What comes to mind when you think of Halloween music? Michael Jackson’s Thriller? The Addams Family theme song? The 1962 hit single Monster Mash? How about something from The Nightmare Before Christmas? All good stuff, but the orchestral composers of the 19th century were also- forgive the phrase- “killin’” in the Halloween department.
If there were a Grammy category for best Halloween-esque, classical, orchestral piece- mine would go to Frenchman Camille Saint-Seans for Danse Macabre. Written in 1874, it tells the story of Death’s annual Halloween party in the town cemetery.
Death opens the piece by walking onto the scene, getting out his violin and tuning it up. As he gets rolling onto a melody, the skeletons and ghosts of the graveyard rise up and get the dance party going full steam. Saint-Seans gives the impression of ghosts swirling through the air, skeletons rattling their bones, and both parties intermingling their melodies until they are both heard simultaneously. The action continues all night until the rooster/oboist crows, signaling the end of the party. Death, tired after his all-night gig, packs up his violin and walks away. The cemetery enters the morning as if nothing unusual has happened.
Listening to this piece is easy and fun. Better yet, you don’t have to be a graduate music student to follow the story. Saint-Seans makes it easy with his masterful instrumentation and obvious melodic hooks. I use this piece in class at my elementary school job and most of the kids applaud after hearing it for the first time. Adults seem almost equally excited when they hear the piece on it’s own merit, not as part of a TV ad.
Here are some links if you want to check the piece out for yourself. You may find that you’ve heard parts of it before- it gets picked up often for use in ads, TV, movies, etc….
Danse Macabre- Orchestra: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YyknBTm_YyM
PBS Animated version from the ’80’s: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9CHqhsMP80E
And in typical Amazon fashion, if you like Dance Macabre, check out these other, fine, orchestral, Halloween-type masterpieces:
A Night On Bald Mountain by Modest Mussorsky: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iCEDfZgDPS8
Here's Disney's version of that same piece from Fantasia: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SLCuL-K39eQ
Toccata & Fugue in D Minor by Bach: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ho9rZjlsyYY
O Fortuna from Carmina Burana by Orff: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GXFSK0ogeg4
Add any others you like in the comments- there are plenty to choose from.