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Article Teaser: A good deal of music may have been composed to be employed as background music for horror movies, but there are also a significant number of works which stand on their own like a good horror novel in the form of music.

Keep reading below...

Horror Music: 20th-Century Classical Works Expressing the Emotion of Fear

Copyright (c) 2007-2017

The emotion of horror does not seem to have been explored to any great extent by Western composers before the Twentieth Century. (I really don't think Bach's overused "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor" was intended to convey that emotion. :)) A good deal of music of this nature may have been composed to be employed as background music for horror movies, but there are also a significant number of works which stand on their own like a good horror novel in the form of music.

Horror can take many forms; not all horror has to do with the supernatural and the macabre. Horror can be quiet and creepy, or can involve direct and brutal impacts on the senses. One can also speak of apocalyptic horror, the horror expressed through visions of vast cataclysms and upheavals.

"Prometheus" by Alexander Scriabin provides one example of such visions of apocalypse. This highly dramatic 20-minute symphonic poem for piano and orchestra evokes visions of vast, colossal changes (though at times it is also gentle and lyrical); films like "Volcano", "Dante's Peak" and "Aftershock" would have done well to employ portions of this work as soundtrack music. Scriabin was known to seriously entertain crazy, far-fetched ideas about using special means to transform the entire world and lift all of humanity into some higher state with the power of his music!

Another example of music explicitly intended to portray the forces of Nature in their more terrifying aspects would be "La Mer" (The Sea) by Claude Debussy, an orchestral suite in three movements. The third movement, 'Dialogue du vent et de la mer' (Dialogue of the Wind and the Sea), paints a sinister picture of threatening storm clouds gathering over a darkened and increasingly restless sea. If you missed the film "The Perfect Storm", this might be a good substitute!

'Cloudburst' from Ferde Grofé's "Grand Canyon Suite" provides yet another musical portrayal of the fury of the elements, though it sort of lacks Debussy's finesse. The depiction of a storm building up in the Grand Canyon is highly suspenseful in this piece.

"The Song of the Night" by Karol Szymanowski shares some similarities with Scriabin's "Prometheus" - the mysterious wordless chorus, the use of the piano, the climactic organ - but is perhaps more subtle in its approach. In this very slow work (which lasts slightly longer than 20 minutes), fear is sublimated into awe and wonder as one is confronted with the breathtaking beauty and splendor of the Persian night. The chilling warning 'not to go to sleep this night', delivered by the tenor solo at the beginning of the work, slowly gives way to warm, lyrical passages tinged with Oriental flavorings, and at times reaches heights of pure rapture. The warning is now understood not to be given lest we encounter something terrible, but lest we miss out on something wonderful!

Not many of the works of Twentieth-Century Western classical music which seek to express the emotions of fear and horror explicitly take the supernatural and the macabre as their subject, both being favorite motifs in horror literature as opposed to music. One such work would be the 30-minute ballet "The Miraculous Mandarin" by Béla Bartók, perhaps one of the most truly terrifying works in the classical repertoire. With shrieking strings, extended trombone glissandi and a chilling wordless chorus towards the end, the bloodcurdling work relates the tale of a beautiful prostitute employed by three robbers as bait for unsuspecting men who were promptly killed and stripped of their possessions. One of the victims, a wealthy Chinaman, returned repeatedly from the dead despite every effort of the robbers; it turned out that he was so greatly aroused by the prostitute the power of his lust sustained him beyond the grave!

Horror can be in the eye of the beholder; to early man the whole world might have been a pretty scary place, with supernatural beings lurking in every aspect of creation and demanding their dues in the form of sacrifices. This was what Igor Stravinsky imagined and sought to express in his "Le Sacre du Primtemps" (The Rite of Spring), one of Bartók's apparent sources of inspiration. Quiet and uneasy moments alternate in this piece with explosions of violence and savagery. Even more extreme and frenzied in their savagery are 'Mars, the Bringer of War' from "The Planets" by Gustav Holst and the first four minutes of "Feste Romane" (Roman Festivals) by Ottorino Respighi, which depict the orgies of the Circus Maximus. You have been warned. :)

Harrison Birtwistle's slightly-hard-to-find "Triumph of Time" would have to be one of the most recent pieces to be introduced in this article, being composed in the 1970's. The slow, quiet and eerie music of this 30-minute orchestral work depicts the relentless procession of time, the unrelieved gloom punctuated at times by rude eruptions which would shock the listener off her seat. The whole work is almost like an immense musical grindstone, slowly grinding all into dust. Not even 'Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age' from Holst's "The Planets" can rival this work in terms of the sheer desolation of its vision.

Not all scary music is based on an explicit story or idea, or meant to be. Ralph Vaughan Williams' harrowing "4th" and "6th Symphonies" have often been related to the horrors and brutalities of war (Vaughan Williams himself served in the army for a time), yet he emphatically denied any such connotations, insisting on an understanding of them as 'pure' music - an assertion many have found unconvincing. The second movement in each of these two works generates a powerful sense of mounting terror. The final movement of the "6th Symphony" in particular, with its slow, gloomy and tired passages, has been thought of by commentators as a musical portrayal of a world left lifeless by nuclear warfare, with aimless clouds drifting across barren wastelands.

Some scary music actually ends happily. Arnold Schoenberg's "Transfigured Night", a 30-minute work composed purely for strings, relates the story of two lovers meeting in a wood at night when the woman begins to reveal her dark and terrible secrets, mainly that she is pregnant with the child of another. The fearful anticipation of the man's likely response is vividly portrayed in Schoenberg's music; those who listen to this piece with no knowledge of the underlying story can probably be forgiven for thinking of a Dracula movie soundtrack. :). Much to the poor woman's relief - and the listener's as well - the man dispels her fears with a magnanimous gesture of forgiveness towards the middle of the work, and accepts the child as his own; the music accordingly becomes warm and romantic, the coda calm and happy as the two walk into the 'high, bright night'...


About The Author: Shop Amazon - Top Gift Ideas
K T Ong lives in Singapore and is currently pursuing a PhD at the National University of Singapore. He loves art, music, books, toys and PC games, and is also trying to develop a figure like that of Steve Reeves. :p You might like to visit his Mall of Cthulhu a great treasury of lovely infoproducts. http://www.mallofcthulhu.com

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Internal ID: #4299
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