaborating with my Collective Euphonia colleagues, Anna Billias, piano and Julia Goudimova, cello for The Poet's Echo: A Gothic Romance, at Wilson Hall in the Lenfest Center of the Arts at WLU, Oct 31 at 3 pm. It's free and no tickets are necessary. You can attend in person (masks are required) or see the WLU Livestream link (above) and watch via any streaming device.

(Dragon fountain outside a Temple in Kyoto, Japan)

I'll share more about our eclectic hour-long program of haunted houses, fantastic creatures, mythical mermaids and melodramatic poets when I post our program notes. We're combining German Lieder by Schubert, Clara and Robert Schumann& Richard Strauss. John Corigliano makes a witty & haunting cameo appearance. Britten's rarely heard cycle of spooky Pushkin songs, The Poet's Echo is at the center, and it's surrounded by a pair of Tchaikovsky arias. I'll sing 2 soprano theatre songs by Gershwin and Rupert Holmes, along with a favorite from Sondheim's Into the Woods.

(Schubert's contemporary, C. D. Friedrich: Sunset with Crows, a gothic romantic trope...)

Here are some of my favorites for Halloween. If they're not outright ghost stories like Britten's pair of Henry James-inspired operas, they may be soul-selling tales like Faust, in Marlowe's or Goethe's version (or Thomas Mann's own Doktor Faustus), featuring music by Berlioz, Busoni, Gounod, Liszt, and others. Or maybe be a contemporary take on classic mythology, like Harrison Birtwistle's ancient mediterranean horror tale, The Minotaur.

(Reproduction from one of the premiere Magic Flute productions. German Theatre Museum, Munich)

The honorable mention list would also include:

Weber's Die Freischütz, Marshner's Der Vampyr, Wagner's Die Walküre &/or Siegfried,

Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, and Adès' opera on Buñuel's surrealist film, The Exterminating Angel.

Philip Glass's minimalist opera as soundtrack for Cocteau's film, Beauty and the Beast

Guy Maddin's B&W ballet film, Dracula, with its Mahler-filled soundtrack. And Berg's expressionist pastiche of Wedekind: nearly a century before Spring Awakening there was Lulu...

(Piranesi's Gothic prisons and baroque labyrinths)

My 2021 Halloween playlist/watchlist (in no particular order):

Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique, esp. the last 2 movements, Witches’ Sabbath & March to the Scaffold

Damnation of Faust: esp. Ride to the Abyss & Pandemonium, aka: Berlioz's finale, unhinged

Requiem: esp. the middle movements: Dies irae - Tuba Mirum - Lacrymosa

(pair this with similar movements from Verdi's Requiem and/or Britten’s War Requiem)

Britten: Henry James’ ghost stories: The Turn of the Screw and Owen Wingrave, the latter a pacifist,

“truth or dare” ghost story;

Screw with its much-commented upon Yeats quotation, sung in duet by the 2 ghosts, Miss Jessel and Peter Quint: The ceremony of innocence is drowned. I love that! Britten's opening Prologue is both a striking choice and one which musically and dramatically "frames" the screw-turning about to unfold. It's a simple-sounding recitative prologue for tenor and piano. And it's typically sung by the same singer who essays the necessary "villain," Peter Quint...

Böcklin's expressionist The Isle of the Dead

(Rachmaninov's symphonic tone-poem shares the title, and depicts the Ferryman's rowing in 5/4 time,

like Mahler did to represent the oars opening his most phantasmagorical symphony, the 7th.)

Verdi Macbeth: “There are three principal roles: Macbeth, Lady M, and the Witches’ chorus.”

(The tenor can make a good enough impression if he makes something of his aria, added Verdi).

The Scottish play's spookily scored prelude foreshadows memorable scenes from Lady M’s sleepwalking to the eerie oracles of the Witches’ chorus, who raise the curtain with a kaleidoscopic number as danceable as it is bizarre. Verdi's Macbeth is a successful pastiche, just as the works of Shakespeare, Sondheim and Hollywood are. He is theatrical & unpredictable.

As Birtwistle says of Beethoven, he never does what you expect...

(M. Abrahamovic's room full of headless humanoids reimagines war-torn scenes)

Shostakovich 14th Symphony is dedicated to Benjamin Britten, returning a favor from Britten's dedication of his recent Church Parable to DSCH. All of the symphony's 11 movements are settings of verse whose common theme is death. His libretto includes poems by Apollinaire, Lorca and Rilke.

Apollinaire’s Lorelei is a fantastic dialogue scored for the two singers, soprano and bass. Other Lorelei songs include Clara and Robert Schumann and the Gershwin's, which we'll be sharing Oct 31.

Another Lorelei was by Liszt. His Totentanz (Dance of Death) would pair well with Thomas Adés recent concert work of the same name. It's scored for chorus, bass and mezzo solo and orchestra, setting the anonymous medieval poem, "The Dance of Death," which sinners of all classes performed when propositioned by the Devil.

Listen for Liszt's striking opening as the dies irae* chant sets an ominous tone, picking up where Berlioz left off, and prefiguring such dramatic gestures in film music by decades.

(*dies irae=day of wrath; from the 10th c. chant for the Requiem mass for the dead, oft quoted since.)

(The Gondolier has always been seen as a Charon, the Ferryman...)

Henze: Barcarola is a 20-minute tone-poem trip via Styx and Acheron to the Underworld. It’s like a mini Clash of the Titans, shot in Venice, with Werner Herzog as Charon, in a film by W. Herzog...

Bartók: Bluebeard’s Castle, following Wagner's The Flying Dutchman is the ultimate Operatic twisted-love, mythic- ghost story. The classic film, Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, with Ava Gardner & James Mason, is another expressionist view of an apparently timeless psychodrama.

Opera Roanoke premieres a new chamber orchestra version of Bartok's one-act psychodramatic opera Nov. 5 & 7 at the Jefferson Center in Roanoke. Check out their website for more details.

Goethe’s Faust and Literature’s most recognizable Mephisto, aka: the ultimate "sell your soul" story...

Gounod’s Faust is the most famous music-theatre adaptation and the first opera performed at the Met.

Arrigo Boito may be most known as Verdi’s librettist for the latter’s autumnal Shakespeare adaptations; he also wrote the libretto & score of a brilliant Mefistofele for La Scala’s 1868 season.

Ferruccio Busoni, best known for his novel piano works, transcriptions and meta-narratives, wrote a several under-heard operas. His Doktor Faustus is based on Goethe's original sources.

In a novel move, Busoni casts Mephistopheles as a tenor. Faust is portrayed by a baritone.

Edith Sitwell quotes Marlowe's Faustus in the war-time poem/libretto for

Britten’s haunting Canticle III: Still Falls the Rain, for tenor, horn and piano.

The Stravinsky and Auden/Kallmann collaboration, The Rake’s Progress uses Hogarth’s 18th c. series of "underground" London drawings as inspiration. And timeless Faust stories with pungent Mephistophelean auras permeate their doppelgänger mephisto figure, Nick Shadow.

(A lesser-known landmark in Venice, the city where Stravinsky's opera premiered.

Call it architectural esoterica, this wonderfully weird Bat-winged, tiara-crowned lion...)

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