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It is debatable if the genre of dark classical can really stand on its own. But perhaps there is a way to cut past the noise and get to that truly dark signal, if you pardon my pun. I'm approaching this two ways:

  1. There are plenty of playlists with the moniker "dark classical" or the like on YouTube and elsewhere, but it could be argued that they aren't that dark. They may have melancholy or dark titles like Lizt's "dance of the dead" or the infamous "toccata and fugue" but, as many of the comments attest, it's more "beautiful" than it is "dark". It's not that unsettling, though I'm hesitant to wade into the deeper waters of subjectivity.
  2. I'm also attempting to approach/juxtapose dark classical against black metal, which is one of the more axiomatic modes of expressing a "dark" vibe. There's a zillion subgenres here, which includes atmospheric black metal and symphonic black metal. However, as much as I enjoy all the diversity and am thankful such projects exists, none can really hold a candle to JS Bach in terms of composition. It comes off sounding a bit one-dimensional.

The point I'm trying to make is: It seems very rare for a truly talented musical act or orchestra to write/perform something that is truly dark and unsettling. One can find very unsettling music, but it nearly always comes at the expense of the sophistication/cerebral music theory/expression. One can also find very expertly renditioned pieces, but these invariably come across as beautiful -- the 'dark' aspect is subsumed, at best a minor key or occasional dark motifs. This is my opinion. Perhaps others can point me in the right direction, given my tastes.

Thus far, the best I've come to landing on what I consider "truly" dark classical is Wojciech Kilar. He tends to write OSTs for horror films. It is plain to see/hear that his vision of dark classical is far 'darker' than where Bach or Liszt intended to take their music, but still maintains an impressive degree of "musical genius". I won't say he's on their level, but he's clearly quite adept. Unfortunately, it appears not to be a very deep genre. I've found virtually no other maestros that bridge the gap between "scary" and musicality/timbre of classical.

To be clear, what I'm after is not technical virtuosity, like Paganini's madness. It wouldn't surprise me if there was some blackened version of Polyphia out there, but technical wizardry is not my priority (it doesn't have to be difficult to play, it just has to deliver sophistication and still be scary).

Question

Is my conclusion shared between other fans of this kind of music? What other composers/projects should I consider? Feel free to argue my thesis, it was just my opinion.

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  • I guess one of the issues is with interpreting "dark" as "horror" (emotionally scared) or "tragedy" (emotionally depressed).
    – Andrew T.
    Apr 2, 2023 at 7:51

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I would suggest a few specific pieces to get you started:

  • Vozzeck, Alban Berg (YouTube)
  • "... a riveder le stelle", Ingvar Lidholm (YouTube)
  • Necronomicon, John Zorn (YouTube)
  • Atmosphères, György Ligeti (YouTube)
  • Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, Béla Bartók (YouTube)
  • Macbeth and the Witches, Bedřich Smetana (YouTube)
  • "Nuages Gris", Franz Liszt (YouTube)
  • Verklärte Nacht, Arnold Schoenberg (YouTube)
  • Black Angels, George Crumb (YouTube)
  • On a Distant Shore, Karin Rehnqvist (YouTube: No. 1, "The Dark")

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