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Spooky Sounds: Music That Chills Your Bones


A few members of our staff have worn costumes overnight, getting ready for Halloween. Ashley Westerman, our director, is a jellyfish, though, she took off the mask so that we can see her.


And if you want to get in the mood for this weekend, Renee Montagne has something that might do the trick - or treat.



This is the sound of skeletons dancing in the graveyard, the "Symphonie Fantastique" by Hector Berlioz. It's one of classical music's most famous pieces of spooky music, and here to talk about it and other melodies that chill your bones is music commentator Miles Hoffman.

Happy Halloween Miles.

MILES HOFFMAN, BYLINE: Thank you very much Renee (laughter).

MONTAGNE: I understand that Berlioz was quite the master of spooky music.

HOFFMAN: He was, Renee. He was one of the great masters of spooky music. And the little passage we just heard is from the last movement of the "Symphonie Fantastique," and that movement is Berlioz imagining a witches' sabbath. And the sound of the skeletons, by the way, is the sound of the string players all striking their strings with the wood of their bows. In that same movement, Berlioz also used a medieval Latin chant melody that I think you will recognize.


MONTAGNE: That melody is appropriately full of gloom and doom.

HOFFMAN: (Laughter). Yeah.

MONTAGNE: But it isn't as if he is the only one.

HOFFMAN: No, no, no. That's the Latin hymn, "Dies Irae," the day of wrath, that day will dissolve the world in ashes. And composers have been using that and quoting it for centuries, and, if we had time, I could give you a list of probably at least 30 other composers who have borrowed that tune and used it to create a mood of gloom and doom.

MONTAGNE: (Laughter).

HOFFMAN: But I have one for you, Renee, that I think you should blast from your windows tomorrow night on Halloween and welcome trick-or-treaters with this.


MODEST MUSSORGSKY: (Singing in foreign language).


HOFFMAN: (Laughter).

MONTAGNE: Excellent idea Miles.


MONTAGNE: What is that?

HOFFMAN: That's from the song "Trepak" from the "Songs And Dances Of Death" by Modest Mussorgsky. And the song is about death dancing with a drunken peasant. You know, I actually find the subject of spooky music really fascinating because - well, partly because there's so much of it. Spooky is one of those things that composers have always loved to do. But also, Renee, partly because some of the spooky pieces have been actual milestones in the history of music. The Berlioz "Symphonie Fantastique," is a great example. He was revolutionary. He created sounds with the orchestra in the "Symphonie Fantastique," that nobody had ever imagined before.

But I'm also thinking I'd love to play a little bit from "Der Freischutz," which is an opera by Carl Maria von Weber. "Freischutz" was the first great German romantic opera - a very important opera. And within six years of its premiere in 1824, it had been translated into nine languages, and it was - for a long time was the most popular German opera in the world. So a very important piece. But it also contains one of the eeriest, spookiest scenes in all of opera. It's called the Wolf's Glen scene, and it involves a man selling his soul to an evil spirit named Samiel, and he's casting magic bullets.


UNIDENTIFIED OPERA SINGER: (As character) Samiel, Samiel, Samiel...

HOFFMAN: That's from the Wolf's Glen scene in Carl Maria von Weber's opera, "Der Freischutz." And, Renee, wolf's glen sounds even scarier in German, I have to say. It's (speaking German). They also called it the (speaking German), which means the terror glen. And that's - you know, that's good for Halloween.

MONTAGNE: (Laughter). As you said, trick-or-treaters will get a treat when they hear this quite scary music. And of course you - one loves to see how brave they are - you could see people fleeing before they get to the door.

HOFFMAN: (Laughter). Well, try this one. If you want to see them flee, broadcast this from your windows, Renee, and see if the trick-or-treaters stick around.


MONTAGNE: Ooh - grab my candy and run.

HOFFMAN: (Laughter). Yeah, grab your candy and run - I like that. That's the "Night Of The Electric Insects" from a piece called, "Black Angels," which is for electric string quartets, by the American composer George Crumb. It's actually a very important contemporary piece. And, you know, it's interesting with these pieces, we're using them for Halloween and it's fun. The composers were trying to write scary music or scary portions of music and theatrical music. They loved the effects they were creating. So we listen to them for fun. But, again, some of these pieces have lasted for a very long time and will last for centuries more because they're actually great music.

MONTAGNE: Well, Miles, wishing you a spooky Halloween.

HOFFMAN: Thank you Renee.

MONTAGNE: And I think I'm going to have all my candy left if I take even any of your advice on what to play on Halloween night.

HOFFMAN: (Laughter). OK.

MONTAGNE: That's Miles Hoffman. He's the violist of the American Chamber Players and the artistic director of the Peace Center Chamber Music Society in Greenville, S.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.