Celebrate Halloween with the scariest classical music ever written – if you dare! We’ve unearthed the top 10 most terrifying pieces from the darkest, grisliest corners of the classical canon including Rachmaninoff’s Isle Of The Dead, Berlioz’s Dream Of A Witches’ Sabbath, Mussorgsky’s Night On Bald Mountain and Saint-Saens’ Danse Macabre. Scroll down to explore our selection of the best classical music masterpieces for Halloween.
10: Rachmaninov: Isle Of The Dead
In this ghostly symphonic poem, one of the best classical halloween music pieces, Rachmaninov creates a stunning yet desolate sonic landscape through masterful use of instrumentation and musical symbolism. Swelling lower strings, irregular surges in the 5/8 time signature and deep, shadowy brass depict oars dragging a small boat through the waters surrounding the Isle Of The Dead. The unnervingly quiet introduction is followed by a quotation of the Dies Irae (meaning ‘Day of Wrath’) plainchant, evoking a sense of hopelessness that this journey will inevitably end in a watery grave.
9: Bach: Toccata And Fugue In D Minor
Something about the opening notes of Bach’s Toccata And Fugue In D Minor instantly strikes fear in the listener in this classical Halloween music piece. Perhaps it’s the blazing pipes of the Draculean organ, or the eerie silences between phrases. Perhaps it’s the villainous semitonal melody, or the rumbling bass pedals beneath, that will raise the hairs on the back of your neck. Beyond this infamously bloodcurdling theme, Bach composes a dramatic and powerful toccata and fugue, which must be executed with demonic virtuosity.
8: Holst: ‘Mars – The Bringer of War’ From The Planets
Holst’s musical characterisation of the Red Planet is as dramatic and powerful as it is chilling. Holst builds suspense with brittle chugging col legno strings, undulating woodwind, vast crescendi, violent percussion and awesome lower brass. The distinct lack of regular pulse, obscured by the jagged 5/4 metre, leaves the listener feeling insignificant and lost in an orchestral cacophony.
7: Liszt: Totentanz
Meaning ‘Dance of Death’, Totentanz is one of many pieces in Liszt’s oeuvre that points to his fascination with mortality, the afterlife, and the dichotomy of heaven and hell. Totentanz is an unapologetically virtuosic piece for piano with accompanying orchestra, based on the Dies Irae plainchant in 6 variations. In the unrelenting piano part, Liszt plays with light and shade: raging, almost violent passages, with harsh harmonic progressions, are contrasted with lighter, even beautiful, moments.
6: Grieg: ‘In The Hall Of The Mountain King’ From Peer Gynt
The epic finale to Grieg’s ‘In The Hall Of The Mountain King’ is one epic crescendo. The musical narrative follows Peer Gynt on his adventure through the Kingdom of the Trolls. Tiptoeing pizzicato strings introduce the well-known main theme in this best classical Halloween music piece. This theme is repeated through and endlessly builds, intensifies, quickens and crescendos through the orchestra into an almighty frenetic climax. Finally, the choir enter as the Peer is carried away by a malevolent king, echoing the words: “Slay him! Slay him!”
5: Chopin: Piano Sonata No.2 In Bb Minor
The third movement of Chopin’s Piano Sonata No.2 In Bb Minor, or as it is better known, The Funeral March is inextricably linked to mortality. The somber, heavy footsteps of the mourners in the bass of the piano are both heart-breaking and blood-freezing: a sound that has become synonymous with death. This cold, jarring theme is developed throughout the movement, momentarily contrasted with a pastoral trio section, before the funeral theme returns, signifying the omnipresent inevitability of death. This best classical Halloween music piece is one of the darkest Chopin ever wrote: it was also played at the composer’s own funeral.
4: Berlioz: ‘Dream Of A Witches’ Sabbath’ From Symphonie Fantastique
Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique is a programmatic masterpiece, based on the warped, supernatural fantastical imaginings of a mysterious protagonist. The fourth movement, ‘March To The Scaffold’, portrays the protagonist marching to his execution for the murder of his lover – complete with pizzicato bass solo representative of his decapitated head bouncing to the ground. For the finale, ‘Dream Of A Witches’ Sabbath’, Berlioz wrote in the score, “He sees himself at a witches’ sabbath, in the midst of a hideous gathering of shades, sorcerers and monsters of every kind who have come together for his funeral. Strange sounds, groans, outbursts of laughter; distant shouts which seem to be answered by more shouts.”
As the bells strike midnight, these grotesque otherworldly represented by wailing Eb clarinet solo and ominous lower brass theme. That this bizarre narrative is said to be autobiographical makes Berlioz’s narcissistic symphony, one of the best classical Halloween music pieces, all the more grotesque.
3: Orff: ‘O Fortuna’ From Carmina Burana
‘O Fortuna’ is the immense opening and closing movement of Orff’s cantata Carmina Burana. The theatricality of this piece is what creates the unbearable tension: the quiet, frantic strings, the cold, barely whispering choir, the massive force of the orchestra, but most significantly the sudden eruptions into fortissimo with wailing sopranos and crashing percussion. Used widely in popular culture, perhaps most famously as the soundtrack to the film The Omen, this is as much a piece of production music as it is a classical tour de force.
2: Mussorgsky: Night On Bald Mountain
Another superbly fantastical narrative, Mussorgsky’s Night On Bald Mountain is a realist piece that paints a musical pictures of a witches’ sabbath on St John’s Eve. Mussorgsky writes crude harmonies, wild, frenzied strings, bold orchestral effects, and satanic themes that Mussorgsky himself described as “barbarous and filthy”. After a night of chaos, the sunrises over Bald Mountain and the witches vanish, leaving only an eerily tranquil flute solo to end Mussorgsky’s realist classical Halloween music masterpiece.
1: Saint-Saens: Danse Macabre
Saint-Saens explores the supernatural macabre in his chilling orchestral waltz Danse Macabre. The soothing chimes of a bell tolling midnight lulls the listener into a false sense of security, until the infamous violin solo. The sole use of the violin’s open strings creates a bare, jarring quality, illustrating the rising of the ghouls from their graves, before morbid frivolities ensue. An enchanting, yet terrifying, classical Halloween work.