1. Gilbert & Sullivan: ‘When the Night Wind Howls’ from Ruddigore/The Witch’s Curse
Intended as a satirical dig at the Victorian obsession with the supernatural, Gilbert & Sullivan’s 1887 opera tells of ghosts, witches’ curses and the tiring business of having to commit a different crime every day. Among its most famous moments is Sir Roderic’s Act II song – ‘When the Night Wind Howls’- whose music is as over the top as the lyrics: ‘Fair phantom, come! The moon’s awake, The owl hoots gaily from its brake, The blithesome bat’s a-wing. Come, soar to yonder silent clouds; The ether teems with peopled shrouds: We’ll fly the lightsome spectre crowds, Thou cloudy, clammy thing.’
2. Alban Berg: murder scene from Wozzeck
Based on the true story of a soldier who murdered his girlfriend, Alban Berg’s 1925 opera profiles a young man’s breakdown under the strain of poverty and social injustice. The result is a harrowing masterpiece, that harnesses atonality in the service of characterisation. As a sung play, it doesn’t contain songs in the traditional sense, however this moment, where Wozzeck murders his girlfriend Marie, is pretty terrifying.
3. Peter Maxwell Davies: Blazes’ song from The Lighthouse
This chamber opera, written in 1980, is based on the true story of three lighthouse keepers who mysteriously vanished from a remote Hebridean lighthouse in 1900. It is unsettlingly Hitchcockian, incorporating elements of the supernatural into a psychological inquiry about the effects of childhood abuse and repressed sexuality. Among its most unsettling moments is Blazes’ song, sung by one of the three lighthouse keepers. Beginning with a jaunty rhythm on the banjo, he tells a tale of street violence revealing that he robbed and killed a woman at the age of eleven. Haunting discords from the violin create a dark undertone, suggesting that, like a manic clown’s smile, the song’s cheerful exterior is not quite what it seems.
4. Trad English/Scottish: ‘The Twa Sisters’
This traditional murder ballad, dating back at least as far as the mid-17th century, tells the tale of a girl drowned by her jealous elder sister.
In some variants, the sisters are being two-timed by a suitor; in others, the elder sister’s affections are not encouraged by the young man. But they both come to the same macabre conclusion: when the murdered girl’s body floats ashore, someone makes a musical instrument out of it, which then plays itself, singing about the murder.
Possibly originating in Northumbria, this is one of many very similar songs about murderous sisters that have been found throughout Europe. I don’t what that says about sibling relationships.
5. Richard Strauss: final scene from Salome
For sheer grotesquerie, it’s hard to beat Richard Strauss’s single-act opera, based on Oscar Wilde’s lurid 1891 play, about Salome, the step-daughter of King Herod. The opera’s decadence – in particular the combination of the erotic and the murderous – shocked audiences at its 1905 premiere, and nowhere is that decadence more in evidence than in its climactic scene, where Salome declares her love for the severed head of John the Baptist and kisses the prophet’s dead lips passionately.
6. Kurt Weill: ‘Mack the Knife’ from Threepenny Opera
You might know this song as a swing classic, but the original 1928 version, sung in German as part of Kurt Weill’s Threepenny Opera, is extremely creepy. Bertold Brecht’s lyrics tell of a knife-wielding criminal in Victorian London, on his way to town, followed by untraceable dead bodies floating up the river and blood on pavements. Far from a likeable caricature – as he would come to be portrayed by singers such as Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald – he is a chilling creation, and Weill’s original vision for the song, in which the singer is accompanied by the haunting sound of the barrel-organ, makes that very clear indeed.
7. Leoš Janáček: ‘ Co chvíla…co chvíla’ from Jenůfa
You want scary? Infanticide must surely be up (or down?) there with the most disturbing of subject matters. Janáček’s Jenůfa is one of my all-time favourite operas, as much for the raw power of its music as for its psychological depth: there are no goodies or baddies here; just people, as flawed and nuanced as they come. But yes, it is dark, and this aria (‘Co chvíla… co chvíla…’), in which Jenůfa’s stepmother, the Kostelnička, lays out her decision to kill her stepdaughter’s child, is one of its darkest moments.
8. Béla Bartók: ‘Pool of Tears’ from Bluebeard’s Castle
Opera doesn’t get much more sinister than Bartók’s one-act expressionist drama about the mysterious Duke Bluebeard and his new wife, Judith, who arrives for the first time at his gloomy castle and demands that its seven doors should be opened. Winning the prize for scariest door must be Number 6 (‘lake of tears’), in which the music is plunged deep into shadows: all ghostly sighs and growling strings, with a spooky contribution from the celesta.
9. Trad Scottish: ‘The Cruel Mother’
This dark Scottish ballad tells the story of a mother who gives birth to illegitimate children in the woods, kills them and buries them. On her return trip home, she sees some children playing and says that if they were hers, she would dress them up in fine garments and take care of them.
In response, the children compel her to recognise her responsibility for their deaths. Full of ancient folklore notions such as as the knife from which blood can never be washed, this is one of the most famous cautionary ballads, sung and recorded by a dizzying number of folk musicians over the years, most recently by Angeline Morrison on her 2022 ‘The Brown Girl and Other Folk Songs.’
10. Poulenc: ‘Salve Regina’ from Dialogues des Carmelites
Poulenc’s 1957 opera tells the story of the Martyrs of Compiègne, sixteen Carmelite nuns who chose to take a vow of martyrdom rather than renounce their faith during the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror. The last scene is guaranteed to haunt you: driven from their convent and arrested, the nuns sing Salve Regina, an antiphon to Mary, as they process, one by one, to the guillotine. Poulenc’s icily beautiful music ploughs on, indifferent to the intermittent swish of the guillotine. It’s a fantastic coup de théâtre and as stirring as it is chilling.