Artscape: At Brown, Annual Organ Concert Keeps Things Creepy Each Halloween

Oct 31, 2013

For the last twenty years Brown University’s organist Mark Steinbach has been playing a concert on Halloween at midnight.

Rhode Island Public Radio’s John Bender, went out to the University to learn more about the spooky tradition, and what makes a piece of music scary.

The massive 1903 organ in Sayles Hall at Brown University.
Credit John Bender / RIPR

That’s Mark Steinbach, the University Organist at Brown.  He’s practicing for his annual organ recital which happens at midnight on Halloween.

“Technically it starts at 11:59 pm, so that people know which day to come,” said Steinbach.

The concert takes place in the historic Sayles Hall in the middle of the Brown University’s campus on the East Side of Providence.  The Hall was originally built in the 1880’s, and has its own haunting past.

“Mr. Sayles, who you see pictured in the lobby, his son was a student at Brown, and died while he was a student at Brown.  So father Sayles gave the money to have this hall built,” said Steinbach.

The massive organ was installed 20 years after Sayles hall opened with money donated by a wealthy alum. 

The building was used for daily chapel through the 1970’s, but after the school stopped holding chapel in Sayles, the organ went unused.  The traditional Halloween concert had died when Steinbach first got to Brown.

“Someone said ‘are you going to play midnight organ recitals?’ and I said oh what a great idea.  And people come in costume, and we turn out the lights, I don’t know what’s going on down here.  So it’s kind of a creepy Victorian setting,” said Steinbach.

Another spooky organ player; at the H.P. Lovecraft Ball in Providence. Not Mark Steinbach. Probably.
Credit Catherine Welch / RIPR

A Halloween organ concert in a Victorian hall does sound creepy.  But why?  Violins have been known to be scary, remember the Psycho theme?

Steinbach believes that the scary factor has as much to do with the things we’ve seen than sounds we hear.

“If you look at how the pipe organ has been used in a lot of films, it’s been used in a creepy way.  Phantom of the Opera, after he captures the woman he’s deep underneath the sewer system in Paris.  Somehow there’s a pipe organ down there,” said Steinbach.

Knowing the pipe organ naturally lends itself to creepiness, Steinbach says he’s free to pick a wide and eclectic program.

But despite the instrument’s innate creepiness, you always have to play the favorites.

“One year I did not play the Bach Toccata and Fugue in D minor and people got angry,” said Steinbach.

And perhaps for good reason.  Bach’s toccata and fugue may be the mother of all Halloween music.

It’s been featured in feature films, been recorded many times, and has become one of the most recognizable pieces of classical music.

“Number one it’s the quintessential organ piece.  People who know nothing about the pipe organ immediately say yah-dah-dum!  They don’t know the name of it, but they know the piece.  It’s now reached popular culture,” said Steinbach.

But for how deep Bach’s toccata and fugue has permeated our culture there is actually surprisingly little known about it.

“We don’t have an autographed copy in Bach’s hand, so we have copies of copies.  We don’t know what purpose Bach wrote it for.  Was it written for his students?  Some musicologists believe it may have been written for violin.  This piece stands alone, it was not part of a larger collection,” said Steinbach.

And that unsolved mystery of the toccata and fugue in D minor, might just add to the Halloween fun.