John Williams: Devil’s Dance

John Williams’ score for the 1987 film, The Witches of Eastwick, earned the king of film music an Oscar for Best Original Score, and this wonderful cue is surely one of the highlights. Featuring Williams’ customary skill for incredible orchestral colour, its jaunty theme has an edge of sulphurous dissonance: the perfect music for Jack Nicholson’s manic portrayal of the devil.

Schubert: Der Erlkönig

This setting of Goethe’s twisted vision of the death of child assailed by a sinister supernatural being, the Erlkönig, is perfectly captured by Schubert in this famous lieder. The driving repetition that powers throughout evokes the fateful pursuit, while the four narrative figures in the song, the narrator, the father, the son and the deadly Erlkönig, are all ingeniously given specific ranges of the soloist’s range. This vividly conjures the terrified cries of the anxious child ominously aware of his fate, and his father’s naive reassurances.

Schubert: Death and the Maiden

Der Tod und das Mädchen, to give this leider its German name is another grisly setting by Schubert, this time with words by German poet Matthias Claudius. Drawing on the Romantic preoccupation with mortal matters, this sombre song portrays a desperate woman pleading with an unmoved Death to spare her life. But Death tells the woman that he is in fact a friend, inviting her to gently sleep in his arms. Eerily the music ends with a change into a major key, implying a morbid curiosity in the release of death.

Humperdink: The Witches Ride from Hansel and Gretel

Engelbert Humperdinck (the late 19th and early 20th Century composer not the British pop star of the 1970s) is best known for his opera Hänsel und Gretel, based on the famous Brothers Grimm fable of two abandoned children nearly eaten by a wicked cannibalistic witch living in a gingerbread house. The opera was an instant hit, largely for its canny use of German folk melodies, which are insistent earworms. One of which is the unnervingly cheerful Witches Ride, where the evil Gingerbread Witch sings a jolly tune about how delicious the meat of children tastes.

Mendelssohn: Hexenlied

Meaning, the Witches’ Song this lively, rhythmical whirlwind of a lieder is the song of witches celebrating the pagan rite of spring. The fiery break-neck pace of the swirling piano accompaniment paints a vivid picture of the witches whizzing about their demonic ritual.

Liszt: Mephisto Waltzes

Few composers can match Liszt when it comes to pianistic pyrotechnics, and these four Waltzes, composed between 1859 and 1885 are notable not only for their compositional merits, but for their painting of the story of Faust and his demonic pact with Mephistopheles, complete with open fifths of the devil’s violin playing and Listz’s inventive use of the tri-tone, otherwise known as a the devil’s interval.

Stravinsky: Soldier’s Tale Devil’s Dance

Based on a Russian folk take, L’Histoire du Soldat, this brisk and nimble work of music theatre tells the story of another demonic encounter with the devil. The Devil’s Dance is the final showdown of the piece, where the hero, a soldier named Joseph, tricks the Devil into dancing to his demise! The violin, often associated with the devil, is once again present here in this frantic jig.

Tartini: Devil’s Trill Sonata

This masterpiece of the Renaissance has a mysterious origin. Tartini allegedly told his friend, French astronomer Jérôme Lalande that he dreamt that the Devil had appeared to him and asked him to teach him the violin. After their lesson Tartini passed the Devil his violin to test his skill and he began to play with such virtuosic brilliance that Tartini was stunned. When he woke, he wrote this piece, capturing his subconscious communion with Satan.

Stravinsky: Grave Yard Scene, Rake’s Progress

This climatic scene in Act 3 of Stravinsky’s neo-classical masterwork is yet another example of why one should never make a pact with the Devil. Having served Tom Rakewell for a year and day, as promised, Nick Shadow demands payment. Tom having no money promises to pay Nick eventually, but then Shadow reveals himself. He is in fact the Devil, and “it’s not your money, but your soul,” that he demands. As Shadow attempts to force Tom to commit suicide, he offers him a way out: if Tom can guess the three cards he’s holding up, he may go free. Tom, guided by love, makes three correct guesses, but as Shadow is plummeting back to Hell, he casts one final vengeance on Tom, and causes him to go insane.

Mussorgsky: Baba Yaga from Pictures

A nightmare straight from Slavic folklore, this one of the most brutal movements from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. It depicts a terrifying hag, Baba Yaga, who lives in a bewitched hut which sits upon two monstrous chicken legs, galloping through the Russian forests.

Bernstein: Dybbuk

Bernstein’s Yiddish balet isn’t perhaps as well-known as many of his other works, but this stage work a malevolent spirit, the Dybbuk, is definitely one of his more innovative creative moments. Berstein used numerical systems from the Jewish spiritualist denomination of Kabbalah to devise the work giving the music an odd and unpredictable harmonic trajectory that baffled critics at the time of its premiere in 1974.

Rimsky-Korsakov: Christmas Eve: The Devil’s Christmas

Brilliant Russian composer Rimsky-Korsakov created this deceptively festive sounding orchestral suite from the music to his opera, based on the Gogol’s short story about, you guessed it, a battle with the devil! In this strident movement, the heroine of the story, Vakula, tricks the devil into taking her for a ride into the sky, using the sign of the cross to control him. Not your common or garden Christmas story, but certainly not out of place at Halloween.

Meyerbeer: Robert Le Diable: Baccanale of the Dead Nuns

What Halloween would be complete without some zombie nuns! Yes, that’s right, zombie nuns! This bizaare scene from Act III of Giacomo Meyerbeer’s grand opera, Robert le Diable, features a short ballet of deceased nuns, rising from their tombs in a ruined cloister to seduce the poor unsuspecting knight, Robert le Diable. This might sound like a bizarre plot point for any opera, and in fact the reason for including it in this piece is surprisingly strange. The Paris Opéra, where the piece was premiered, had recently installed gas lighting, capable of creating spooky lighting effects, and thus in an attempt to showcase the newly acquired lights the seduction of the zombie nuns was born! Happy Halloween everyone!

Enjoyed this? Then you might like…

13 Scariest Pieces of Classical Music for Halloween

13 Stangest Composer Deaths in Classical Music

Sign up to the free Limelight newsletter