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ClassicsOnline Home » MACABRE MASTERPIECES
Colourful and sometimes graphic musical depictions of the supernatural featuring ghosts, witches, goblins, trolls and even Old Nick himself.
In the 19th century, composers were often drawn to the supernatural, ghostly or macabre. They started exploring a newfound freedom of expression and often took their inspiration from poetry, art and literature.
To cater for these influences, an entirely new genre was developed—the symphonic poem. In the symphonic poem, according to Liszt, “all exclusively musical considerations are to be subordinated to those of the action of the given subject”. This was a new development in compositional technique that led to the creation of some highly descriptive and colourful music. Not all the works on this collection are symphonic poems but all aim to conjure up the ghostly and the ghastly; the macabre and the devilish and the age-old battle between good and evil.
Our collection opens with Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King from Ibsen’s play Peer Gynt. Peer Gynt has seduced the daughter of the Mountain King of the Trolls and travels to the Mountain King’s royal hall. Here he is greeted by the assembled trolls, an unpleasant bunch, who are rather unhappy with our hero for seducing their princess. They dance in a frenzy calling for his blood. Thankfully, Peer Gynt agrees to become an honorary troll and all is forgiven (at least temporarily).
The troll, a popular creature in Scandanavian folklore, also makes an appearance in Grieg’s other contribution to this collection. March of the Trolls describes quite a different beast to that found in the Mountain King’s hall though: this one is mischievous rather than nasty.
Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is a colourful and comic piece. A wizard’s apprentice tries his hand at a little magic during the absence of his master. He animates a broomstick and orders it to do his job of fetching water. The boy dozes off, dreaming of the wondrous powers at his command, but is awakened to find the laboratory submerged in water. Failing to make the broomstick stop, he hacks it in two, but now each half of the broomstick is busy carrying water to the laboratory. The boy frantically hacks away but only succeeds in increasing the number of eager workers. The mayhem is brought to a stop when the wizard returns and quickly restores the broomstick and laboratory to their original state. The piece ends with the apprentice being dealt a few well-placed kicks.
Liszt was fascinated by the macabre. In Mephisto Waltz, Faust and Mephistopheles, wearing disguises, enter a village inn and find a wedding party in full swing. Mephistopheles seizes a violin from a drunken fiddler and begins to play. Under his spell, the dancing becomes wilder and wilder until all the couples dance out of the inn and into the woods. Mephisto Waltz was considered unplayable when it first appeared in 1850 but now most self-respecting concert pianists dispatch its extreme virtuosity with ease. Liszt’s Totentanz (‘Dance of Death’) is a set of variations for piano and orchestra on the Dies Irae chant for the dead from the Requiem Mass. The composer’s descriptive powers are on display with a kaleidoscope of changing moods from foreboding austerity to depictions of rattling bones.
Rachmaninov’s The Isle of the Dead was inspired by Arnold Böcklin’s 1886 painting of the same name. It depicts Charon, the ferryman of the dead, rowing a body across the river Styx on its journey to the Underworld. Thanks to Rachmaninov’s supremely evocative writing, the listener can easily imagine the boat on the waves as it passes through the mists that separate earthly life from the realm of the dead. A climax is reached when the boat reaches the island and then the piece fades as Charon returns to shore. Like Liszt’s Totentanz, The Isle of the Dead uses motives from the Dies Irae chant throughout.
Saint-Saëns was a great admirer of Liszt and was the first French composer to attempt a symphonic poem. His own ‘Dance of Death’, the famous Danse Macabre, is based on a poem by Henri Cazalis which tells of Death playing his fiddle in a wintry churchyard at night while skeletons dance to his ghostly tune. These dancing skeletons are musically depicted by some memorable passages on the xylophone.
English composer Malcolm Arnold’s Tam O’Shanter Overture was inspired by Robbie Burns’ famous poem. Tam, rather than face a howling storm, has taken refuge at an inn. Eventually he sets off home on his old horse and passes by an old deserted church. Tam sees a light on and creeps up to the window where he witnesses a wild demonic orgy with witches, warlocks and demons of all kinds. He watches in growing astonishment as the dancing becomes wilder and wilder. Tam is particularly impressed by a beautiful young witch “cutty sark” and, unable to restrain his enthusiasm, yells out his appreciation of her charms. Immediately, the lights are extinguished, and Tam finds himself pursued by the church’s inhabitants. Tam realises he will be safe when he reaches a nearby bridge but just before he nears it, a demon grabs his horse’s tail. The horse, in a last burst of desperate energy, leaps across the bridge, leaving her tail behind. Arnold’s orchestration is amazingly vivid and perfectly describes the drunken Tam, the demonic dancing and Tam’s wild ride.
Chadwick was also inspired by Burns’ poem and wrote his symphonic poem ‘Tam O’Shanter’ in 1888. On this collection though we hear his Hobgoblin, the third of his four Symphonic Sketches. This whimsical piece is far from terrifying: Chadwick’s goblin is clearly only a little wicked.
Mussorgsky’s Night on the Bare Mountain was originally conceived around 1866 but remained unperformed in the composer’s lifetime. Rimsky-Korsakov completed and revised it in 1886 and it is this version that is normally heard today. Mussorgsky wrote to Rimsky-Korsakov shortly after penning his original conception: “At the head of my score I’ve put its contents: assembly of the witches, their talk and gossip; Satan’s procession; obscene glorification of Satan; Sabbath. The form and character of my work are Russian and original. Its general tone is hot-blooded and disordered.”
Liadov composed a number of works inspired by some rather frightening Russian folk tales. Kikamora is a capricious female house spirit who usually lives in the cellar. She comes out at night to spin and to look after the housework but only if the house is well tended. A messy house can make her angry and to appease her, you should wash all your pots and pans! Baba Yaga is a more terrifying prospect; she flies through the air in a mortar using the pestle as a rudder and lives in a revolving house supported on chicken legs. Her fence is made of human bones topped with skulls and she feasts on people, particularly those who are corrupt or evil.
The Noon Witch is one of four tone poems Dvorák wrote in 1896 upon his return to his native Bohemia from the United States. All four tone poems deal with subjects from the gruesome folk tales of Czech poet Karel Jaromir Erben. The Noon Witch tells the story of a mother, who, annoyed with her child’s temper tantrum, threatens that the Noon Witch will take him away if he doesn’t behave. To her horror, the witch appears. Clutching her son, she runs but falls, crushing the child underneath her. The father arrives home to discover his unconscious wife and his dead child.
Witches also have a starring role in MacDowell’s Witches Dance. No one would be particularly sacred of these creatures, but the work is an effective showpiece that pianists have sometimes used as an encore. We hear it here in a rare version for piano and orchestra.
Franck’s The Accursed Hunter was inspired by a poem by German Gottfried August Bürger (1747–1794). On Sunday morning, as church bells summon the faithful to worship, a ‘Count’ sets off on a hunt. He rides through village farms, trampling the crops and beating peasants on the way. Eventually he finds himself lost in the woods, where the voice of the Lord proclaims “Cursed hunter, be you eternally pursued by the demons of Hell!” Flames and demons surround the Count until both horse and rider fall into the abyss. There is no respite though; they are thrown into the air, doomed to ride on eternally.
Berlioz’ March to the Scaffold is equally descriptive but possibly even more frightening. An artist poisons himself with opium and plunges into a deep sleep. He dreams he has killed the woman he loves and that he is condemned to death, brought to the scaffold and headed. At the end of the march, the stroke of the guillotine is clearly heard in the orchestra. This brings the artist’s life to an end and provides an appropriate conclusion to our collection.
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