October 13, 2013

Classical Beat: Dissonance and other tricks can make music scary

But it comes down to the spookiness being in the hear of the listener.

Writing about the music for the Portland Ballet Company’s upcoming production of “Jack the Ripper” (Oct. 19 and 26) got me thinking about “scary” classical music and what makes it so.

The music for “Jack the Ripper” makes use of one highly effective technique: the juxtaposition of charming parlor music – Chopin nocturnes, a Schubert fantasie – with horrendous acts of violence.

This has been used in countless movies, in which a simple nursery rhyme accompanies a chainsaw murder or the like. Play the nursery rhyme in a minor key and one has a recipe for arctic spinal chills.

Hollywood has it down to a science. I’m not a composer, but I think I could produce a pretty horrifying film score from these tips alone: brutal rhythms (see “Jaws”); changes in volume; tension due to changes in pitch, like a rising scream; dissonance; strange unexpected sounds; sforzandos; and thwarted expectations, such as that lullaby played in a minor key, or the peeper-filled stillness before the monster pounces.

Research on animals has led to the theory that nonlinear sounds, such as a child’s cry, a dissonant chord or a baby animal’s scream, trigger a response from the amygdala that is interpreted as a threat to one’s offspring.

Composers of classical music have known about these tricks for centuries. The problem is that one generation’s horror becomes the next’s cliche.

For example, the tritone (three adjacent whole tones), once called “the devil in music,” creates an eerie effect in St. Saens’ “Danse Macabre,” but a wistful one in Leonard Bernstein’s “Maria.”

Terror was often employed in a religious cause, as in Verdi’s “Dies Irae,” or Don Giovanni’s descent into hell, but these scenes have become examples of good technique rather than evocations of bogeymen to frighten the faithful.

The same is true of the Wolf’s Glen scene from Weber’s “Der Freischutz,” which is a composition of genius but no longer frightening for its summoning of demons.

There are all kinds of lists of horrifying classical music for Halloween, but most of them don’t make much sense.

Here’s a popular one from About.com:

Bach – Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565

Grieg – In the Hall of the Mountain King

Brahms – Piano Quintet in G minor, Op. 25

Bartok – Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta (mvmt. 3, adagio)

Mozart – Requiem “Dies Irae”

Orff – Carmina Burana, O Fortuna

Ives – Robert Browning Overture

Brahms – Hungarian Dance No. 5 in G minor

Webern – Variations Op. 27 – Ruhig fliessend

Mussorgsky – A Night on Bald Mountain

Some have become cliches in movies or Broadway musicals, while others don’t belong on the list at all. As a child I used to dance around the house to the Grieg and the Brahms Hungarian Dances and loved “Carmina Burana” for its driving rhythms.

The “modern” works are masterpieces whose only threatening aspect is their dissonance. The Bartok, to me, is a wonderful depiction in music of a warm summer night, while the Webern is one of the seminal works of serial composition.

The trouble with such lists is that serious composers had more complex emotional objectives than to frighten.

Beethoven wrote some of the most desponding music on record, while composers such as Ligeti, Penderecki and Nancy Van de Vate have depicted apocalypse and desolation, either to warn or to mourn.

Now if someone would compose a threnody for the debt ceiling, that would be spooky.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at:


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