Classical music is frequently associated with the most basic of human emotions:
Joy, sadness, excitement…
Passion, anger, love…
What is it about classical music that can evoke the mystical, wonderful and…dark?
Well, it comes down to many things.
First off, the composer’s intentions are important.
Musical texture, harmony, melody, orchestration, tempo…
And of course, how the performer interprets the music is hugely important.
Whatever it is, we don’t need to be told when we feel a work of classical music evokes a dark feeling.
But, what are the greatest, darkest works of classical music?
Here are 10 works that, according to users of the classical music subreddit, are among the darkest, saddest, and most powerful in the standard repertoire.
What we found interesting in this particular subreddit was the inclusion of so much contemporary classical music, as well as music that is “off the beaten path.”
Sure, some of these composers you know, but others will be, in all likelihood, completely new to you.
Here are 10 staples of dark classical music.
Nocturnes – Lowell Liebermann
In this particular thread, the very first piece a poster mentions is none other than Lowell Liebermann’s Nocturnes!
What a delightful choice for “dark classical music.”
Liebermann is a great composer – a teacher at Mannes College of Music, he is sometimes referred to as one of the “New Tonalists,” though he himself does not always identify with this label.
The particular work this redditor is referring to are the 11 Nocturnes for solo piano Liebermann has composed.
Listen above to Nocturne #4; the expansive triadic harmony, repetitive eighth note textures, and eventual acceleration starting at 2:40 create a haunting, beautiful, and mysterious eeriness that few compositions have evoked.
The climax at 4:10 is loud, noisy, and brilliant. Maybe you should play it for the neighborhood kids this coming Halloween.
Night on a Bald Mountain – Modest Mussorgsky
This work is much more “classically” associated with the theme of darkness than probably any other work in classical music history.
We have the original 1940 classic Fantasia to thank for that association.
In the film, an animated devil uses his powers to cast darkness on the world.
While unsettling, the animation and music is classic, as memorable as any of the other animations in Fantasia.
We can thank a redditor on this thread for reminding us about how powerful this classic work of music really is.
String Quartet #8 – Shostakovich
It’s interesting how much more popular Shostakovich’s eighth string quartet is than most other chamber works of the early 20th century!
Haunting and dark are certainly appropriate words to describe Shostakovich’s 8th string quartet! The opening counterpoint of the eighth quartet is unforgettable, with its calm, eerie, and portentous atmosphere.
Political influence is abundant in this masterpiece; the score itself is dedicated to “to the victims of fascism and war.”
Famously, the work is filled with musical quotations…of other Shostakovich pieces! The work quotes at least five of his other pieces, including his first symphony, fifth symphony, and his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District
This piece, and Shostakovich in general, comes up in many Reddit threads for the term “dark classical music.”
Black Angels – George Crumb
A few years ago, this redditor posted his own opinion on the top 10 darkest classical pieces of music.
Some of the composers are classical household names: Chopin, Scriabin, Prokofiev.
However, his list also had a strong “contemporary” bent to it, including works by Schnittke, Xenakis, and even George Crumb!
Crumb’s Black Angels is one of the most thoughtful – and dark – compositions I’ve personally ever heard.
Extended string techniques don’t feel pedantically used here; rather, they are used tastefully to create specific feelings and unusual sonorities.
Black Angels does not always feel dark; moments of the piece, such as the Lost Bells movement, have a light airiness.
George Crumb is one of America’s most important composers, having won the 1968 Pulitzer for his original work Echoes of Time and the River.
Ballade #4 – Chopin
The same Redditor who mentioned Black Angels listed this work as his #1 darkest composition, perhaps the most iconic work on this list.
Subversion crawls out of the score; despite the slow, consonant harmonies and rhythmic tempo of this piece, one can never relax in the music’s unconventional – dare we say demented – waltz feel.
The structure of the music is also interesting; the climax of the work is in the last few minutes of the music. Most climaxes are 2/3rds of the way through the piece in classical music.
English composer John Ogden said it best: the 4th Ballade is “the most exalted, intense and sublimely powerful of all Chopin’s compositions … It is unbelievable that it lasts only twelve minutes, for it contains the experience of a lifetime.”
Sonata #2 – Samuil Feinberg
One of the most obscure pieces to be mentioned, Feinberg is a lesser-known contemporary of Stravinsky, Shostakovich, and Prokofiev.
A Russian composer active in the early to mid-20th century, Feinberg produced works that extended delicious chromatic harmonies to their highest extent.
His work is deeply reminiscent of later Scriabin, and perhaps the reason his piano work is less remembered is because he stands in the shadow of his Russian piano counterpart. In fact, he has been called a “musical heir to Scriabin.”
The Sonata no. 2 above, which caught our eye on this particular Reddit thread, is dark and magnificent.
Feinberg’s accomplishments go beyond his own compositions; he was actually the first pianist to perform Bach’s entire Well-Tempered Clavier in the USSR.
String Quartet #4 – Sofia Gubaidulina
Dedicated to the Kronos Quartet, no stranger to dark contemporary classical chamber music, this 1993 masterpiece is scored for three string quartets. One of them performs live, and the other two are pre-recorded.
Additionally, the piece also calls for the string quartet performing onstage to be illuminated in colored lights, as you can see in the above performance.
When prompted to name “dark” classical composers, one redditor replied in favor of Sofia Gubaidulina, who noted her works are decidedly “windy and weird.”
Like other composers on this list, Gubaidulina’s music was influenced by a tense political landscape. Growing up in Soviet Russia, her music became a way for her to escape the tense climate.
Vers La Flamme – Scriabin
Much of Scriabin’s repertoire could make a list like this – the Black Mass and White Mass sonatas particularly come to mind.
We enjoyed reading one Reddit thread that named Scriabin here, which linked to a specific recording by pianist Ruth Laredo.
In her skilled pianist hands, the work sounds like it could have been written by a dark Debussy.
Coming in at less than 5 minutes, this underrated masterpiece is one of Scriabin’s last works, written in 1914, the year before he passed.
The convoluted harmonies, technically difficult tremolos, and gradual building towards its climax evoke a fiery image, which was the composer’s exact intention (the translation of the title is Towards the Flame).
The above is just a sampling of what Reddit users claimed in their assessment of the best sad/dark classical music.
Certainly, all of these pieces are worthy of inclusion in any list of great, somber classical art.
Many other pieces were cited frequently on Reddit as well, including:
Arnold Schoenberg: Verklarte Nacht
Leos Janacek: Intimate Letters
Penderecki: Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima
Giacinto Scelsi: Natura Renovatur
Rachmaninoff: Prelude in C# minor
NOTE: This article is NOT endorsed or sponsored by Reddit
Featured photo via Wikimedia Commons