Fear of Evil: Nelson

Have you ever seen a scary movie where you didn’t get to see the antagonist until the very end? I mean where there is an ominous, slow-moving threat of evil, signs of evil, and great suspense, but the real evil simply doesn’t show itself. I would say that this kind of evil – an unknown evil – is the kind most feared.


That kind of evil is portrayed in Ron Nelson’s (b. 1929) Passacaglia. Though this is a “Classical” music blog, I have included any instrumental and vocal music that popular culture would fit into that genre, however diverse. For example, this piece was written for band in 1993, the year of Nelson’s retirement. It is performed in this recording by the Dallas Wind Symphony, one of the few professional wind ensembles in the country. Here is an excerpt from Ron Nelson’s program notes:

Passacaglia (Homage on B-A-C-H) is a set of continuous variations in moderately slow triple meter built on an eight-measure melody (basso ostinato) which is stated, in various registers, twenty-five times. It is a seamless series of tableux which move from darkness to light.

Ok, this is why popular culture doesn’t get Classical music. Because the people in the profession are speaking music-ese. Let me translate:

Passacaglia is a melody played by low instruments at a moderately slow speed, over and over again, 25 times in all. As the melody is repeated, it sounds different each time as it is passed from instrument to instrument. It characterizes a series of scenes that move from darkness to light.

To me, it is the evil that moves from darkness to light. It starts more calm, tranquil, like it is under water, peaks its head out for a moment, and then submerges again. Can you hear the “basso ostinato” in the low instruments in this clip followed by variations played by the upper woodwind instruments?

As light takes over in the next clip, our enemy here gets more overt and intense – bent upon our destruction. The brass section in the band is playing full-blast power chords, the drums are going, the woodwinds are playing fast sixteenth notes, and the trumpets are double-tonguing. When brass players double tongue, it is because the notes are too fast to play the way they normally do, so they have to use a special, difficult technique called double tonguing. Flutes can do this also.

Can you think of any books or movies for which Passacaglia would make a fitting soundtrack?



8 thoughts on “Fear of Evil: Nelson

  1. I love this post. Your first paragraph reminds me of Freud’s defense mechanism of “projection,” which according to Wikipedia is “a psychological defense mechanism whereby one projects one’s own undesirable thoughts, motivations, desires, and feelings onto someone else.” We do this most with concepts, entities, cultures, and people that we know the least about. In other words, when faced with an unknown, we fear the worst and project the most negative possible attributes to the unknown in an effort to self-protect. This explains why the scariest movies show us as little as possible of an unknown evil, because once we see it, it loses some of it’s power to frighten us.

  2. I love this series, Justin. So important, not only from a musical perspective but from a psychological one as well. As a culture we’re tuned into these emotional themes, and the music highlights the universality of the fear of evil (death, the unknown, etc). This music, as opposed to pop music (which has many universal elements in it as well, but is mostly obsessed with romantic love) helps us call out what’s hidden, or shadowy within us. It helps connect us in an important way.

    • Thanks! I’d say this piece could be called a “psychological thriller.” While some of it speaks to fantasy, I agree that it speaks to that hidden, shadowy part of all of us. I’m not sure why, but I’ve always enjoyed music that does that.

  3. Your “menacing” clip sounds like it could be a soundtrack to an Indiana Jones movie (any of them)… with running and racing hearts and last-moment escape. Something about the instrumentation, maybe the treble instruments (are there bells in there that I hear?) makes it seem frantic. Something about the articulation of the trumpets, communicating speed – but HUMAN speed, as opposed to a high-speed car chase or something from a Bourne movie – makes it seem like there should be people running from fear. You can’t be speeding away in an expensive car to such articulation, IMO. 😉
    I know this isn’t a discussion about motif communicating fear, but that is certainly used in movie scores! It made me think of the Berloiz Dies Irea in “Sleeping With the Enemy” every time that creepy-creeper husband was around.

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