Halloween – A Choral Music Scarefest!

Come on, admit it.  You sometimes peek through your fingers when you watch a horror flick.  Don’t be embarrassed. Scientists say we are hard-wired  to need an adrenaline rush.  It’s part of our nature, that flight, fight or freeze response that according to Wikipedia is called ‘Adrenal medulla.’  I don’t know if it is because of this hormone, or if it is a response to it, that gives us a nature that is horrified but yet is titillated by the macabre.  I am one of these people that advert my eyes when driving past a grisly car accident. I do not watch slasher films but I did watch and enjoyed some delightfully twisted episodes in the iconic  ‘Breaking Bad’.


The first song most of us hear as a babe in arms is sung by the ones we love and trust the most. The most famous lullaby written around 1765  is Rock-a-bye baby. Its simple melancholic melody is set to lyrics filled with impending doom. The possibility that harm will come to us when we sleep. 

“When the wind blows, The cradle will rock. When the bough breaks,

The cradle will fall, And down will fall baby cradle and all.”

What gives?  Is there an unspoken plot to terrorize our kids before they can talk? No wonder this prayer became so popular.  ‘From goulies and ghosties and long-leggedy beasties, And things that go bump in the night, Good Lord, deliver us!”  

Sung by Wendy Wiseman


Adam, of Adam and Eve fame already had some baggage before Eve came on the scene.  According to Jewish folklore, Lilith was Adam’s first partner. Lilith was not only headstrong and rebellious,  she spent her evenings under cover of darkness roaming the world looking for babies to suck their blood.  I know, if there was only Adam and Lilith were did these babies come from?  (I am only telling you the story not the author.)

Another woman notorious for her evil ways is the Snow Queen.  In Hans Christian Andersen‘s famous fairy tale she abducts her young victims and holes them up in her palace where she freezes them into statues of blue ice.

Nightmare Before Christmas Soundtrack – Danny Elfman

Witches are known for their charms or abilities to cast spells.  The word charm (cyrm) is a hymn or choral song whose roots originated from the Latin word carmen, a sacred incantation of the goddess Carmenta. Carmenta-Nicostrata Ancient belief held that women asked Carmenta for help when attracting a mate. Everything that made a man attracted to a woman came to be synonymous with a woman’s use of potions, charms, and her spells of enchantment.  In 1770 the British Parliament passed a law making it illegal for a woman to seduce a man into marriage with the help of wigs, perfume or high-heeled shoes.  If a man could prove that his wife tricked him, his marriage would be annulled and she would be charged with practicing witchcraft and punished accordingly.  If that was the law in the 21st century,  many women would be thrown in the slammer. Magazines like Glamour, Vogue or Cosmopolitan would certainly be changing their target readership.

Giuseppe Verdi gives voice to witches in his opera ‘Macbeth’:  “The roving sisters fly though the air, glide over the waves, can weave a circle that embraces land and sea”.

Verdi: Witches’ Chorus from Macbeth  Cantores Celestes, Kelly Galbraith conductor, Ellen Meyer pianist

Baba Yaga
Baba Yaga (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The witch in Hansel and Gretel is similar to the Russian predatory witch Baba Yaga  who lives in a cottage in the middle of the woods.  The fence around her property is made from the bones of her victims and the light of the moon is reflected in the hollow eye sockets in their skulls. The tiles are made of pancakes and the walls of pies.  In the middle of her home is a big oven.  You can guess that more goes in the oven that flour and baking powder!   In Maurice Ravel‘s Ronde from Trois chansons, the choristers sing, “Do not go to Ormonde Wood…it is full of satyrs, centaurs, evil wizards, demons, werewolves, vampires, boogie men  goblins, she devils, baba yagas.”

Ravel: Ronde from ‘Trois chansons’ Hart House Chorus

There are 4 great Sabbats of the witch year.  Halloween is one, and so too is May Eve or Walpurgisnacht.  Lore of old has witches dancing in a circle and feasting, while giving praise to the moon goddess.  The inquisition accused witches of eating children, saying prayers backwards and instead of using the right hand to make the sign of the cross, the left foot was used.

From Felix Mendelssohn’s setting of Goethe’sDie Erste Walpurgisnacht’, “What an appalling noise!  Look, the evil ones flies past in flames!  From the ground the broth of hell boils all around.”

Mendelssohn Die erste Walpurgisnacht op.60. Francesco d’Avalos – Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus

The main reason witches terrified mortals was their association with death, They were accused of  stealing life away in the night.  So too goblins steal the breath of life.  Goethe also set the famous tale of the erlking “You sweet child, come, come with me! …. My daughters shall be your lovely attendants:  Every night my daughters dance a round dance, they will rock you and dance with you and sing you to sleep.”   He seizes the boy from his father’s arms and the boy dies. This erlking was a type of goblin, a child stealer, night raider, a cradle snatcher.  UFO Feature-1352106Goblins inspire a rich and sinister body of tales.  Spirit assassins come in all shapes and sizes.

A Wood Goblin by Dubna Boys Choir

Ancient beliefs concerning the power of blood evolved into stories and superstitions that the dead crave blood to bring themselves back to life. Regular dosages of blood give the undead life, a life called forth by the blood of the moon, the original mother. These undead were called vampires.  The most famous vampire of them all was Count Dracula.  Here is some fun ‘scary’ choral singing in this sound track by Wojciech Kilar. (Choir comes in at 3:06)

Bram Stoker’s Dracula – Dracula / The Beginning

Fear and respect of ghosts is a very real part of Western, Eastern and Native traditions.  Christians have the ‘Holy Ghost‘ but there are those scary ghosts, the ones that go bump in the night. ‘Ghost’ and ‘guest’  are rooted in the Germanic Geist, a spirit of a dead ancestor who was invited to tribal feasts. Ghosts are known to haunt the scenes of former lives, especially if they died violently or unhappily, if they were buried in unconsecrated ground or were thought to have been possessed by evil spirits.  The lyrics from Don Besig’s ‘The Ghost Ship’  – “Dear Ghosts of old comrades I rode with so long …old ghosts, d’you hear now the lone wolf’s song?”

Atfal Dozan performing “Reflection Of A Lad At Sea: The Ghost Ship” by Don Besig & Nancy Price

The terrors of what can await us after death, the terrors of what await us in our dreams.  In the biblical book II Kings 1:2 “You need not fear the terrors of night..the plague that stalks in the dark.”  We tell children to sleep tight, don’t let the bed bugs bite.  We’ll not let the boogie man get you! Igor Stravinsky chose lyrics from the 15th century ‘Lyke-wake dirge” to frame his cantata.  The not so gentle reminder of what happens if you don’t live a gracious and generous life! “If hos’n and shoon thou ne’er gav’st nane, every night and alle, the whinnes shall prick thee to the bare bane and Christ receive thy soul”.

Igor Stravinsky: Cantata A Lyke Wake Dirge

The word boogie was used as a proper name for the devil, or for a person much dreaded.  It also became a symbol of night terrors.  We say ‘BOO!’ to give someone a fright!  One of the worst boogie men in history was King Herrod who killed all of the children under 2 years of age in search of baby Jesus. Herrod took on the characteristics of giants and ogres in medieval Coventry plays.  The scariest portrayal of the devil in this modern age has to be Damien in the film ‘The Omen’.  Jerry Goldsmith’s award winning sound track  ‘The Omen’ is perfect music for your Halloween.

Ave Santini from The Omen by Jerry Goldsmith Tenerife Film Orchestra & Choir, Diego Navarro conductor

Have fun this Halloween dressing up in your scariest costumes.  I hope you get lots of candy kisses in your loot bag.

Trick or treat!  And if you like what you read or heard, please share this blog posting on your Facebook page or twitter account.