Mournful Tones In These 6 Pieces of Gothic Classical Music

Gothic Classical Music
Gothic Classical Music

The world of the Gothic can most likely be traced back to a novel by Horace Walpole (1717 – 1797; 4th Earl of Orford), titled ‘The Castle of Otranto’. This work dated from around 1764 and was interestingly published under a pseudonym with the clear aim of breathing life into contemporary fiction of the time. The importance of this work is that it is considered to be the first ‘Gothic’ novel with familiar obsessions with the dark side of human nature, death, and terror. Walpole’s novel is not only grim, supernatural, and haunting, it contrasts in some sections with passages of genuine comedy, perhaps to make the gruesome elements more acceptable.

Gothic Classical Music

Where then does the Gothic enter the world of classical music? Leaving aside the fate of Don Giovanni in Mozart’s remarkable opera of the same name, (K.527), the musical parallels truly begin in the Romantic Era as the composers turned their attentions to blacker passions.

The legend of Faust figures in numerous works of the period alongside Lucifer plucking souls from the gullible and the greedy.

1. ‘Der Freischütz’ (Op.77) by Carl Maria von Weber

Briefly, the plot of this opera focuses on an unfortunate rifleman who, after losing a shooting contest to a peasant. More importantly, Max (the protagonist and second assistant forester in the opera) is also about to lose the possibility of marrying his desired bride Agathe.

Caspar (first assistant forester), and friend to Max tells him of his magic bullets and tells him to meet him at midnight in the terrifying ‘Wolf’s Glen’. There they will make seven more magic bullets. What is not apparent to Max is that this is a deal with the devil (Samiel), who has cursed the seventh bullet to go where ever he desires. In this case Agathe and her Father.

The Wolf’s Glen scene is one of the most chilling pieces of early Romantic music I know. It has all the ingredients, including a wordless chorus, tremolando strings, pulsing timpani, all scored in a minor key.

2. ‘Symphonie Fantastique’ (Op.14) by Hector Berlioz

To my mind, this is one of the most extraordinary orchestral works ever written. Berlioz composed a ground-breaking score and, in many ways, pioneered a new method of composition using what he called the ‘idée-fixe’. Like the ‘artist’ who is the subject of the entire work, the idée-fixe travels through each part of this massive work transforming as it goes according to the scene and feelings in the score. The artist (really Berlioz himself) suffers following a failed love affair and falls into a series of opium fuelled dreams or nightmares.

This scene above is the fourth where the artist has been convicted of the murder of his beloved and sentenced to die on the guillotine. The rich score depicts the young man’s final moments as he is marched to the scaffold, where his very last thoughts are of the woman he loves. What follows is the ‘Witches’ Sabbath’, which is equally terrifying. Here the scene is hellish in every sense of the word. Berlioz even manages to weave the ‘Dies Irae’ (Day of Wrath) into this scene, creating a truly Gothic vision.

3. ‘The Wood Dove’, Op.110 (1896) by Anton Dvorák

On the surface, a delightful and charming orchestral work from the pen of this master of the programmatic. In this orchestral poem, Dvorák magics a glorious array of emotions from the orchestra. Throughout melody is paramount, flowing effortlessly from the manuscript. Underneath the drams of Dvorák’s score conjures the dark story of a woman who murders her husband by poisoning him only to turn around and re-marry quickly after. The dove sits mournfully on the dead man’s grave singing so sweetly and sadly that the woman eventually kills herself by drowning herself in the river.

4. ‘Baba-Yaga’ (The Fowl’s Hut On Legs) from ‘Pictures at an Exhibition by Modest Mussorgsky

This large orchestral depiction of works by the artist Hartman whose works captured Mussorgsky’s musical imagination following a visit to one of his exhibitions. Each of the ‘pictures’ bursts through Mussorgsky’s score with fire, color, and incredible passion.

From the terrifying ‘Old Castle’ to the awkward, grotesque ‘Gnome’, the Gothic nature of this work is apparent. The above link is to the darkest part of the collection and aims to portray in sound the hideous nightmare of the folklore witch Baba-Yaga, who flies around the forest in a pestle and mortar. Mussorgsky’s scoring is shockingly graphic, making this piece one of the most unforgettable.

5. ‘Faust Symphony’ (S.108 – 1857) by Franz Liszt

To many this symphony epitomizes Romanticism. It has a duration of a little over seventy-five minutes, structured in three gigantic movements and with Faust as its subject of choice. The symphony is inspired by Goethe’s ‘Faust’ poem but not a direct depiction of the poem, more a symphonic portrayal of the three main characters in the poem: Faust; Gretchen and Mephistopheles.

Each of these musical sketches is forward-looking and thought by some scholars to contain the first example of a tone-row that Schoenberg claimed as his own years later. The chromatic sound of the material alongside the extended use of augmented chords makes the harmonic basis unstable and unsettling throughout.

As a point of musical interest, Liszt cleverly designs the final movement based on the thematic material of Faust, bringing structural coherence but also hinting at the idea that the Devil is of Faust’s own making. The orchestration is remarkable, and right, in the end, Liszt has the stroke of genius to include a male chorus that sings the words from Goethe’s ‘Faust’.

6. ‘Symphony No.1’ in D Minor; (Gothic; 1919-1927) by Havergal Brian

Rivaling Mahler’s Symphony number eight, this colossal work has a duration of nearly two hours. The composition is complex in many ways, and thematically, many strands weave together to create one titanic symphony. Composed shortly after the horrors of World War One, the influence of this is apparent in the score. Faust also appears in this work but more as a figure of hope than damnation.

The concept of redemption contrasts with the earthly terrors in Brian’s work in an attempt to create a piece affirming the possibilities of the human spirit. The ‘Gothic’ element of the music Brian uses to represent and underline the positivity that stemmed from that age. Richard Strauss is thought to have described the work as ‘magnificent’.

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