Classical Music’s Vampires: An October Playlist

Classical music has always had a fondness for the supernatural. In earlier centuries, composers had incorporated Christian miracles or classical myths into their works. But by the nineteenth century composers had expanded the repertoire to include mermaids, witches, phantoms… and vampires.

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Vampires have been a staple in classical music since the early 1800s. The vampire craze really took off in 1819, when John William Polidori’s short story “The Vampire” became an international sensation. Soon, vampires were showing up everywhere, in fiction, poetry, and religious treatises. Naturally, composers took advantage of the new-found popularity and brought vampires to the opera house and concert hall, too. Sometimes the resulting works were dramatic, making them precursors to modern horror films. At other times, composers used the vampire story for comedic effect, giving their bloodsuckers an ironic wink.

As October gets underway, I thought I’d share a collection of 10 vampire-themed classical works from the last 200 years. Enjoy!

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Bartók: Transylvanian Dances Okay, so Bartók didn’t set out to write this as a vampire piece, but given the instant association of Transylvania with vampires I’m hoping we can let this slide in. The Transylvanian Dances have an interesting history, having begun life as Bartók’s Sonatina for Piano—a three-movement work based on a series of folk dances. He later orchestrated them, giving them a richer palette of orchestral color, and a new title.

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Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 13 in E-flat Major, Op. 27, No. 1, Quasi una fantasia “Der Vampyr.” To be honest, I have no idea where the subtitle, “Der Vampryr,” comes from. There are a few, mostly modern recordings out there that use it (for example, these sets by Jenö Jandó, John Khouri, Michael Houstoun, Ronald Brautigam or Claude Frank), but I’m not sure if that’s openly a marketing gimmick or due to some post-Beethoven association—like how Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 is known as “Elvira Madigan” from its use in the famed Swedish film. But for all this, I love the idea of Beethoven being associated with a vampire-themed work!

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Copland: Grohg.  Inspired by the classic horror film Nosferatu, Grohg is a lurid one-act ballet, featuring a vampire who brings the dead back to life for his amusement. When he was unable to stage it in the 1920s, Copland adapted some of the music into his Dance Symphony. It blends early Stravinsky, jazz, ragtime, and other “modern” influences in what was clearly designed to be a shock to the musical establishment.

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Erdmann: Nosferatu. The 1922 silent film Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (“Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horror”) remains one of the most important, influential horror films of all times.  It essentially is a retelling of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but since the studio couldn’t obtain the rights to the story, they chose to call him Count Orlok instead.  German composer Hans Erdmann wrote a uniquely dark soundtrack for the film, to be played by live musicians while the film was being screened.

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Feeney: Dracula. This ballet in three acts debuted in 1996 and quickly became an international hit.  It perfectly captures the original tale’s sense of unclean seduction and implacable evil. Feeney’s music sets the mood right from the start, beginning with an indeterminate sound of knocking/pounding that builds in tension… is it someone seeking to enter and find safety? Or desperate for escape?  From there, the terror only builds….

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Glass: Dracula. In 1999, Philip Glass wrote a new soundtrack to the classic Bela Lugosi film, Dracula.  Curiously, the score is rather restrained and evocative, without ever trying to upstage the film itself. It is augmented by the raw, woody sounds of the Kronos Quartet, with naked, scratchy sound of a bow on a string all the way through. And of course, the slurring arpeggios that Glass is so famous for.

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Kodály: Transylvanian Spinning Room. Kodály’s Székely Fonó, known in English as Transylvanian Spinning Room is another folksong-inspired work included for the associations with vampire country, rather than vampirism specifically.  It’s a one act theater piece that tells the tales of traditional Hungarian villagers through traditional songs.

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Marschner: Der Vampyr. This opera, one of the earliest works in the budding Romantic movement, caused a sensation after its 1828 premiere in Leipzig.  It ultimately draws from John William Polidori’s story, “The Vampire;” the popularity of the story sparked a number of composers to create operatic adaptations, including Martin-Joseph Mengal’s Le vampire  in 1826, and Peter Josef von  Lindpaintner’s Der Vampyr  in 1828. For all that, Marschner’s version remains one of the most durable and the most famous. It is a melodramatic story of love battling evil. It begins at a Witches’ Sabbath, where the Vampire Master tells Lord Ruthven that if he cannot sacrifice three virgin brides within the next 24 hours, he will die. If he can, he will be granted another year of life. Will he succeed?

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Meyerbeer: Robert le Diable.  This wild work all but created the genre of Grand Opera—elephantine spectacles with ballet, grand chorus scenes, and state-of-the-art special effects.  Frederic Chopin was in the audience for the premiere, and completely bowled over: “If ever magnificence was seen in the theater, I doubt that it reached the level of splendor shown in Robert…It is a masterpiece…Meyerbeer has made himself immortal.” The story derives from an old Norman legend of a knight who was sired by Satan himself.  The knight, Robert, seeks to find love for himself, while supernatural forces around him battle for his soul.  Blasphemy and witchcraft abound, particularly in the third act when undead, vampiric nuns are called forth from their graves to torment Robert.

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Palma: I Vampiri. Silvestro Palma was an Italian opera composer, based in Naples.  His opera, I Vampiri, premiered there in 1812, making among the earliest appearances of a vampire in opera. It is classified as an Opera Buffa, essentially meaning it is designed to be a slapstick comedy rather than a dramatic tragedy.   While hardly a ground-breaking work, it is still quite enjoyable. The “vampires” in the story are strictly imaginary; the various characters come to believe that others are vampires, creating panic and a profusion of comic mayhem. In the end it becomes clear that the alleged vampires are nothing more than a band of near-by outlaws, seeking to scare the locals into leaving them alone.

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