Halloween Spooktacular Program Notes

Notes by Anita Brooks Kirkland

This concert features some of the most familiar and best loved music of the orchestral repertoire, made popular through its use in movies, television shows, and even video games. Several of the works you will hear this evening were written by European composers of the 19th century. The music of this “Romantic era” broke free from the constraints of previous musical conventions, with a vivid focus on emotion, imagination, and storytelling.

One characteristic of Romantic era music is the exploration of national identity through the use of folk music themes or telling folktales through music. The music often demands large orchestras and features the virtuosic playing made possible through new innovations in instrument-making in the 19th century, particularly in the wind family.

Many great orchestral works of this era have endured as popular favourites because of their frightful themes. Despite its scary nature, this body of work has brought orchestral music to the masses, and its appeal endures.


Edvard Grieg (1843-1907): In the Hall of the Mountain King

In the Hall of the Mountain King is part of Grieg’s popular Peer Gynt Suite, written as incidental music for the play by Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen. The suite tells the story of a young boy – Peer Gynt, who falls in love with a girl but is not allowed to marry her. He runs away into the mountains but is captured by trolls who take him to their king. As Peer Gynt tries to escape, he is chased by trolls before finally getting away. In this movement Peer Gynt finds himself being brought before the Mountain King Dovregubbens by his captors, the trolls. The great hall is full of trolls, gnomes, and goblins. Grieg’s wife commented that her husband immersed himself in writing this music, “full of such witchery, and so permeated with the Norwegian spirit”. (Classic FM. The story behind Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt.)

Where have you heard this music? In the Hall of the Mountain King has been covered by many rock and jazz performers, including The Who, and has been used in the soundtracks of at least 19 movies, and almost as many video games.


Camille Saint Saens (1835-1921): Danse Macabre

A darker tale could not be told for our Spooktacular Halloween. According to legend, Death appears at midnight every year on Halloween and calls the dead from their graves to dance for him while he plays his fiddle. The music starts with the clock gently striking midnight, arousing the devil, portrayed by the solo violin, who enters playing the most devilish interval in music, the dissonant tritone. We hear the Devil stridently playing his fiddle, and the music getting more and more frantic as the skeletons dance through the night. Eventually the cockerel’s call announces dawn, and the dead return to their graves.

Where have you heard this music? This music has been used extensively in popular culture. You may remember Mickey and Minnie Mouse portraying Hansel and Gretel dancing to Danse Macabre. Saint Saens’ evil dance was also used in the soundtrack to the third of the Shrek series of movies.


Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881): Night on Bald Mountain

Night on Bald Mountain is one of the scariest works in the orchestral repertoire, representing Slavic legends about the festivities of witches and spirits gathering to celebrate the summer solstice. With its ghostly themes, these days the music has become more associated with Halloween.

Mussorgsky died at a relatively young age. After his death the composer and masterful orchestrator Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov re-arranged and re-orchestrated the piece, replacing Mussorgsky’s ferocious ending with the sound of church bells announcing dawn, the demons dispersing, and calm returning to the landscape.

Where have you heard this music? If you’ve seen the Disney movie Fantasia then you’ve heard Night on Bald Mountain, which appears near the end of the soundtrack. The movie firmly established the work’s association with Halloween.


Charles Gounod (1818-1893): March of the Marionette

A common theme in music of the Romantic era is a focus on the frightful, in this case a duel between two marionettes, both members of a travelling troupe. Imagine! As happens in duels, one of the marionettes dies, and so begins the funeral march. As is fitting for this sombre occasion, the music is set in a minor key. Listen for the brief transition to a happier major key when the mourners stop for refreshments before resuming their sober march.

Where have you heard this music? Remembering the effect that the music had on him when he heard it used in an early film, Alfred Hitchcock chose it as the theme music for his long-running television program, Alfred Hitchcock Presents.



Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975), arranged by Trevor Wagler: Waltz No. 2

With this waltz we step out of the nineteenth century to Soviet era Russia, and its leading composer, Dmitri Shostakovich. Now recognized as one of the greatest symphonic composers of all time, Shostakovich experienced persecution from the Soviet government for the “unpatriotic” tone of his music. In order to survive, Shostakovich found himself composing music for patriotic propaganda films, only released from these constraints with the death of the Soviet dictator, Stalin. This waltz is the best-known movement of the composer’s Suite for Variety Orchestra, with its haunting theme played by the English horn in this arrangement by Trevor Wagler.

Where have you heard this music? The music was used in the Stanley Kubrick film, Eyes Wide Shut.


Kevin Lau (b. 1982): Sea of Blossoms

We’re moving ahead to the twenty-first century with this hauntingly beautiful piece by Canadian composer, Kevin Lau. Taking inspiration from a Haiku poem, the image of “blossoms on the waves” stuck with Kevin Lau. “I was drawn to the fusion of seemingly opposing elements, land and water, animate and inanimate, vastness and delicacy, and how these contrasts could be interpreted within a musical context. In this setting, individual elements such as the presentation of a theme on a solo instrument, alternate with large, chorus-like sections in which the entire orchestra moves and breathes as a single entity, like the wind or the sea.”

WCP members were thrilled to have Kevin visit us virtually as we prepared this beautiful piece. Take a peek inside our rehearsal in this video (at the bottom of this page) to hear what Kevin had to say to the orchestra and our conductor, Kira Omelchenko.

Where have you heard this music? Chances are you haven’t, unless you’ve been to one of the many concerts where it has been performed. But you may have heard Kevin’s music in a movie or a video game!


Hector Berlioz (1803-1869): March to the Scaffold

A greater psychological drama never existed than Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique, which includes this March to the Scaffold. The symphony is said to be based on the composer’s own tumultuous life passions and fantasies. Having seen her play Ophelia in Shakespeare’s tragedy, Hamlet, Hector became obsessed with lead actress Harriet Smithson. He wrote Symphonie Fantastique as a way to express his obsession for Harriet, whom he had not even met.

The symphony expresses the deepest and darkest visions of “the artist”, presumably Berlioz himself. As March to the Scaffold begins, we hear the ominous beats of the drum followed by cheers from the crowd as the artist is led to his own execution for the murder of his beloved. In his final moments he thinks of his beloved, represented by her musical theme or idée fixe, here played by the clarinet. Listen for it, and be ready to hear the guillotine blade fall, followed by the rolling of the drums and the roar of the crowd.

By the way, Hector did eventually meet Harriet, and under some duress she agreed to marry him. Thankfully for Harriet the marriage did not last and they separated after a few years.

Where have you heard this music? Well practically everywhere, as it is one of the most popular and frequently performed pieces in the orchestral repertoire!


John Williams (b. 1932), arranged by Jerry Brubaker: Harry Potter Suite

John Williams is arguably one of the greatest American composers of all time. He is certainly the most successful in terms of awards and financial success, having written the soundtracks for great popular movies and movie series including Jaws, E.T., Star Wars, Jurassic Park, Indiana Jones, and of course, Harry Potter.

This suite features beloved themes from the first movie, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Many of these themes have been woven through subsequent movies in the great Harry Potter series. Can you hear the owl Hedwig as he brings Harry a message from Professor Dumbledore? What about the opening of the Quidditch tournament, or the ominous presence of the dark Lord Voldemort? It’s all here in the Harry Potter Suite.

Where have you heard this music? The question might rather be, where have you NOT heard this music! The music of John Williams pervades our modern culture and sensibility.


Composer Kevin Lau visits principal conductor Kira Omelchenko and the Waterloo Chamber Players.