Halloween is here! And if you’re looking for spooky, creepy, or monstrous music for your playlist, you’re in luck. Check out our 12 favorite Halloween classical music pieces below.
1. Saint-Saëns – Danse Macabre
With a title that includes the word “macabre”, you can tell it’s a great piece for Halloween. This is by far the most famous work associated with the holiday, and with good reason. It is a tone poem inspired by a French legend that says “Death” appears at midnight on Halloween to call forth the dead from their graves to dance for him. He plays the fiddle while skeletons dance until dawn.
2. Dvořák – The Water Goblin
The Water Goblin is a symphonic poem that tells a horrific story of a mischievous goblin who traps drowning souls in upturned teacups. It begins by depicting the water goblin sitting by a lake sewing a green coat and red boots for his wedding. Then a mother is telling her daughter a dream she had about her daughter in white robes swirling in foaming water. Fearing it was a foreshadow of danger, she warns her daughter not to go to the lake. Of course, the daughter is drawn to the lake despite the warnings. The bridge she sits on collapses and, as she falls into the water, the goblin abducts her. He takes her to his underwater castle and marries her. They have a child together and she begs the goblin to allow her to visit her mother. He agrees on 3 conditions: that she not embrace anyone, that she leaves the baby behind, and that she returns by the bells of the evening vespers. She visits her mother who forbids her to return when the bells ring. The water goblin becomes enraged and goes to the mother’s home and bangs on the door. When he is refused, he kills the child.
3. Mussorgsky – Night on Bald Mountain
Another famous piece commonly associated with Halloween, Night on Bald Mountain paints a musical picture of a witch’s sabbath occurring on St. John’s Eve. Interestingly, the original piece composed by Mussorgsky is not the version you typically hear. That was only published in 1968 and is performed very rarely. The piece we have come to know (and hear in places like Walt Disney’s Fantasia is an arrangement by Rimsky-Korsakov.
4. Berlioz – “Dream of the Night of the Sabbath” from Symphonie Fantastique
Often referred to as the “Dream of the Witches’ Sabbath”, it is the 5th movement of Berlioz’s grand Symphonie Fantastique. Each movement of the symphony depicts an episode in the protagonist’s life (an artist who poisoned himself with opium out of unrequited love). The program notes in the original score for the 5th movement are as follows:
He sees himself at a witches’ sabbath, in the midst of a hideous gathering of shades, sorcerers and monsters of every kind who have come together for his funeral. Strange sounds, groans, outbursts of laughter; distant shouts which seem to be answered by more shouts. The beloved melody appears once more, but has now lost its noble and shy character; it is now no more than a vulgar dance tune, trivial and grotesque: it is she who is coming to the sabbath … Roar of delight at her arrival … She joins the diabolical orgy … The funeral knell tolls, burlesque parody of the Dies irae, the dance of the witches. The dance of the witches combined with the Dies irae.
5. Ryan Smith – The Night Creeps Slowly
Ryan Smith may not be a name you know, but he is composer from Parker, Colorado who wrote a very Halloween-appropriate piece that the Parker Symphony played for its world premiere. A Chaparral High School graduate in 2008, he has written, recorded, and produced under the name M.I.X.
6. Chopin – “Funeral March” from his Piano Sonata No. 2
What Halloween music list would be complete without the famous Funeral March from Chopin. Although many may not know it, it is actually the 3rd movement in his Piano Sonata No. 2 and quite lovely once you get past the main motif. It has been arranged for a variety of instruments and even full orchestra and has been played at numerous funerals including Chopin’s own burial in October 1849 at Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.
7. Liszt – Totentanz
“Totentanz” translates to “Dance of the Dead” in English. It joins several other works by Liszt in showing his fascination with death. In fact, it is said he frequented hospitals and asylums and even went down into prison dungeons to see those condemned to die.
8. Bach – Toccata and Fugue in D minor
Probably the most famous piece of organ music written, the Toccata and Fugue in D minor was not intended to be creepy, but thanks to its use in numerous films, it has become a cliché to illustrate horror and villainy.
9. Rachmaninoff – Isle of the Dead
Another symphonic poem that depicts a story, this piece was inspired by a reproduction of a painting of the same name that Rachmaninoff saw in Paris. The opening of the piece is either suggestive of oars as they meet the waters on the way to the Isle of the Dead or the waves themselves.
10. Gounod – Funeral March of a Marionette
Ok. One listen to this piece and you’ll instantly recognize it as the theme for Alfred Hitchcock Presents. However, it has also a great piece for Halloween because of its subject matter (a funeral) and it’s oddly catchy and creepy melody. The storyline that the piece follows is that a marionette has died in a duel, the funeral procession commences, and then, during the central section, mourners take refreshments before returning to the march.
11. Penderecki – Intermezzo For 24 Strings
Not an overtly Halloween-themed piece, the chromatic layering of instruments has a creepy effect that makes this a great addition to any Halloween playlist. Penderecki is a Polish composer of the 20th and 21st century whose music has sometimes been adapted for films. His String Quartet and Kanon For Orchestra and Tape were featured in the 1973 movie The Exorcist
12. Grieg – “In The Hall of the Mountain King” from Peer Gynt
The translation of the title of this piece from Norwegian isn’t quite literally “mountain king”. The “king” in this instance is actually a troll that Peer Gynt invents in a fantasy. The introduction of this movement is, “There is a great crowd of troll courtiers, gnomes and goblins. Dovregubben sits on his throne, with crown and sceptre, surrounded by his children and relatives. Peer Gynt stands before him. There is a tremendous uproar in the hall.”