Theatre & Film

7 Classical Creatures And Creeps

A tribute to writer and director Wes Craven, featuring music about monsters, spirits, and other sinister characters.

Quick! Name some famous horror movie villains! I'll give you a second...

You don't like horror movies? Come on, you can still probably name a few, right?

Okay, who'd you come up with? Jason Voorhees, probably. The hockey mask is so iconic. Michael Meyers? Sure! Another iconic mask! Leatherface? Yeah, of course. Pinhead? Absolutely! Just don't open the box...

What about these guys?

Robert Englund as Freddy Krueger in A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master
Robert Englund as Freddy Krueger in A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master
Ghostface, the fictional antagonist of the Scream films
Ghostface, the fictional antagonist of the Scream films.
You want to talk about iconic faces in horror, Freddy Krueger from A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Ghostface (yes, he has a name!) from Scream are without a doubt two of the most recognizable villains of their respective decades, the 80s and the 90s. These two legendary figures are characters from one of horror filmmaking's greatest talents: Wes Craven. Craven died of brain cancer earlier this week, and he left behind such an impressive legacy that will surely continue to resonate with horror fans in the future. To pay tribute to the man who gave us such delightfully creepy characters, here is a list of malicious characters and creatures who have been depicted in classical music:

Erlking

Illustration of Goethe's "Der Erlkönig" by Moritz von Schwind.
Illustration of Goethe’s “Der Erlkönig” by Moritz von Schwind.
Often called the "king of the elves" or "king of the fairies," the Erlking is a figure from Danish and German folklore, probably most popularly depicted in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's poem Der Erlkönig, which became the setting for one of Franz Schubert's most famous lieder. In the story, a father is racing home on horseback with his frightened young son in his arms. The Erlking is a malevolent spirit attempting to apprehend the boy, enticing him with promises of games and dancing, and the father continues to reassure the boy that all he sees are wisps of fog, the wind rustling the leaves, and shadowy willow trees. When they reach their home, however, the father finds that the boy has died in his arms, ostensibly claimed by the Erlking.

Baba Yaga

Illustration of Baba Yaga by Ivan Yakovlevich Bilibin.
Illustration of Baba Yaga by Ivan Yakovlevich Bilibin.
Baba Yaga is a creature of Slavic folklore, described as a grotesque old woman who can either be kind or wicked depending on the story. One defining feature of her legend is actually her house, which is described as a simple hut that stands upon chicken legs, and can sometimes be seen running to the forest, or at rest with its back to any visitor. Baba Yaga has been depicted multiple times, once by Anatoly Lyadov in his short tone poem Baba Yaga, and indirectly by Modest Mussorgsky in a movement from Pictures at an Exhibition called "The Hut on Fowl's Legs" after a painting by Viktor Hartmann depicting Baba Yaga's famous domicile as a clock. (Here’s the orchestral arrangement by Ravel.)

Lady Midday and Vodyanoy

Vodyanoy, the Water Sprite. Illustration by Ivan Yakovlevich Bilibin.
Vodyanoy, the Water Sprite. Illustration by Ivan Yakovlevich Bilibin.
Lady Midday, also known as the Noon Witch. Illustration by Nadezhda Antipova.
Lady Midday, also known as the Noon Witch. Illustration by Nadezhda Antipova.
These two Slavic characters are paired together through their connection with Antonín Dvořák. His symphonic poem The Noon Witch tells the story of the titular demon (“Polednice” in Czech) who is sort of a “boogeyman” that a boy’s mother uses to convince him to behave, lest the witch snatch him away. The boy does not behave, and the Noon Witch comes for him, causing the mother to accidentally smother her child while attempting to protect him. The Water Goblin refers to Vodyanoy (or “Vodník” in Czech), a humanoid being with a frog-like face, who abducts a young girl that falls into his lake and forces her to marry him and live in his underwater castle. Both pieces are inspired by poems from Kytice, a collection by Czech author Karel Jaromír Erben.

Vampires

Max Schreck as Nosferatu in the 1922 film of the same name.
Max Schreck as Nosferatu in the 1922 film of the same name.
While it seems like we're at a point of vampire fatigue in our culture right now, they were enticing and new a century ago and beyond! In the early nineteenth century, German composer Heinrich Marschner wrote an opera called Der Vampyr, which is based on a play, Der Vampir oder die Totenbraut, which itself was based on The Vampyre by John Polidori, often considered one of the first works in the vampire genre. At the end the century, the definitive vampire novel Dracula was published, and that has since permeated the culture of horror and the supernatural. David del Tredici wrote a monodrama for soprano and chamber ensemble also titled Dracula, with text from the poem "My Neighbor, the Distinguished Count" by Alfred Corn. This poem is from the point-of-view of a woman who is eventually seduced by Count Dracula.

Banshee

Bunworth Banshee, 1825 illustration by W.H. Brooke.
Bunworth Banshee, 1825 illustration by W.H. Brooke.
The banshee is a legend known for her hideous, wailing cry, which can be heard when someone is near death. This spirit is commonly associated with Irish mythology, though similar beings appear in the folklore of other cultures as well. In 1925, composer Henry Cowell wrote The Banshee for solo piano, and it was unlike any other work before it. The piece calls for several non-traditional methods of playing the piano, such as reaching inside and plucking on the strings or sweeping the fingers across them. All of this creates an eerie, ghastly sound that seems befitting for such a legend, and it inspired future composers like John Cage to find other unique ways to treat the piano.

Dreams

Sometimes the scariest things we know come from our own imaginations. This is what made a character like Freddy Krueger particularly effective, because despite any kind of skepticism we might have in reality, our subconscious is fertile ground for all kinds of horrors whether they are real or not. One of the most famous examples of a classical music dream comes from the final movement of Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique. “The Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath” depicts just that, a gathering of witches and monsters dancing and celebrating. The movement features all kinds of spooky sounds from wailing flutes, to ominous church bells, and the haunting Dies irae plainchant. There is also Benjamin Britten’s song cycle Who are these children? based on poetry by William Soutar. The third song, “Nightmare,” has a particularly grisly text about a man chopping down a tree that screams and bleeds like a human…

Creepy stuff, right!?

 

 

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