Classical Music for Halloween: An Edgar Allan Poe Playlist

October is here!  Halloween fast approaches—it’s a time of harvest moons and leering jack-o’-lanterns, and images of ghosts, goblins, and witches are springing up everywhere.

Around this time of year, lots of folks begin posting Halloween “best of” lists, providing recommendations for scariest movies, best horror novels, and more.  Classical music groups get into the fun too, as orchestras start putting together spooky concerts, and recommending terrifying playlists.  I applaud the notion, but it can get wearying to see the same horrifying pieces recycled again and again… works like Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain, Berlioz’s March to the Scaffold and Witches’ Sabbath, Saint-Saëns’s Danse Macabre, Pachelbel’s Canon in D….

To stay in the spirit of the holiday, but to go in a slightly different direction, let me recommend a different kind of classical playlist—one dedicated to works inspired by Edgar Allan Poe.

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Although people of the nineteenth century didn’t always know what to do with him, Poe is now recognized as classic American writer… a master of the “American Gothic” genre. His short stories, such as” The Cask of Amontillado,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Fall of the House of Usher” are masterpieces of the macabre, quite unlike anything that had come before.   But oddly enough, this quintessentially American writer has also been popular in Europe—particularly in France, where translations by Charles Baudelaire caused a sensation.  Given his international influence, my playlist includes selections from both sides of the pond.

So pour yourself a glass of amontillado and give them a listen… their haunting atmosphere and supernatural plots are perfect for the season. And for other themed options, visit my guide to horror operas here.

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Argento: The Voyage of Edgar Allan Poe. This opera, with a libretto by Charles Nolte, takes its point of departure from a bizarre incident in the writer’s life. In September 1849, Poe took a steamer from Richmond to Baltimore that seems, for whatever reason, to have languished at sea for days. Less than a week after arriving in Baltimore, he died, dissolute and destitute, at the age of 40. The story is a series of hallucinations while at sea… literally and figuratively. As Poe looks back on his troubled life, he realizes how he was able to take tragedy and his life’s failures and turn them into literary nightmares.  In 1986 Argento pulled music from the full opera to create the stand-alone work, Le Tombeau d’Edgar Poe.  A tenor sings words taken from the poem, Annabel Lee.

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Bernstein: “Israfel,” from Songfest. Given the claustrophobic gloom of many of the works here, I thought I’d add a selection that shows Poe off in a different light—this is a work of raucous good humor.  The title refers to the angel of music described in the Qur’an, who will blow the trumpet on Judgment Day and who despises an unimpassioned song.  Here Poe’s poem functions as a hymn of praise to music, knowing all the while that all human music will ultimately fade.  Like the poem itself, Bernstein’s music is gushing and florid… a virtuoso vocal work.

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Caplet: Conte Fantastique. This work originally began life in 1908 as a tone-poem for orchestra and harp, based on “The Masque of the Red Death.” Ultimately Caplet arranged it for string quartet and harp (or piano) in 1922.  It is wonderfully theatrical, with an atmosphere of decay and foreboding.  Caplet employs innovative harmonics and a variety of aural effects to heighten the tension and create a sense of unseen menace.  The harp takes on a particularly portentous role, doubling as the clock that announces the final doom, as well as the ethereal presence of the Red Death itself.

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Debussy: La chute de la maison Usher. Debussy loved Poe’s atmospheric story “The fall of the House of Usher,” with its undercurrents of corruption, insanity, and unnatural love, along with its horrifying portrayal of a premature burial. After the completion of Pelléas et Mélisande, he set out to compose a full opera version of the story, going so far as to contract with the Metropolitan Opera for the premiere.  He completed the first drafts of the score in 1917, but the score as whole was incomplete when Debussy died in 1918.  Given the quality of the music, several composers set out to complete the score, based on Debussy’s sketches, including Carolyn Abbate and Robert Kyr in 1977, Juan Allende-Blin in 1979, and Robert Orledge in 2004.  The latter two reconstructions have been staged and recorded.

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Glass: The Fall of the House of Usher Critical consensus is that it may not be Philip Glass’s strongest work, but that his music is a perfect match for the moody, hallucinogenic quality of the story.  Glass avoids the obvious, cinematic clichés one would expect; instead, his insistent syncopations and running arpeggios create a sense of tension and claustrophobia that serve the tale well.  In his hands, the story becomes wonderfully evocative without ever being too defined.  Are there undercurrents of same-sex attraction between the two protagonists, or is William’s attempt to break his friend of his haunted visions simply a friend trying to break through to an addict?  Does the sister Madeline live? Was she real?  Deliciously, noting is certain.

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Koshkin: Usher Waltz. This 1984 work for solo guitar was made famous by virtuoso John Williams.  It captures a single moment from “Fall of the House of Usher,” where Roderick entertains his guest with music that becomes increasingly frenzied—a clear indication of Roderick’s mental instability.  The work, too, is at war with itself, trying to explore different harmonics while trying to ground itself in a solid foundation of A-minor. Unable to resolve this tension, it ultimately rips itself apart amidst pounding right hand chords.   This is a work that demands dazzling technique.

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Rachmaninoff: The Bells Essentially a choral symphony, this is a great masterpiece as well as one of Rachmaninoff’s favorite compositions. The work has an unusual origin—a young women Rachmaninoff had never met, sent him a translation of Poe’s poem with the suggestion that it would make a wonderful cantata. Rachmaninoff was inspired, and quickly set to work.  The translation takes certain liberties with the text, and Rachmaninoff made further alterations as well, to better serve the music.  The four movements capture the mood of four bells: Silver Sleigh Bells, Golden Wedding Bells, Loud Alarum Bells, and Mournful Iron Bells.   Like many of Rachmaninoff’s works, it incorporates themes from the Dies Irae, the medieval chant describing The Final Judgment.

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Rautavaara: On the Last Frontier Perhaps my favorite work on this list, this choral-orchestral fantasy delivers quite a punch.  It derives from Poe’s novella, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym.  Rautavaara was particularly attracted to the story as a young boy, being fascinated by its odd narrative of exotic adventures… he recalled much of the work as being “a seafaring yarn in the typical boys’ reading mold.” In the end, however, the voyage becomes more and more surreal—and allegorical—as the voyagers come face to face with an unknown, final frontier; the text abruptly ends as a vast, shrouded white figure appears before them. Rautavaara captures the increasingly dark, uncertain atmosphere of the work perfectly, and the finale is absolutely hair-raising.

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Rouse: Prospero’s Rooms. This 2011 tone poem draws inspiration from “The Masque of the Red Death.”  It is extraordinary atmospheric, depicting the castle where Prospero and his courtiers sealed themselves to escape the Red Death plague ravaging the countryside.  There is a wonderful sense of motion to the work, conveying a sense of the courtiers drifting between rooms at the doomed ball, before morphing into a sense to trapped panic and attempt at escape.  Describing the work, Rouse wrote: “In the days when I would have still contemplated composing an opera, my preferred source was Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘Masque of the Red Death.’ A marvelous story full of both symbolism and terror, it is only five pages long and would thus require ‘padding’ instead of the usual brutal cutting of the story. I had contemplated some sort of melding of the Poe story with Leonid Andreyev’s symbolist play ‘The Black Maskers.’ However, I shall not be composing an opera, and so I decided to redirect my ideas into what might be considered an overture to an unwritten opera.”

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Schmitt: Le palais hanté This work comes from a work within a work. “The Haunted Palace” was a poem read aloud by characters Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher.” It furthers the allegory of decay, a great family in decline, the pitiless passage of time, and the idea of a house swimming in the nightmares of its past.  It also foretells the ultimate fate of the house, and the family it served—assailed by an intangible evil. Florent Schmidtt’s 1904 work is ripely romantic, and effortlessly captures the feel of unnamed dread.

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Xochipilli

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5 thoughts on “Classical Music for Halloween: An Edgar Allan Poe Playlist

  1. Might I suggest “The Cask of Amontillado” by LA composer Christopher Caliendo? Part of his “Ghost Sonata” for flute and piano. ENJOY and thank you for your amazing blog.

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  2. Another good option for EAP inspired music is by The Alan Parsons Project; “Tales of Mystery and Imagination Edgar Allan Poe.” It has some vocals, but quite a bit of instrumentals.

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  3. Wow, Scott! I had no idea. Thanks for the list. It brought back a memory of my sophomore year in college in music composition. We were asked to write a recitative. I was gobsmacked. Of course I knew what it was, but what about the words?! Where would I find them? Fortunately, I had my Poe anthology with me and I ended up using the first paragraph of “The Mask of the Red Death.” It was the only composition I got an A on! LOL

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