Frances Metcalfe first learnt to read music at the age of four. She is now a retired peripatetic music teacher specialising in the violin.
There is a large body of people, if I can put it that way, who don't believe science has fully explored the existence of ghosts. Just as we don't fully understand the Higgs boson, we may not know enough to prove that ghosts do not exist. There are different areas of ghostly ideas, reincarnation of the soul which is a part of Buddhists' religion, apparitions and voices of the dead speaking their loved ones. Whatever you might believe, composers have found inspiration in ghostly matters and the psychological elements they inevitably bring up.
1. Richard Strauss: "An Alpine Symphony Erscheinung (Apparition)"
Unlike most conventional symphonies written in four movements, this long symphony is a continuous movement subdivided into 22 sections. It charts a journey through the Alps starting shortly before sunrise and finishing after sunset. Along the way, the walker climbs through a forest, by a brook, over an alpine pasture, and a glacier up to the summit, descending through a storm back down again.
Strauss' outdoorsy Alpine Symphony overflows with sounds from nature, including bird calls, and we also hear alpine horn calls, and it wanders, often in a leisurely manner, from key to key. At time it pushes on, just as anyone on a long walk varies the pace with the scenery, sometimes pausing to take it in, at others pressing on to the next viewpoint.
The ghost appears by the waterfall when reality is smudged and mirages the mind. A bejewelled backdrop wall of water rains down, as if a colony of fireflies, coloured by a diamond-cut glockenspiel, shimmy in the light. The harps ripple downward glissandi while the woodwind spurt little cascades of arpeggios, and in an instant the fleeting glimpse of the apparition has gone and the travellers, having marvelled at such a wondrous sight, continue on to the flowering meadows.
2. Beethoven: "Piano Trio in D (Ghost)"
Some wit, on hearing the unearthly-sounding slow second movement, bestowed the title 'Ghost' on Beethoven's fifth piano trio.
The candlelit eerie entrance to the second movement gradually becomes more intense, a laser of blinding light. The diminished chord arpeggios add to the spooky atmosphere, interplayed equally between piano, violin and cello, three ghostly figures tormented by their own demons. A long downward chromatic scale from the piano pulls the music to a close as the violin and cello peter out on soft pizzicati.
The two outer movements are a total contrast to their moody interior. They embrace life and positively beam with good humour. Both are very quick in pace. The last, a racy presto, offered Beethoven the opportunity to show his humorous side. We might all be tempted to think he was a total grump from paintings of the great composer but he did have a great sense of fun. Tonally, Beethoven sends his instrumentalists off piste, swapping the tunes back and forth from player to player. Stops and starts litter the finale, as if to keep the audience guessing as to what is going to happen next.
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3. Tchaikovsy: "Hamlet Overture Fantasie"
Hamlet is unified by a recurring 'fate' motif, and themes representing Ophelia, the object of Hamlet's affections, Fortinbras, king of Norway, Denmark's enemy, and the ghost of Hamlet's father, murdered by his brother, Claudius. Shakespeare's play. Probably his finest, is run through with tightly knotted complexities of the human condition and Hamlet festers an unswerving focus on retribution.
From the drumroll start, the music is, as you might imagine, packed with pathos and angst, as the work and its inner turmoil rages towards the final death march. There is much to compare here with the fourth symphony written some ten years previously - it too pronounces its own 'fate' theme. The febrile intensity finds respite in the oboe solos, but for the most part Tchaikovsky strains and aches his way through the vengeful Hamlet's preoccupation with mortality.
4. Britten: "Turn of the Screw"
Henry James' novel on which the opera is based, is credited as being one of the best ghost stories ever written - Stephen King is a great fan4 and it is truly edge of the seat reading, a creeping web of ambiguity, disquiet and incertitude hangs like a malevolent mist over shifting sands.
The claustrophobic nature of the story is reinforced by the limited instrumentation - thirteen in all. Maybe this was a deliberate choice, thirteen being for many, a superstitious number, or they happened to be most suited to the narrative.
Clouded with paedophilic innuendo and uncertainty surrounding the Governess's testimony and mental health, The Turn of the Screw is deeply unsettling, and we can never be quite certain about what is or is not imagined. Two children at a country house are being taught by their governess. We are coaxed into oscillating between identifying with the governess who either has morbid illusions, believing her predecessor and the valet, both deceased, have designs to lure the children in a ghostly predation for intentions that have disturbingly sexual overtones, or a plausible explanation as offered by the housekeeper.
To this end, Britten enters the world of the twelve tone system. For the 'Screw' theme during Act I the notes are arranged in ascending fifths, to all intents and purposes, a ratchet. Lacking tonal grounding, Britten's own unbalanced-yet-balanced rocking platform mirrors the tensioning drama. This way, that way.
Add to the already murky environment is Britten's own unhealthy interest in adolescent boys5 and the opera becomes a whole world more uncomfortable.
Quint, the dead valet, is heard here in a mesmerising solo with the piano in collusion, resolved to take possession of the boy, Miles.
To read about another of Britten's psychological and ambiguous dramatic works, Peter Grimes, read about classical music inspired by the sea by clicking on the link.
5. Stravinsky: "Petrushka"
The hand puppet Petrushka is more familiar to English speaking countries as Punch, a subversive character who beats his wife and disagrees with the devil.
The Master of Ceremonies calls to the crowd to watch the show. Drummers pummel out their drumrolls to further attract the crowd's attention. The Magician appears on stage and with his wand, touches the three main characters with his flute to bring them to 'life'.
Although the Magician directs the Ballerina to come into Petrushka's room, she is frightened off by his clumsy exuberance and the Magician sends her to the Moor instead. Petrushka is furious with the Magician as he is sweet on the Ballerina and curses his picture which is hanging on the wall of his room.
The Ballerina flirts with the Moor then as they waltz together, Petrushka bursts in and attacks the Moor. The Moor is far the stronger fighter and doles out a beating to Petrushka who flees the scene, the Moor in hot pursuit. With the Ballerina running after the duo, the Moor catches up with Petrushka and swipes him dead with his sword and the Magician carries his dead body away. He proves to the audience he isn't responsible for Petrushka's death - he's only a puppet when all's said and done.
The scene changes to night and Petrushka's ghost looms above the tiny theatre roof. He hurls abuse at the Magician who is terrified and dashes away and the crowd is left to ponder over who is real or merely a wooden doll and who has control over whom.
To signify Petrushka's unpleasant disposition, Stravinsky announces his entrance with two different chords played together, C major and F sharp major. This tritone relationship has traditionally been a musical symbol of the devil, presented here in unmistakable Stravinsky ear-catching imagination.
To enhance the throng of the ordinary Russian, Stravinsky enriches the score with many peasant tunes, directly appealing to the ordinary man and women in the street. In the finale we encounter the visitors to the Shrovetide Fair enjoying the assortment of entertainers and Cossack dancers who have come to entertain.
The irreverent use of these melodies by way of a luxurious score means everyone is in on the joke from the start. As the Moor chases and slays Petrushka, his piercing tritone theme cries out, but is soon chillingly crowed from the rooftop as a last taunt to the terrified Moor.
To read more about classical music inspired by magicians, sorcerers and wizards, click on the link.
I heard that kind of a sound that a ghost makes when it wants to tell about something that’s on its mind and can’t make itself understood, and so can’t rest easy in its grave, and has to go about that way every night grieving.
— Mark Twain
6. Schumann: "Waldszenen Verrufene Stelle (Haunted Place)"
Waldzenen, or Forest Scenes, is a set of nine short pieces for solo piano, of which Verrufene Stelle is the fourth. The work charts a journey through a forest, meeting a hunting party and marvelling at flowers dotted here and there, to the welcome comfort of an inn, followed by a farewell, all derived from the opening Eintritt, or entrance.
At the heart of Verrufene Stelle is an quiet undertone of slow moving baroque-like dotted rhythms and suspensions, where chords are held back before resolving, adding to tension. Alternating between tiptoeing and heavy footsteps it's more a place of uneasy reflection rather than to be frightened off.
7. Wagner: "Flying Dutchman"
There is consequence to murder. For the Flying Dutchman the killing a sailor taking part in a mutiny on board his ship means he is damned. A ghost floats on to the deck and condemns the captain to sail the seas for all time, during which time he may set foot on dry land only once every seven years. His only hope of release from his marine torment is to be saved by a woman's love.
On one of his short excursions on to terra firma, he encounters Senta. That unconditional love is embodied in Senta, but she is accused of unfaithfulness and kills herself. The Dutchman sets sail once more to roam the seas indefinitely, redeemed but unable to come to terms with Senta's death.5
From time to time seafarers believe they spot the Flying Dutchman's ship on the horizon, a ghostly apparition which disappears into the mists.
The overture to the opera is highly dramatic, Wagner painting a vivid picture of the tempestuous nature of the story. The Flying Dutchman's ominous trumpets are his call sign, a full bodied lyrical melody represents Senta, all buffeted by a turbulent backdrop driving the music and leaving the listener in no doubt that this opera is a stormy ride indeed.
8. Vaughan Williams: "The Lover's Ghost"
Vaughan Williams was a great advocate of collecting the folk songs of Great Britain, in the same way as Kodaly and Bartok travelled round Hungary writing down and recording their native musical heritage.
The Lover's Ghost is one such collected piece, telling of a man who sails back to his old love with 24 mariners to sing for her from the afterlife, telling her he gave up the chance of marrying a princess because he loved her.
Sung 'a capella' the instrument-less choir has a simple haunting purity, a yearning lament which reaches back in time to another distant world, both musically and for the couple at the heart of the poem.
9. Dvorak: "The Spectre's Bride"
The story charts a girl's night journey with her dead lover who appears at her window. She had been awaiting his return from abroad, even thinking should he not have survived, she would rather have ended her own life.
Encouraging her to accompany him by saying they are to celebrate their wedding the girl takes up her religious safe-keepers, a cross, a rosary and a book of prayer, and sets off with the corpse to his dwelling. On the way, he discards her religious objects, but when they reach his home, a cemetery, the girl recognises that her lover is dead and offers up a prayer to the Virgin Mary. Cocks crow and the sun rises, bits of her nightgown are strewn over the graveyard and the girl knows she has had a lucky escape.
The introduction is based on the love theme that the unhappy couple sing together later in the cantata, interspersed by warning outbursts and tightly twisted harmonies foreshadowing the tragedy in the making.
10. Gilbert and Sullivan Ruddigore
Having to commit a crime a day or die in agony is a formidable curse to bear, but this is what has befallen Despard Murgatroyd. He has inherited a curse laid on his ancestor, Sir Roderic Murgatroyd who persecuted witches and had them burned at the stake. One laid a curse as she was consumed by the fire, condemning Roderic and his descendants to commit a crime every day, or endure terrible agony.
Typically Gilbert and Sullivan, the opera abounds in love mismatches and the wrong person in the wrong role. Despard discovers his older brother, Ruthven, is still alive and should have inherited the title. Ruthven, however, to avoid the terrible curse, has been masquerading under the identity of someone else.
Ruthven, having to face up to his new found responsibility as Baron now takes over the curse. In the picture gallery of Ruddigore castle Ruthven is surrounded by paintings of his ancestors. He pleads with them for the curse to be lifted, but they insist he carries out his duty, or endure the dreadful consequences. The ancestors step out of their frames and impose torture upon Ruthven who quickly agrees to continue with his crimes and the ghosts resume their places back in the paintings.
But Ruthven foils them in the end. He suggests that if he refuses to commit a crime this must constitute suicide, which in turn is a crime. All the ghosts realise they should never have died either, are resurrected, and everyone lives happily ever after.
The ghost scene is darkly comic, mocking Ruthven. It's Victorian gothic novels and Italian melodramatic opera rolled into one and it's this tradition the BBC TV series Blackadder has carried on, it seems a bit of a lark, but clever and well crafted as all enduring satires are.
11. Adolph Adam Giselle
Whilst already betrothed to the Duke of Courtland's daughter, Bathilde, Duke Albrecht has wooed a peasant girl, Giselle by posing as a simple villager out on a hunt.
Giselle is taken in by his advances, but Hilarion, a local gamekeeper in love with Giselle, is suspicious of the newcomer. Hilarion discovers Albrecht's finely crafted sword and hunting horn, obviously belonging to someone rich, which he shows to the villagers. Giselle, now facing Albrecht's duplicity, is desolate.
Despite her weak heart, she dances with abandon to assuage her grief, but her heart cannot withstand the strain and she dies in Albrecht's arms.
After her death the Wilis, supernatural women led by their queen, Myrtha, raise Giselle's spirit from her grave and whisk her off into the forest. The Wilis speciality is to take revenge on men who betray their loves by forcing them to dance to death. They surround Hilarion and command him to dance until almost dead, then cast him into a lake.
Albrecht comes to visit Giselle's grave. Giselle reappears but will not let the Wilis dance him to death. In her forgiveness she has prevented her own transformation into a Wili and returns to her grave.
The tender last scene when Albrecht and Giselle dance together is matched by a mellow viola and oboe duet. Adam's music is absolutely geared to the choreography, highlighting the dancers' prowess, broken up in to short bursts like short arias from a bel canto opera.
Generally speaking the music is very pretty and unchallenging with a final dramatic push in the final bars when Albrecht throws himself on Giselle's grave. Just occasionally, though it's rather nice to pick out a white chocolate sweet from the classical music selection box, but you wouldn't want it on a regular basis. On its own the music is rather over-sugared, but when you watch the dancers it becomes an indulgent treat.
1 BBC Technology
4 Old Style Tales
5 Martin Kettle - The Guardian
6 The Spooky Isles
8 Legends of America
© 2018 Frances Metcalfe
Frances Metcalfe on October 28, 2018:
Hi Linda. I agree - Petrushka is powerful, and disturbing and Stravinsky captures the moods perfectly, it's one of my favourite works by him. I played Ruddigore years ago and it was such a hoot, and easy to overlook just how clever the music is when accompanying Gilbert's satirical words.
Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on October 27, 2018:
You have a lovely way of describing a piece of music, Frances. This is a very enjoyable article. I especially enjoyed the videos that showed dancing, since I like ballet. I think both the music and the story of Petrushka are powerful.
Frances Metcalfe on October 22, 2018:
I'm so happy to receive this comment, Flourish, it's a real compliment. It's affirming for me that what I set out to do, sort of hold a person's hand who might not be familiar with the finer technicalities, and walk with them through the music. Hopefully I change it from black and white to colour.
FlourishAnyway from USA on October 21, 2018:
This is one of my favorite music articles you’ve written. In addition to enjoying the music itself (especially the first work) I liked both your mix of biography and your absolutely vivid descriptions of what is transpiring. For some of us, we listen to a classical work and hear pretty music. However, you stand over our shoulder much like an art afficianado stands over the shoulder of someone staring at a piece of abstract art, explaining the nuances.