The Classical Coven

Double, double toil and treble! Today we’re sharing a playlist of some of our favorite witches in the classical repertoire—some scarier than others…

A Classic Character

While Verdi’s trio of witches don’t sing Shakespeare’s famous line, they do speak in incantations, a speech-like, repetitive pattern of spooky spells. We know that Verdi took particular interest in Shakespeare’s style and went back and forth with the opera’s librettist, Francesco Maria Piave, extensively, even proposing certain sections of verse himself. Describing his vision for the witches, he wrote to Piave that their diction “must be vulgar, yet bizarre and original”—a concept that comes through clearly in his score, as they alternate between unnatural, melodically minimalist incantations and a set of almost jaunty jigs many of his critics have deemed practically “goofy” and far from frightening.

Verdi’s witches may indeed be the least terrifying on our list but they still draw on a variety of musical conventions used to depict the supernatural. In the excerpt below, listen to Verdi’s use of shrill woodwind sonorities, the interval of a tritone (historically referred to as “the Devil’s interval!”), skittish string fragments, and unexpected, destabilizing rhythmic shifts:

The Stuff of (Berlioz’s) Nightmares

Moving to something slightly scarier, the final movement of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, titled “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath” is just that: an opium-fueled nightmare in which the work’s protagonist finds himself “surrounded by a foul assembly of sorcerers and devils, come together to celebrate the Sabbath,” according to the program notes the composer himself provided.

And Berlioz’s score pulls out all the stops to depict this terrifying bacchanalia. Like Verdi, he draws on shrieking woodwinds and fidgety, mercurial patterns. He also calls for the string players to use a then-somewhat unusual technique called col legno, in which they flip over their bows and tap on the strings with the wooden stick, adding in yet another unexpected sonority:

Berlioz also evokes—and distorts—religious imagery through solemn church bells and an ominous rendering of the Dies Irae chant for the dead in the low brass. Unsurprisingly, these references were not a universal hit amongst Berlioz’s contemporaries…

At the same time he hears the distorted cantus firmus of the “Dies Irae,” to which the witches are dancing. How utterly loathsome all this is to me, I don’t have to tell you. To see one’s most cherished ideas debased and expressed in perverted caricatures would enrage anyone. — Felix Mendelssohn on the final movement of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique

 

Witches Around the World

Viktor Hartmann, “The Hut on Hen’s Legs”

Some of the most iconic themes in Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition come in the work’s penultimate section, meant to depict Baba Yaga, a witch-like, child-eating creature often found in Slavic folktales. Mussorgsky’s piece was inspired by a series of paintings by the artist Viktor Hartmann. Hartmann’s portrait of Baba Yaga depicts not the deformed woman herself, but her equally horrifying clocktower home, perched atop a pair of fowl’s legs.

Mussorgsky’s programmatic music leans into the grotesque, with short, circular phrases juxtaposed in sharp contrast to one another and aggressive, pounding rhythms that evoke the ticking of a clock.  Even the main theme is tinted with terror, with angular lines and an ominous chromatic descent:

Pictures at an Exhibition is also often performed as an orchestral piece, in a version orchestrated decades later by Maurice Ravel. Baba Yaga’s movement translates particularly well, with the pounding rhythms given to the percussion and low brass, and the whirling melodic fragments passed around amongst the woodwinds and the strings, flitting almost unpredictably through timbers and registers until everything crashes into the climactic final movement.

 

And of course there are plenty more members of the classical coven: the infamous witch that traps Hansel and Gretel; Jezizbaba and her magical powers to transform in Rusalka… Check out our playlist to see the full list and discover your spooky Hallowe’en soundtrack! 🎃

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