5 Pleasing Pieces Of Suspenseful Classical Music

Suspenseful Classical Music
Suspenseful Classical Music

Perhaps I am a little biased but one of the appealing characteristics of the world of classical music is the sheer diversity contained within it. Depending on mood or occasion I always manage to successfully find a piece to match either or both.

This article focuses on a selection of classical music that I would broadly classify under the title of suspenseful. They are the kind of piece that puts you on the edge of your seat, sends shivers running down your spine or maybe just scares you.

Suspenseful Classical Music

1. ‘La Dance Macabre’ by Camille Saint-Saëns Op.40

The subject of this tone poem is enough to set the tone for this chilling composition by the French composer Camille Saint-Saëns. The work was composed in 1874 and has an all too brief duration of around eight minutes.

The score is written for an orchestra but one that unusually makes a feature of the tuned percussion section. Saint-Saëns was a colourful orchestrator and innovator and here in this work, he chooses to exploit the timbre of the xylophone that represents the rattling bones of the dancing skeletons.

Listen out for Death playing the violin or fiddle as the skeletons dance on their graves. They wreak merry havoc until the first light of dawn when they must return to their earthy resting places.

Saint-Saëns in all probability took inspiration from the Medieval stories of the Dance of Death and here has created a truly memorable orchestral world.

2. ‘Atmospheres’ by Gygöry Ligeti (1961)

This extraordinary composition by the Hungarian composer Ligeti is not only suspenseful but so deeply haunting that I only needed to hear it a single time for it to become etched into my musical consciousness.

Ligeti’s orchestration is nothing short of miraculous. The sounds he creates with the huge orchestra are otherworldly, unsettling and rich with colours.

It is no coincidence then to recall how successfully the piece was used by Stanley Kubrick in his equally ground-breaking film ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ based on the book by Arthur C Clarke.

Trying to fathom the depths of this score is a major challenge. Underpinning the entire structure is densely woven counterpoint, intricate textural changes that move almost imperceptibly.

Ligeti’s harmony is luminous and dissonant conjuring a timelessness embedded in mesmerising metamorphosing shapes. Clusters of sound float like the galaxies in the night sky, humbling and inspiring awe in all who hear them.

3. ‘Black Angels’ by George Crumb (1971)

American composer George Crumb is renowned for creating some of the most exhilarating scores in contemporary classical music. His Black Angels composition for electric string quartet (and percussion) is no exception.

Throughout the piece, there is a shadow that darkens the music. Crumb, in his extensive notes on the piece describes the quartet as ‘thirteen images from the dark land’.

It is no coincidence that this piece was composed during the time of the Vietnam War, a period of history that deeply affected the composer. Crumb viewed the quartet as a ‘threnody’ for the terrors of that war.

What adds tremendous suspense to the music is the dramatic and experimental use of the traditional string quartet. Firstly, they are amplified giving significant power to their sound and secondly, each player is asked to play a range of percussion instruments, sing, shout and use vocal sounds.

It greatly enhances the sonic possibilities of the quartet and brings the listener through strange unsettling worlds some distantly familiar, others unknown. The overarching structure is a three-movement form as follows: ‘Departure – Absence – Return’.

4. ‘Symphony No.6’ by Ralph Vaughan-Williams (1944-47)

Many Hollywood film composers owe a great deal to Ralph Vaughan-Williams. In particular, his symphonic works, of which there are nine, demonstrate stunning orchestration that brings his epic music to life.

The Sixth Symphony was composed shortly after World War Two and even though the composer was not intending to be programmatic in his music, it is almost impossible to separate the terrible reflections of war in this symphony.

Symphony number six is cast in four movements with the finale titled ‘Epilogue’. It is a deeply reflective movement that has a close affinity with Shakespeare’s play ‘The Tempest’ and the following quote from the text: “We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with sleep”.

From the outset the suspenseful nature of the symphony is apparent. Tension, angst and a huge sense of impending doom pour out of the large orchestra.

There are echoes of Vaughn-Williams’s fourth symphony in his brilliant use of intensely dissonant harmony. This brings an almost unrelenting feeling of the disjointed, unsettled and troubled feelings the symphony captures.

5. ‘Carmina Burana’ by Carl Orff (1937)

With texts taken by Orff from a 13th Century manuscript, this remarkable cantata has captured the hearts and imaginations of countless numbers. The above link will take you to the opening section of the work.

It is titled ‘O Fortuna’ and structurally brings the entire composition into a gigantic arch form with as it is placed as at the beginning and the conclusion. The text speaks of the fickle nature of fortune and evokes the ancient wheel of fortune on whose decisions we are all bound.

I have singled out this movement for its unmistakable power and dramatic impact. Orff scores the work for huge forces including orchestra and full chorus plus soloists.

In the opening section, Orff’s score immediately summons fear, apprehension and unease as the timpani hammer out irregular rhythms punctuated by the crash of cymbals. The chorus enters singing in Latin that is syllabically set to a deliberately simple, chant-like rhythm.

It is hypnotic and disturbing. It feels like the beginning of a ritual. As it progresses the music builds to an earth-shattering climax on a major chord. It is only at this point that the suspense and trepidation are released and the music moves into another section.

It is not surprising that this music has been used to promote several commercial products and certainly provided Jerry Goldsmith inspiration for his score for ‘The Omen’ in 1976.

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