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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 6, No. 3

Music and Malice

by Lucie Renaud / November 1, 2000

Version française...


Music can have tremendous power to summon up emotions or suggest scenes. It can charm, take us on journeys, or scare us. For Halloween, the festival of those rather gruesome creatures of the night, La Scena decided to give its young readers (and those who are brave enough) a glimpse behind the scenes to show them what makes music more terrifying.

Suspense and music

When it comes to horror films, the credits should list the music first, well before the actors (who are often unknown and in any case unrecognizable under their wierd make-up). If you want to test the importance of this kind of music, just visualize a doll with big blue eyes sitting on a pillowcase in a childís bedroom. Imagine cheerful background music, a lighthearted waltz, perhaps. Whatís your impression of this scene? Youíre probably thinking that a little girl will soon appear to spend hours playing and talking with her doll. Now letís change the atmosphere with some menacing music Ė maybe a muffled childrenís choir, sounding as though they were locked in the cellar, against a background of screeching violins. You immediately think that the doll is an evil toy just waiting until nightfall to behead everyone in the house (and why not the whole neighbourhood?). And yet the screen image hasnít changed, only the music.

Composersí secrets

How do composers go about writing music that conjures up mystery and fear? Some melodies can cause shivers down the spine even before the danger is actually visible on screen. The music of the film Jaws is still among the best of the genre, even though the film itself is pretty well forgotten (it was one of Steven Spielbergís first hits). John Williams, who also wrote the music for Star Wars, was the composer. As soon as we hear the Jaws theme we realize that a nameless danger (a shark, in fact) awaits the hero. (see example 1)

Another way to create a feeling of mystery is to use certain rhythms or notes repeatedly. The following example shows the theme music for the TV series, The Twilight Zone. To begin with, the repeated notes give us a sense that all is well. Suddenly the orchestra plays a chord that swells and then fades, leaving us with a feeling of fear. (see example 2)

Music doesnít need to be very loud to be truly terrifying. Sometimes suspense is created by making the music become suddenly very soft or stop abruptly. Now we can hear the slightest sound, the slightest breath, the footfall of the madman in the next room. Sometimes staccato music is used at these moments to highlight the least noise.

Another easy trick for making music more mysterious is to write it in a minor key. For our western ears, major chords (C-E-G, for example) express a cheerful atmosphere. Minor chords such as D-F-A suggest sadness, horror, and mystery. Composers also use dissonant intervals to create a sense of insecurity. Try playing a minor second (E-F), a major seventh (C-B), or a major ninth (C to the D in the next octave). Itís interesting to note that classical composers detested such dissonant intervals as the spooky tri-tone (a diminished fifth such as F-B), known as "the devilís interval." This very unstable interval had to be resolved in the next chord, or the composer would be seriously breaking the basic rules of harmony. How times have changed!

Long before the invention of film sound tracks, composers wrote works inspired by some mystery or tale of witchcraft and horror. These included Mussorgskyís Night on Bald Mountain (1867), La Danse Macabre by Saint-Saens (1874), Halloweíen by Charles Ives (1906), and Love, the Sorcerer by Manuel de Falla (1915). A more recent work is John Coriglianoís Hallucinations (1981).

The Sorcererís Apprentice

Another symphonic work based on a tale of witchery and magic worthy of Harry Potter is Paul Dukasís Sorcererís Apprentice (1897). This scherzo composition is based on an epic ballad by the German poet GoŽthe, whose works inspired a number of composers. It was a hit from its very first performance, something that rarely happens in the serious music world, and is now part of the orchestraís concert repertoire. It reached a wider audience when it was used by Walt Disney in his animated classical music feature, Fantasia, which included The Sorcererís Apprentice with Mickey Mouse in the star role.

The story is a simple one, but Dukas (1865-1935) made it musically captivating by using rich orchestral colour and building the various parts of the work to tell the tale with great atmosphere. The old master sorcerer leaves his apprentice alone. This apprentice has learned a little magic, but is by no means an expert. He is supposed to fetch water from a stream to fill a tub (this being in the days before modern plumbing). The apprentice is too lazy to do all the work, and decides to test some of his magic. He happens to know the spell for turning a broom into a slave. He uses it, and the broom sets to work, running back and forth to the stream and filling the tub. So far so good: but the apprentice then realizes he doesnít know the spell for stopping the broom. Feeling helpless and terrified, he chops the broom with an axe. What a mistake! The broom splits in two, and the halves keep on fetching water. Soon there is a flood. At last the angry master returns, and with one brief sentence drives away the mischievous spirits and stops the brooms.

Paul Dukas built his work in a very logical way. It begins with a slow introduction that immediately sets the mood. You can almost hear the mysterious spirits breathing. The clarinets play a hesitant motif, and the other woodwinds pick it up. (see example 3)

Now the fast scherzo begins. First you hear the piccolo, then the muted trumpet, followed immediately by the initial motif played by the flutes, then the horns. A fresh attempt at the scherzo begins, then stops. The spell is pronounced, calling on the spirits. These stops and starts continue at shorter and shorter intervals, until the bassoons attack the main theme. (see example 4)

Now the music is more fluid, running freely like the water that the broom is bringing from the stream. At the first climax, the brass section expresses the apprenticeís helpless rage. A few brief, sharp chords from the full orchestra, then thirds repeated by the trumpets, and the broom is split in two!

A short silence follows. Has the apprentice stopped the broom? No! A tremolo from the double bass and bass clarinet, a few notes of the theme, and the two halves of the broom stand up as the bassoons rumble the main theme. The orchestra begins a musical round, getting louder and louder, giving a convincing musical picture of the two brooms at work. When total chaos reigns, the brass section blares out the master sorcererís spell.

The bassoon persists while the clarinet seems to hesitate after the excitement of the previous moments, like a child too keyed up to go to bed. At last all is calmĖbut this isnít quite the end. Two rapid final bars, probably symbolizing the sorcererís brief scolding, bring the work to an abrupt finish. The apprentice has got off fairly lightly after all, as apprentice musicians sometimes do when they try to make their own spooky music.

Happy Halloween! n

[Translated by Jane Brierley]


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