Though classical music has a reputation for refinement, beauty, and declarations of love, this is the time of year when ghosts and ghouls to come out and play. From wicked witches to deal-making devils, all manner of Halloween creatures can be found in the world of opera and art songs. Here is some lovely music about the most nightmare-inducing monsters. Be sure to listen with the lights on.
The Elf King
Schubert’s “Der Erlkönig” is one of the most horrifying pieces in Lieder — and not just for pianists. A father and son are riding through the forest when the child sees the wicked Elf King. Though his father sees nothing, the listener hears the voice of the monster, and when they arrive at the end of their journey, the child is dead in his father’s arms. Traditionally performed by men, the singer portrays three characters and the narrator. The high drama makes the piece an entire opera unto itself. There are many excellent performances available on Youtube, most notably one by iconic Lieder interpreter Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and a rare female performance by Anne Sofie von Otter. The video above shows the animated story of “Der Erlkönig.”
Witches rule the dark side of classical music. They appear in art song, such as “Hexenlied” by Mendelssohn and “Junghexenlied” by Strauss. However, in opera the witches really work their magic. Composers throughout every era have crafted wicked women to weave their spells and curse young, innocent sopranos. The title character in Handel’s opera Alcina casts a love spell on every man who intrudes her island. When she’s bored with them, she turns the men into animals or rocks. In Dvořák’s reworking of mermaid fairytales, Rusalka, the sorceress Ježibaba acts as Ursula to Rusalka’s Ariel. She allows Rusalka to become human to meet her prince but strips her of her voice and immortality. Witchcraft isn’t all spells and transfiguration, as seen with Ulrica in Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera. Ulrica is a fortune teller who attempts to summon a demon via the aria “Re dell’abisso," as seen in the clip above.
The Lorelei (Siren)
The Lorelei is a water spirit from German folklore similar to the sirens of Greek mythology. She lives in the Rhine River and lures boatmen to their death with her singing. There are a few operas featuring the legendary character, including Alfredo Catalani’s Loreley in 1890 and Lurline, an English opera by William Vincent Wallace in 1860. Felix Mendelssohn also began an opera about the Lorelei that was set to star famed soprano Jenny Lind in the lead role, but he died before it was completed. The legend has a strong presence in German Lieder, particularly through the use of the poem “Die Lorelei” by Heinrich Heine. This poem was set to music by several composers, including Friedrich Silcher, Franz Liszt, and Clara Schumann. The Schumann setting, performed in the recording above, is particularly frenetic as it recounts the bewitching events that draw the man to crash on the rocks and then shifts to a more playful tone to mimic the enchanting voice of the Lorelei.
The Devil frequently appears in opera to strike deals with tenors. Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress has Nick Shadow, who is, at the very least, devil-adjacent. He lures Tom Rakewell away from Anne Trulove and into a life of sin. There is also Dvořák’s Čert a Káča, or The Devil and Kate, which has a particularly high devil quotient. The titular devil is Marbuel, and there is an entire ballet’s worth of dancing Devils, not to mention Lucifer himself who lords over Hell where the opera is set in act two. Der Freischütz features a devil with some notable characteristics: his name is Samiel, he strikes his deal with a bass, and he is the only spoken role in the opera. The most popular devil in opera comes from the famous Goethe story, Faust. Based on a German legend, Faust is an unhappy scholar who makes a bet with the Devil (Mephistopheles). He trades his soul in exchange for satisfaction in life. Gounod’s Faust, Boito’s Mefistofele, and Berlioz’s “légende dramatique” La damnation de Faust are all based on Goethe’s work and show the villainous Mephistopheles wreaking havoc and madness in all the lives he touches. The clip above features Samuel Ramey, a frequent performer of devilish roles. In the aria “Son lo spirito che nega" from the Boito opera, Mephistopheles reveals his evil nature to Faust before their deal is struck. Here's some free advice: if The Devil tells you he's evil before you make a deal, do not make that deal.
Vampires have infiltrated every corner of popular culture from young adult romance novels to adult television shows, but they are largely absent from classical music. That said, there is the opera Der Vampyr by German composer Heinrich Marschner. With its premiere in 1828, it predates Bram Stoker’s Dracula by nearly seventy years. The story of Der Vampyr is based on the short story The Vampyre by John William Polidori, which presents one of the earliest depictions of the stereotypical nobleman vampire. The opera is still performed to this day, but the most notable production is The Vampyr: A Soap Opera. This mini-series aired on the BBC in 1992 with a new English libretto. Ripley the Vampire is unearthed during construction in London and becomes a successful businessman. In his opening aria “Blood, my life is in their blood,” he stalks the first of three women he must kill in order to keep his immortality. This production includes gratuitous nudity, a fountain of blood exploding from a car trunk, and the phrase "I'm allergic to umbrellas." It is available in full on YouTube and is well worth the watch.
Death is an interesting character and not as evil as others on this list. He is often portrayed as a neutral or friendly creature rather than an impending force of doom — someone who completes a task and provides relief. Schubert best illustrates this aspect of Death's character in “Der Tod und das Mädchen” (Death and the Maiden). The maiden fears Death when he first arrives, but as Gerald Moore says in this video, “Death is a comforter and not to be dreaded.” The maiden’s lines in the Lied are frantic and distressed, while Death is hymn-like and soothing, calmly beckoning the woman to be at peace.
Bonus: "Danse Macabre"
Just one creepy creature isn’t enough for “Danse Macabre” by Saint-Saëns. Though frequently performed as a tone poem featuring solo violin, the piece was originally written as an art song for voice and piano. The text of the piece paints a perfect Halloween scene: Death is tapping his toe on a gravestone, skeletons are dancing, and witches and ghosts are all around. It is the classiest Monster Mash ever composed. This is only a small taste of the magical monsters that lurk in classical music. Plenty more nefarious creatures are out there waiting to be unleashed from the confines of their sheet music. Happy Halloween!