For Tufts students, October is not only marked by the brilliant foliage of a New England fall, the surge of “polar vortexes” promulgated by the local news and even the mini pumpkins available for purchase at Hodgdon Food-on-the-Run, but also by the revving up of coursework and the dreaded midterm season. Forgoing exam preparation in favor of getting into the autumn spirit is an age-old dilemma, but it doesn’t have to be. Studies have shown that listening to classical music spurs the brain to release dopamine, putting the listener into a heightened emotional state, and thus able to better absorb information.
So, why sacrifice getting into the spirit of October when you can “feed two birds with one scone” and do so while you study? Here’s a playlist of some of the spookiest classical tunes to help you get started.
“Autumn Night” from “Wood Notes” (1947): William Grant Still
As an African American man composing during the Harlem Renaissance, Still overcame many obstacles in his career while still gaining widespread recognition for his work. Still was the first African American to have a symphony performed by a major American orchestra; although Black representation in classical music still has a long way to go, Still certainly made leaps and bounds in a very positive direction.
Still’s four-movement orchestral suite “Wood Notes” includes many of his signature forms of blues, spirituals and jazz, which contribute to his American nationalistic style. Nature is placed at the center of this piece, and is given a different character in each movement. The second movement, subtitled “Autumn Night,” perfectly encompasses the ethereal feel of a crisp and foggy autumn night. Simultaneously ghostly and tender, this movement sets a great tone for an evening of autumn delights.
“Don Giovanni” (1787): Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Perhaps Mozart’s magnum opus, “Don Giovanni” tells the story of Don Giovanni, an immoral and devious character based on the legend of Don Juan. Paired with Lorenzo Da Ponte’s Italian libretto, this tragicomedy includes themes ranging from murder in the name of masculinity to dinner party hijinks.
Without spoiling too much of the plot for all of those who are prepared to sit down and watch a recorded production of the approximately three-hour opera, I would recommend listening to the finale of this magnificent oeuvre this October. Featuring a surprise cameo of the late Commandatore (who was killed by Don Giovanni at the beginning of the first act), the titular Don is dragged to a hellish place as penance for his sinful life.
“October” and “November” from “Das Jahr” (1841): Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel
Often considered her most important piano work, Mendelssohn’s piano song-cycle, “Das Jahr,” is made up of 12 musical vignettes for solo piano along with a choral postlude, each representing a different month of the year. As a female in the world of classical composition during a time of great misogyny, Fanny Mendelssohn, the elder sister of composer Felix Mendelssohn, often published her works under her brother’s name. “Das Jahr,” however, was published as her own, against the wishes of her family.
Each song in the cycle is accompanied by a brief poem, which can be found written in its original German in Mendelssohn’s manuscript. The measured militance and gaiety of “October” is starkly contrasted by the dirge-like opening of “November,” which melts into a cantabile melody played in various registers of the piano. The textural breadth of these two songs perfectly captures the natural transformations that characterize the season.
“Night on Bald Mountain” (1867): Modest Mussorgsky
A classic that many of us will recognize from the final segment of Disney’s “Fantasia” (1940), “Night on Bald Mountain” (or “Night on the Bare Mountain,” as the work sometimes translates), tells the truly haunting story of St. John as he witnesses a witches sabbath on the slopes of the Bald Mountain, near Kiev in the Old Russian empire. Mussorgsky’s epic tone poem begins in a swelling frenzy of sound interrupted by a brief brass fanfare which leads right back into chaos. The distemper that characterizes this piece, juxtaposed with an extremely rhythmic upper-wind line, is extremely unsettling and doesn’t cease until the end of the piece, which welcomes in an archetypical sunrise and return to order.
“Danse Macabre” (1874): Camille Saint-Saëns
Perhaps the most bone-rattling song on the list, and a perfectly chilling apex to your Halloween night playlist, “Danse Macabre” is a symphonic work based on a poem of the same name by Henri Cazalis. In the poem, Cazilis writes: “Death at midnight plays a dance-tune, / zig, zig, zig, on his violin,” which practically orchestrates Saent-Saëns’s composition for him. The work begins with a single harp, plucked twelve times to represent a clock striking midnight, followed by a solo violin sounds a harsh tritone, a notoriously unsettling musical interval that is often used to represent the devil. The work progresses like the maniacal waltz that it is, with added chromatic passages that give the impression of autumn gusts of wind.