Scary Music on Halloween

1st November 2010

It was Halloween last night. And last night I watched a bunch of kids dressed in black scare me witless. These kids didn’t just scare me—they terrified me! I’m not kidding. I was really really scared. And the kids didn’t even say a single word—not even “Boo!”.

So what did these kids do that made me so scared? Well, they made music—scary music. Music full of terror and full of ghosts. But this wasn’t the terror of some fantasy, and these weren’t the ghosts of someone’s imagination. The terror was real. And the ghosts were real—yes they were real dead ghosts, and I saw them!

I bet you think I’ve gone crazy! So I better start again and tell you what I’m on about (and anyway, my own kids will tell you I’m already crazy!).

Last night I went to a concert by the CBSO Youth Orchestra. The members of this orchestra are all aged between 14 and 21, so many will still be at school. But this was no school orchestra. The quality of their playing was far better than that of many adult orchestras. Not only that, they were extremely energetic, enthusiastic and exciting as well. It was truly amazing to see so many young people working together in this way. I bet there were many proud parents in the hall last night.

Anyway, what’s that got to do with being scary? Well the main piece of music this orchestra played last night was Symphony No. 11 by Dmitri Shostakovich. This symphony also has the title “The Year 1905”. It is music that describes an awful event that happened in Russia in 1905.

In 1905 many people in Russia were very poor, and many people were starving. On the 9th January that year, a group of poor people gathered in the big square outside the Tsar’s palace (a Tsar is like a king). These people started singing songs to ask the Tsar to make their lives better—for simple things like food and work.

The Tsar wasn’t there. Instead the police started shooting. Many people were killed.

And this is what Shostkovich’s Symphony No. 11 is about. It is about the Palace Square. It is about the cold icy square where the people gathered. It is about the people singing songs to their Tsar. And it is about the police shooting lots of people.

You can hear all this in the music. And when the guns start it is terrifying. I was honestly scared last night when I heard this music. I felt the cold of the Palace Square. I felt the tension as the crowd in the Square started singing. I felt the terror in the crowd when the guns started firing.

And I saw the ghosts of the people shot down in the Square. The kids of the CBSO Youth Orchestra weren’t playing at make-believe ghosts on Halloween. They were bringing the very real ghosts of 1905 back to life. That is truly scary.

Why don’t you watch this video of part of Shostkovich’s Symphony No. 11. See if you can hear what I mean. It describes the tension before the police start shooting, and the shooting itself (this starts at about the 2:45 mark in this video, and there are warning shots near at about 25 seconds in). This is no game. This is real fear.

Part of the second movement of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11

P.S. Well done CBSO Youth Orchestra! You played with real fire—especially Rachel Starmer on the timpani who was truly demon-possessed!

Video credits:
  1. Shostakovich: Symphony No. 11 – 2nd Mov. (2/2). Dmitry Shostakovich Symphony No. 11 g minor, Op. 103 “The Year 1905”
    2nd Movement: Ninth of January. Charles Dutoit, NHK Symphony Orchestra, Suntory Hall, 2009-12-16.

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