Sounds of Horror: The Gothic in Classical Music

A history of spooky goings-on, from Mozart to Peter Maxwell Davies.

By Joseph Camilleri

An ancient family curse, a castle haunted by a skeleton monk, the inexplicable and deadly appearance of a giant helmet – these are just a few of the unlikely plot elements in Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto. First published in 1764, this is widely (if not uncontroversially) considered to be the first Gothic novel, setting the blueprint for a dark literary genre obsessed with terror, death and the otherwordly.

The Gothic is generally portrayed as a peculiarly English literary movement, although its defining elements can also be found in Continental literature of the period. Indeed, the increasing popularity of the genre in the 19th Century is better understood in the wider context of European Romanticism, with which it shares several ideals and concerns. Such recurring Gothic tropes as the individual pitted against a conservative and patriarchal society or the genre’s awe at the ‘Sublime’ (generally represented by the untameable forces of Nature) are also hallmarks of the Romantic movement.

The Gothic sensibility – this fascination with ‘the ghostly, the ghastly and the supernatural’, as Dale Townshend succinctly puts it– was not limited to the literary world, and much has been written about the genre’s close relationship with art and architecture.  In my opinion, however, the influence of the Gothic on composers of classical music has been largely underestimated. This might be because music is generally seen as being too abstract to successfully engage itself with literary themes. However, a closer look should reveal that Gothic fiction, particularly its supernatural themes, was a rich source of inspiration for composers of the past two hundred years.

One can broadly distinguish between two areas of music where Gothic sensibilities were clearly influential, especially since the start of the 19th Century. On the one hand, there are theatrical and dramatic works, such as operas and ballet, whose subject matter increasingly tended towards dark themes. There is then so-called ‘programmatic music’ – that which is consciously descriptive or inspired by an extra-musical subject, where themes which could be considered Gothic were more frequently explored. Attempts to represent the horrific, the supernatural or the otherwordly often led composers to explore new sounds, providing a pretext and incentive for experimentation beyond conventional parameters.

The Birth of the Gothic

The birth of the Gothic coincides with the height of the Enlightenment – a rather surprising twist, considering that its concerns seem to be the very opposites of the ideals of logic and reason so central to the philosophy of the age.

This contrast can be keenly felt in the earliest examples of the genre. Ann Radcliffe achieved a compromise of sorts with her brand of ‘rational Gothic’ where, as in Scooby Doo cartoons, most of the seemingly otherworldly occurrences are eventually given a logical explanation. As for Walpole, he sought to distance himself from his wild creation by presenting the Castle of Otranto as an alleged adaptation of an Italian medieval text supposedly discovered in the collection of a Roman Catholic family in the North of England. Encouraged by the positive reception of the ‘anonymous’ first edition, Walpole later revealed that this frame story was merely a literary conceit, whereupon the novel was slated by the very same critics who had praised it at its first appearance. The Castle of Otranto is further striking in its alternation of horrifying scenes with comedic passages, reminiscent of the gravediggers’ scene in Hamlet, which appear to mitigate the more gruesome aspects of the novel.

The same ambivalence is reflected in a major musical work of the same period – Mozart’s opera Il Dissoluto Punito ossia il Don Giovanni (The Rake Punished or Don Giovanni) of 1787. There are few more chilling moments in opera than the scene where the eponymous rake is marched off to Hell by a statue come to life. Yet these shocking events are presented against the backdrop of an opera buffa (comic opera), making them palatable to genteel 18th Century audiences, and the work concludes with a sparkling, if slightly incongruous, comic finale. Interestingly, changes in taste meant that some later productions chose to cut the work short, giving it a tragic ending. Mozart himself leaves us in little doubt as to the centrality of the ‘stone guest’ scene – the very opening of the overture foreshadows the music which accompanies the ghostly entrance of the haunted statue, set in dark D Minor and coloured by scurrying string figures.

Romantic Gothic

With the advent of the Romantic period, the excesses of the Gothic novel became more and more attuned to the spirit of the times. The Monk (1796) by Matthew Lewis adopts elements found in the works of Walpole, Radcliffe and Clara Reeves and unapologetically takes them to unheard-of extremes: evil clerics, ghosts, shapeshifting demons, diabolical rituals, torture and violence are all thrown into the mix. But this licence to shock was also a sign that the genre sorely needed to reinvent itself.

Indeed, rapid industrialisation and changing social mores would soon give rise to new anxieties which would in turn be channelled into innovative expressions of the Gothic. Thus the novels of the Brontë sisters – such as Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights – abandon fantastical medieval castles and transpose their brand of terror into a domestic context. The ‘urban Gothic’ of Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins (Bleak House comes to mind) discovers horror in the dirty streets and oppressive fog of the city, whereas Mary Shelley’s masterpiece Frankenstein explores what it means to be human at a time when science seems close to discovering the mystery of life. In the same period, examples of the terrifying and the uncanny can be found in American literature (the works of Poe and Hawthorne) and in Continental European literature (for instance, Goethe’s Faust, Schiller’s The Robbers and E.T.A Hoffmann’s stories, some of which would inspire Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann).

It should therefore come as no surprise that similar themes should also haunt the music of the period. One of the leading examples is Der Freischütz (1821) by Carl Maria von Weber. One of the landmarks in German Romantic opera, it recounts the tale of a rifleman who strikes a deal with an evil spirit in order to obtain magical bullets. The most original part of the score is possibly the ‘Wolf Glen’ scene where the very texture of the music, especially its use of the lowest notes of the orchestra, evokes a feeling of supernatural dread. It has been described by the influential opera critic Gustav Kobbé (1857-1918) as ‘the most expressive rendering of the gruesome that is to be found in a musical score’.

The pact described in Weber’s opera could be described as ‘Faustian’, an adjective itself derived from a German legend about a scholar who exchanges his soul for unlimited knowledge. It is a story with strong Gothic elements which has been reworked by various writers including Marlowe, Goethe, Mann and Bulgakov. The same legend seemed particularly attractive to the composers of the Romantic era. Major works of the period inspired by this supernatural legend include Franz Liszt’s Faust Symphony (1857), Schumann’s Scenes from Goethe’s Faust (1844-1853) and perhaps, most famously, Charles Gounod’s grand opera Faust (1859).   

There are of course other operas of the period whose plots are coloured by supernatural events or elements of terror – Giuseppe Verdi’s Macbeth (1847) and Rigoletto (1851), Giacomo Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable (1831), Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman (1843), to name but a few. But, there are other Gothic operas which, just like the novels of Ann Radcliffe, rely less on the otherwordly for effect and more on dark settings and borderline psychological states. Thus, in French and Italian opera of the early 19th Century, it became quite customary to include a ‘mad scene’ where one of the protagonists would descend into insanity. From a dramatic point of view, these scenes satisfied the audience’s thirst for extreme emotion; musically, they gave the opportunity to singers to display their vocal technique.

The best-known example is probably Il Dolce Suono (The Sweet Sound) from Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor (1835), based on Sir Walter Scott’s novel The Bride of Lammermoor. Donizetti’s score originally had a part for glass harmonica, the unusual instrument’s eerie voice heightening the sense of normality breaking down.

The Ultimate Gothic Work?

The visual element in opera and ballet made them a suitable vehicle for the treatment of Gothic themes. Yet, in my opinion, the greatest attempt to express a Gothic sensibility in music is not to be found in any of these dramatic works but in Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique (1830). Berlioz very helpfully provides a preface and detailed programme notes for each of the work’s movements. It reads like the plot of a Gothic novel and ticks, one by one, a mental list of the genre’s tropes. The protagonist, a young musician afflicted by melancholy and ennui, falls obsessively in love with an ‘ideal woman’ whose image haunts him everywhere, whether in the tumult of the city or in the natural surroundings of the countryside (cue the idea of ‘Sublime’ and the distant sound of thunder). His attentions unreturned, our hapless hero takes an opium overdose and has nightmarish visions of his own death (at the scaffold) and of his subsequent participation at a witches’ sabbath presided by his beloved.

All this is expressed in graphic music of almost garish intensity which does away with the then-prevalent musical conventions. The symphony is in five movements (rather than four) and is scored for a gigantic orchestra. It is also the first to follow a detailed programme, and its structural coherence is based not on traditional forms but rather on a so-called idée fixe or recurring motif (representing, in this case, the not-so lucky object of the protagonist’s morbid attention). It is, indeed, a worthy musical companion to Matthew Lewis’ The Monk – for a taste of its sound-world, go directly to its finale – Songe d’une nuit du sabbat – with its quasi-blasphemous appropriation of the Dies Irae chant.

If the excesses of Berlioz’s musings are not to one’s taste, a suitable – but equally Gothic – antidote can be found in Franz Schubert’s Winterreise (Winter Journey) of 1828. A cycle of 24 songs originally written for tenor and piano, this intimate work would seem to be worlds away from the Symphonie Fantastique. Yet, its subject matter explores similar ground, providing us with the melancholy image of a solitary wanderer, unlucky in love, adrift in a desolate wintry landscape. In the final song, the protagonist finds a soulmate in a poor hurdy-gurdy man, an outcast growled at by dogs, whose music no one wants to listen to.

The Gothic goes (inter)national

In the later 19th century, there was an interesting development in the Gothic, which is perhaps more evident in music than in any other art form. Several composers – especially in Central and Eastern Europe – combined supernatural themes with a nationalistic agenda, turning to supernatural legends and myths of their countries for inspiration for patriotic works. This development might possibly reflect the 19th century’s growing interest in anthropological research, which led to the study and publication of national sagas, myths and legends. Composers of a nationalistic bent might also have tapped into these ancient, often macabre legends in order to seek homegrown subjects predating their country’s perceived colonisation – whether political or cultural – by foreign powers.

Be that as it may, composers associated with national musical schools seemed most inclined to portray dark and supernatural themes, generally in works tinged with elements of folk music. This is evidenced by compositions such as Lyadov’s Baba-Yaga (1891-1904), and Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain (1867) and Mlada (1890). Antonin Dvořák’s tone poems also fall within this category – The Wood Dove is inspired by a dark tale in which the spirit of a murdered man, manifesting itself as a forest bird, returns to haunt his unfaithful widow.

Survival of the Gothic

Although the heyday of the Gothic was in the 19th Century, the genre has shown a particular hardiness and adaptability to changing tastes and norms. 20th and 21st Century horror and ‘weird’ literature would have been inconceivable without the Gothic. The genre has also been hugely influential on new art forms, particularly cinema.

Similar themes have also recurred in music and, just as the early Gothic was primarily a British genre, so 20th Century British composers have seemed particularly attracted to supernatural subjects. John Ireland, a fan of the folk horror of Arthur Machen, wrote his Legend for piano and orchestra (1933) in response to an alleged close encounter with fairy folk. Benjamin Britten masterfully adapted Henry James’s supernatural novella The Turn of the Screw (1954) in his opera of the same name.  Closer to our time, the ‘ghost-opera’ The Lighthouse (1979) by the much-missed Peter Maxwell Davies is a dark tale of religious mania and (possibly) supernatural goings-on set in the bleak landscape of the Outer Hebrides – it is a worthy addition to the tradition of music with a Gothic inspiration.

Interest in dark and macabre themes does not appear to be flagging either. The BBC Proms recently featured a performance of the Poe-inspired orchestral work Israfel (2015) by Mark Simpson who, incidentally, is also the composer of a critically-acclaimed oratorio inspired by Victorian seances (The Immortal).

This year also saw the premiere of The Devil Inside, an opera by Stuart McRae set to a libretto by Louise Walsh. The opera effectively transposes a Faustian short story by Robert Louis Stevenson – The Bottle Imp – to a contemporary setting, reworking it into a critique of late capitalism. The opera’s deserved success is, in its own way, a vindication of the Gothic. Variously treated with disgust, condemned as unwholesome and lampooned for its excesses, this genre’s concern with the ghostly and the ghastly can be as relevant today as it was in Walpole’s time.

Joseph Camilleri is an amateur organist and occasional chorister.  He regularly writes articles and programme notes to accompany concerts, opera productions and CD recordings. He has presented radio programmes on classical music and for a number of years served on the Board of Directors of the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra. When not musically occupied, he can often be found reading books, generally of the ghostly type. He tweets at @joecam79.