Trick or treat?

A little bat from the Pendlebury recently sent me this…

Pendlebury staff are getting ready for Halloween. Although they’re not able to celebrate the night itself as it falls over this weekend, they’re going to get into the spirit (see what I did there) with their very own version of Trick and Treat, so why not pop over to the Pen today or on Monday 1st November for some extended Halloween celebrations?


A surprising number of ghosts, alongside witches, and other spooky phenomena, have made an appearance in classical music. Witches dance and plot in Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, as well as the more obvious Macbeth by Verdi. Orpheus makes his way through the underworld to find his Eurydice in operas and ballets from Monteverdi through Gluck and Offenbach to Stravinsky and Birtwistle. And Wagner’s ghostly Flying Dutchman endlessly sails the seas till he finds someone to love him.

Love can lead to all kinds of spooky events (Freud I’m sure would have something to say about that). Turned into a swan by the love turned to envy of wizard Von Rothbart, ghostly Swan Princess Odette leads her Prince lover to Paradise at the conclusion of Swan Lake. Poor Giselle dances herself to death in her joy at meeting Albrecht. She joins a particularly gruesome group of ghosts in the after life, the Wilis, who hate men, and have plans to dance THEM to death, should one be unfortunate enough to meet them after sunset. Thankfully ghostly Giselle meets Albrecht and is able to save him from the vengeful spectres. One can only feel sorry for Giselle however, doomed to stay with the Wilis, who surely must class her as a bit of a party pooper.

One of my favourite ghostly musical works is Benjamin Britten’s Turn of the screw, which is very closely based on the Henry James’ short story. A young governess starts a new job with two children, Miles and Flora. Unbeknown to her the former governess had committed suicide, and the ghostly former governess and evil former servant, Peter Quint (also a ghost) are battling to gain the souls of the two young children under the new governess’s care. It is an eerie unsettling tale (the novel itself is very short and well worth reading over a Halloween). David Hemmings, who would become a well known actor, and a poster boy for 1960s British film, was the original Miles, and went on to star in a number of horror / thriller films himself including Blow-Up, a TV version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Voices.

Some ghosts are decidedly vengeful. The best of these is probably the terrifying Commendatore of Don Giovanni, determined to avenge the Don’s treatment of his daughter. Some, such as the Ruddigore ghosts are comical. I’ve always found the ghost of Petrushka both terrifying and poignant.

Ghosts and ghouls are not confined to classical music. Some of the very best made an appearance in 1970s and ’80s musical theatre, and one of these in film form will be watched, sung and danced to on Halloween across the English speaking world. The two spooktastic musicals were The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Little Shop of Horrors. Little Shop of Horrors was based on a 1960’s B-movie of the same name, directed by horror icon Roger Corman, and was created in 1982 by Alan Menken, who composed the music for Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and Howard Ashman, his long term writing partner. The musical had a long off-Broadway run, but the creators decided it wasn’t right for Broadway, it had a relatively short (2 year) run in the West End. It gained a new audience though when a film was released in 1986. Filmed at Pinewood studios, and directed by former puppeteer Frank Oz (he had once voiced Miss Piggy and was Yoda), it became a cult classic.

Horror and musicals are not the most obvious of pairings, but in 1973 a new musical burst onto the scene, which was to be a huge influence, especially on Little Shop of Horrors. Richard O’Brien had been sacked from the plum role of Herod in Jesus Christ Superstar (he wanted Herod to be more Elvis). Wanting to keep busy, he wrote a comedy musical centred around his love of horror and sci-fi B-movies. The result was the Rocky Horror Picture Show, which has rarely been out of production since. A film was to follow in 1975, and featured many members of the original Royal Court cast. In a wonderful twist of fate, it was filmed at Bray Studios, home to the Hammer horror films, and featured many props formerly used by Hammer. It was panned on its release, but the fans loved it, and it has been on limited release ever since (the longest running theatrical-release in film history).

Richard O’Brien and fellow spooks doing the Time-Warp

Whether you’re time-warping, trick and treating, or reading ghost stories around the fire, have a happy Halloween, and do come and admire the decorations at the Pen. There may even be a treat in store.


About mj263

Music Collections Supervisor at Cambridge University Library. Wide musical interests. Often to be found stuck in a composer's archive, or enthusing about antiquarian music.
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