Listening Guide: Specters, Sorcerers, and the Supernatural

Erlkönig (Erlking) – David Matthew Brown (b. 1989)
text by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Most famously set to music by Franz Schubert, Erlkönig is a terrifying tale of a boy, haunted by the demon Erlking (Elf King), imperceptible to the boy’s father, with whom he furiously rides on horseback. Set in 5/8, this version mimics the hoof beats of the horse in the deep bass of the piano left hand part, as the tale unfolds above. Listen for:

•Kaitlyn’s representation of four different characters: the narrator, boy, father, and Erlking

•Dramatic changes in musical affect as different characters speak: Boy/Terror – Father/Confidence – Erlking/Seduction

•The point when the Erlking gives up on the facade as the music sinks into darkness

•The boy’s final lines, as he has been “taken” by the Erlking

•A violin cadenza, representing the father’s realization of his son’s predicament

•Blurred lines between the Narrator and the Erlking at the end: “war tot” (“was dead”) is sung joyously


Narrator: Who rides so late through night and wind?
It is a father with his child;
He holds the boy securely in his arm,
He grasps him safely, he keeps him warm.
Father: “My son, why do you hide your face in fear?”
Son: “Do you not see the Erlking, Father?
The Erlking with crown and tail?”
Father: “My son, it is a wisp of fog.”
Erlking: “You lovely child, come, go with me!
What wonderful games I’ll play with you,
Many colorful flowers are on the beach,
My mother has many golden garments.”
Son: “My father, my father, do you not hear,
What Erlking has softly promised to me?”
Father: “Be calm, stay calm, my child;
The wind is only rustling through dry leaves.”
Erlking: “Fine boy, will you go with me?
My beautiful daughters shall wait upon you;
My daughters lead the nightly dance,
And will rock and dance and sing you to sleep.”
Son: “My father, my father, do you not see,
The Erlking’s daughters there in that gloomy place?”
Father: My son, my son, I see it clearly: it is only the shining of the old gray willow.”
Erlking: I love you, your beautiful form charms me;
And since you are not willing, I will use force.”
Son: My father, my father,
Now he grasps me!
Erlking has hurt me!
Narrator: The father shudders; he rides swiftly,
He has the moaning child in his arms,
He reaches the courtyard with toil and in distress;
In his arms, the child was dead.


“Re dell’abisso, affrettati” from Un ballo in maschera – Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)
text by Antonio Somma

The witch Ulrica – a fortune teller – performs an incantation to summon the “King of the Abyss.” Listen for:

•Chromatic (half-stepwise) melodic figures build a sense of mysterious drama

•Slithering triplet figures in the primary voice melody

•The curious use of major key at the end to signify the conclusion and effectiveness of the incantation


King of the Abyss, make haste,
Plunge down through the skies,
Without soaring, the lightning
Penetrates my roof.
Now three times, the hoopoe
Breathed on high;
The fire breathing salamander
Hissed three times…
And the groaning of the tombs
Spoke to me three times.
It’s him, it’s him! Now I feel
The palpitations again.
The pleasure to burn again
In his awful embrace!
The light of the future
He holds in his left hand.
He was pleased with my spell
He blazes once again:
Nothing, nothing more will be hidden
From my gaze!
Silence, silence!


“Stride la vampa” from Il trovatore – Giuseppe Verdi
text by Salvadore Cammarano

In one of Verdi’s more popular mezzo arias, Azucena, the daughter of an accused witch gruesomely describes the execution by fire of her mother. Listen for:

•Chromatically rising chords representing the flames reaching for the sky

•The piano interlude melody that recurs, originally played by an oboe

•Cognitive dissonance in a lively melody – for the cheering crowd – versus the dark tonality of the execution


The blaze crackles!
The unrestrained crowd
Runs to that fire
happy in appearance;
shouts of joy
echo all around:
Surrounded by henchmen
A woman approaches!

Menacingly shines
On those horrible faces
That gloomy flame
That reaches to the heavens!

The blaze crackles!
Here comes the victim,
Dressed in black,
Disheveled and barefoot!
A fierce shout
Of death arises.
The echo repeats
From cliff to cliff!

Menacingly shines
On those horrible faces
That gloomy flame
That reaches to the heavens!


Myrddin – David Matthew Brown

Adapted for tuba and piano from the original trombone and orchestra version, Myrddin (“Merlin” in Arthurian lore) is an unpredictable, aggressive, and mystical characterization of its legendary Welsh namesake, and prominently features Welsh folk influence. The solitary brooding, dancing, conjuring, and lamenting of a prophetic sorcerer are described within 165 meter changes before descending into madness. Listen for:

•Musical representations of a troubled, “mad” mind, including constant meter and character changes

•Myrddin’s theme: the prominent Welsh jig that happens a few minutes in

•The orchestral nature of the piano reduction

•An extended tuba cadenza, recalling many preceding themes

•Representation of the “carnyx,” an Iron Age Celtic battle horn

•A gradual descent into madness, as rhythm becomes unrelenting, and harmony devolves into abstraction


Suite from El amor brujo – Manuel de Falla (1876-1946), arr. Paul Kochanski
text by Gregorio Martínez Sierra

I: Canción del amor dolido (Song of Suffering Love)

Candela, the story’s protagonist, sings an impassioned aria about her conflicted love for her deceased husband, who continues to haunt her. Listen for:

•A dense piano ostinato, with ornaments representing the English horn

•Heavy Spanish nationalist influence, characteristic of Falla’s middle-period works

•A heavily ornamented vocal line that generally remains in the lower register – characteristic of the “cantaora” style


Ay! I don’t know what I feel,
I don’t know what happens to me
When this accursed gypsy’s away.
Only Hell’s fire burns hotter
Than all my blood burning with jealousy!
Ay! When there are rumors,
what could they mean? Ay!
For the love of another, he forgets me! Ay!
When the fire burns,
When there are rumors …
If they cannot kill the fire,
Suffering condemns me!
Love poisons me!
Sorrow kills me!
Ay! Ay!

II: Danza del terror (Dance of Terror)

Branded crazy by her village, each night Candela dances with her husband’s ghost. Listen for:

•Wild piano glissandi, paired with fast violin scales – a supernatural-sounding effect, heralding the dance

•Frequent trills and fast triplets, referencing the otherworldly nature of the dance

•Jeté (ricochet bow) and left hand pizzicato (plucked), adding an element of virtuosity

III: Canción del fuego fatuo (Song of the Will-O’-The-Wisp)

The specter restrains Candela – curses her – from pursuing her love for Carmelo, a handsome villager. Listen for:

•Sparse piano accompaniment, representing string pizzicato

•A legato piano interlude, ornamented with grace notes, meant to sound like the strumming of a guitar

•Stark color changes in the voice – sorrowful to spiteful


Like the will-o’-the-wisp,
The very same is to love.
Like the will-o’-the-wisp,
The very same is to love.
You run from it, and it follows you,
You call it, and it runs away.
Like the will-o’-the-wisp,
The very same is to love.
Accursed the dark eyes
That succeeded in seeing him!
Accursed the dark eyes
That succeeded in seeing him!
Accursed the saddened heart
That wanted to burn in his flame!
Like the will-o’-the-wisp
Love vanishes the same.

IV: Pantomima (Pantomime)

 A suspension from fear, Candela’s and Carmelo’s love is portrayed in this beautiful melody in 7/4 time. Listen for:

•A sustained violin line that soars over dense, lush piano chords

•The use of violin harmonics – partially stopping the strings to produce crystalline, high-pitched sound

•The violin mute – not so much dampening the sound, but darkening the tone color

V: Danza del juego de amor (Dance of the Game of Love)

Candela stands up to the specter, who she learns was unfaithful to her in life. Now, she has a plan. Lucía – the gypsy who cheated with and murdered Candela’s husband has been lured to the nightly dance. The specter abducts her. Listen for:

•Extended piano passagework, synthesizing a beautiful melody (enticement) with an unsettling accompaniment

•Rapidly changing characters – tempo and key – portraying Candela’s dynamic words

•As Candela’s confidence grows – and her words become harsher – her melody becomes more ornate


You are the evil gypsy
That a gypsy girl loved;
The love that she gave you,
You did not deserve!
Who could have thought
That with another you would betray her!
I’m the voice of your destiny!
I’m the fire in which you burn!
I’m the wind in which you sigh!
I’m the sea in which you are shipwrecked!
I’m the sea in which you are shipwrecked!

VI: Danza ritual del fuego (Ritual Fire Dance)

Probably the most famous of Falla’s compositional output, the Ritual Fire Dance is Candela’s attempt to drive away the spirit of her deceased husband. Listen for:

•Iconic, oscillating piano trills, eventually mimicked by the violin – possibly linked to the trills that represent supernatural elements in the Dance of Terror

•Its unique scale (mixolydian with a flat 2nd) that evokes a sense of mysticism

•A highly virtuosic coda, rapidly accelerating, and concluding with an asymmetrical flurry of E chords


Ghost Stories – Improvised

This is an audience-guided, solo piano improvisation. Personal ghost stories are set to relevant music and sound effects. Listen for:

•The way that Jodie responds to narrative cues with musical ideas

•The return and development of earlier improvisations


The Train Watcher – David Matthew Brown
text by the composer

Based [loosely] on events from the composer’s childhood, this two-part ghost story follows two young boys – living in the same residence, over a century apart – who share a fascination with trains. Parallel events lead them both to explore at night the site and former site, respectively, of a train that passes through the woods behind their house. Each is greeted by another Train Watcher. Listen for:

•Rhythmic freedoms taken within the sung narration, allowing a conversational feel

•”Perpetual motion” piano ostinati, representing the train – and glissando violin double stops, representing the whistle

•Musical motives that return, such as the first boy’s theme, played by the violin immediately after the first train reference

•Broad narrative/musical parallels between the two halves of the story

•Brief 12-tone serialism, heightening fear during the line, “It stumbles toward the boy in jagged movements as if its body had been terribly mangled.”

•The evolution of the train sounds, from the beginning to the end: joyous to horrifying


Over a hundred years ago, a train passed through the woods behind the home of a young boy. Fascinated by trains, the boy would watch the tracks by day – his bright blue eyes wide with excitement and a broad grin across his face as the mighty steam engine roared by. Accustomed to hearing the whistle at night just before he slept, it came as a surprise to him when one night, the whistle did not sound. Curiosity besting the boy, he retrieved a lantern and set off to the woods to await the train, hoping that all was well and the train would come. He reached the tracks and waited, balancing upon the rail and jumping from tie to tie. Suddenly, the boy stopped in the middle of the tracks – he could not move. He struggled to break free from what felt like icy hands gripping his arms. Not a moment later he heard the whistle. Once a beloved sound to the boy, the signal gripped his heart with fear. Unable to escape, he watched in horror as the train came into view – and approached closer, and closer, and closer…

Today there lives a boy in the same house. The train no longer exists and the tracks, disassembled. One night the boy hears what he believes to be an old-fashioned train whistle coming from the woods. He is not only intrigued by the alien sound, but because his fascination with trains parallels that of a boy who had lived in the same house over a hundred years ago. Curiosity besting the boy, he retrieves a flashlight and sets off to investigate what sounded like an old steam engine. As he reaches the woods he looks around and begins finding fragments of railroad ties and the large steel nails that once secured them. Suddenly, a figure arises from the shadows – it almost appears to be human – but something is not right. It stumbles toward the boy in jagged movements as if its body had been terribly mangled. In the blink of an eye the thing is upon the boy and clutching him with ice-cold hands. Terror pervades him, as he is unable to break away. And then… the whistle again – but this time it is loud and fast approaching. The boy, his heart pounding, struggles harder to free himself as a massive entity appears in the distance, steadily and swiftly approaching. The boy screams for help but cannot even hear himself over the whistle and now, the unmistakable roar of a train at full speed. His gaze returns to the creature – its solid white eyes wide with excitement and a broad grin across its rotted face as the mighty steam engine approaches closer, and closer, and closer…