Trick or Treat programme notes

The most spine-tingling Halloween you’ve ever experienced! Grab your costume and get out of the cold for great live music. With works from Disney fame to Alfred Hitchcock’s favourites and everything in between, immerse yourself int he funnest aspects of the spookiest night of the year – this one’s fun for the whole family!

If you prefer to download and print these programme notes, please click here (pdf version).

Series 2 – Trick or Treat

Though active as a music critic and professor, Paul Dukas’ self-critical nature resulted in the completion of only a handful of compositions over the course of his career, among which The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is a crown jewel. Based on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s poem of the same name, the work illustrates the tale of an inexperienced magician’s apprentice who enchants a mop to clean the floor, only to realize he can’t stop it.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice contains brilliantly illustrative instrumentation, hardly surprising given that Dukas taught orchestration at the Paris Conservatoire. The opening strings symbolise the apprentice’s wonderment at his master’s powers, represented by trumpets. The enchantment of the mop is shown in the bassoon, bobbing like a mop on the floor. Soon the apprentice loses control, denoted by agitation in the orchestra, and he chops the mop in half with an axe. This exacerbates the situation, as the apprentice has spawned two mops, depicted by the bass clarinet doubling the original bassoon melody. The master sorcerer returns and sets everything right, giving his erring apprentice a slap to the hindquarters to close the piece.

Modest Mussorgsky was a Russian composer who contributed immensely to the creation of a distinctly Russian style of classical music. Upon completing Night on Bald Mountain in 1867 he showed the tone poem, one of the first Russian pieces in the genre, to his mentor Mily Balakirev. Balakirev denigrated the work, penciling in comments such as “rubbish” and “the devil knows what this is” in Mussorgsky’s manuscript. Mussorgsky, though probably hurt, saw value in his music and reworked it for inclusion in several larger projects. The music wasn’t heard in its original form until 1886, five years after Mussorgsky’s death, when his friend Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov rearranged the score. It is in this form that the piece is best known today, and it has become one of Mussorgsky’s most celebrated works. Night on Bald Mountain depicts a particularly scary program: a witches’ Sabbath and black mass. The coven are devoted to Chernobog; the “black god” of ancient Slavic culture who it is believed summons the spirits of darkness.

One of the greatest French composers of the nineteenth century, Camille Saint-Saëns usually wrote in a traditional classical style rather than programmatically as he did for Danse Macabre. However, Saint-Saëns was so inspired by a scene in Henri Cazalis’ poem Egalité, fraternité… involving death playing violin for dancing skeletons, that he resolved to turn it into music. This scene had its roots in art of the Middle Ages, which depicted death’s dominion over all in the danse macabre.

Unsurprisingly, Saint-Saëns makes heavy use of solo violin in the piece, representing death’s fiddling skills. The piece opens with an augmented fourth, an interval whose harsh dissonance prompted some to call it the Devil’s interval. As the dance begins the skeletons are heard in the xylophone, whose timbre is perfectly suited to depict their rattling bones. Deepening the deathly mood is the winds’ quotation of the Dies Irae, a hymn that invokes judgment day and forms part of the requiem mass. The revelry of the dead lasts until morning, signalled through the oboe’s crowing rooster, which puts them to sleep until next year.

Though the opera Faust is likely his most famous work, Charles Gounod demonstrated his skill at writing in other classical genres as well. Fondly remembered as the opening theme of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Funeral March of a Marionette conveys a spooky and quirky mood. This stems from the work’s literary basis: a fantasy story of Gounod’s own invention on the titular puppet’s final moments above ground. The piece begins with the marionette’s death in a duel, illustrated by a brash orchestral introduction. On the day of his burial the funeral procession is heard in a sprightly marching theme, which digresses when the attendees stop for refreshments on their way to the cemetery.

French composer Hector Berlioz/em>’s works were some of the most influential of the Romantic era in terms of their use of programmatic narrative. The fourth movement of his autobiographical Symphonie Fantastique, March to the Scaffold illustrates a gloomy scene in the work’s program. Under the influence of opium, Berlioz dreams he has murdered his beloved and is now marched to the scaffold for execution. The setting of the piece is clear from its steady march themes punctuated by raucous horns, representing the angry crowd following the condemned man. The winds of a traditional military band are heard on the scaffold, while the crowd continues to jeer. At the moment of execution the idée fixe, a melodic motif representing Berlioz’s love, is heard in a solo clarinet, giving him a brief moment of peace before the drop of the guillotine.

The soundtracks John Williams contributed to the Harry Potter film series set a standard for film scoring, standing up to his work with Steven Spielberg and George Lucas in terms of brilliance. Though he only scored the first three films, his music provided a wealth of musical ideas for the wizarding world. The scores convey the charm and mystery of the magical series, perfect accompaniment for watching Harry and his friends grow up over the years.

Danny Elfman and Tim Burton’s collaborative relationship traces back to the early years of their respective careers, when Burton hired Elfman, frontman of the band Oingo Boingo, to score his 1984 feature Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. Though he lacked formal training Elfman’s score pleased Burton, and since then has scored all but three of Burton’s films. As a film composer, Elfman has derived his greatest inspiration from the suspenseful scores of Bernard Herrmann, who provided the music for Psycho and other Hitchcock films. Elfman’s personal style makes use of unusual orchestral effects, which reflect Burton’s quirky cinematic style. BeetleJuice and The Corpse Bride are arguably most typical of this style given their spooky premises, and Elfman goes out of his way to shift between dark and quirky moods throughout.

Zain Solinski