I hadn’t heard of Dark Academia—a subculture born on Tumblr that soon migrated to Instagram and TikTok—until sometime last year when I suddenly started seeing posts about Donna Tartt’s The Secret History everywhere. One of my favorite books, I was surprised to see it now become the basis of memes, outfits of the day, playlists, and mood boards by people who weren’t alive when I first read the book (which turned 30 last month).
One of the other things I began to notice quickly about Dark Academia was its deep relationship to music, including a large focus on classical music. One beginner’s guide suggests that aspiring Dark Academics “delve into the realm of philosophy,” “stay late at your university library,” and “listen to classical music as you sleep/read/study.” Another post idealizes “listening to j. s. bach’s oratorios while practising chess.” On TikTok and Instagram reels, millions of posts tagged #darkacademia are set to the same inevitable works: Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata, Chopin’s Nocturnes, Barber’s Adagio for Strings.
While I’m no Dark Academic myself, I’d like to offer up a playlist for the genre that’s a bit more personal. Hopefully it fits listeners like a thrifted wool coat and a black turtleneck. And if, like me, you’re terrified by the mere idea of TikTok subcultures, it’s also a playlist well-suited to the stretch between Halloween and the early days of winter.
Ralph Vaughan Williams: “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis” (1910)
As the name suggests, Dark Academia lives in the deep alcoves and oak-paneled lecture halls of a bygone campus era. The settings are often the self-contained universes of boarding schools and universities. If the story takes place in the United Kingdom, it’s a safe bet that the school in question will at least borrow from the real-life grounds of Oxford or Cambridge. Ralph Vaughan Williams was an alumnus of the latter’s Trinity College, although his music itself eschewed the elitist connotations that come with such a pedigree—a class tension that itself can be felt at the heart of many Dark Academia tomes.
In a work like “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis,” this blends with two other DA tropes: a reverence for history and a sense of the sacrosanct. Vaughan Williams “was a first-generation atheist with a profound sense of the past, which means a disappointed theist,” writes biographer Hugh Ottaway. “Moreover, in the popular traditions of the English church, as in folksong, he was aware of the common aspirations of generations of ordinary men and women with whom he felt a deep, contemplative sympathy. And so there is in his work a fundamental tension between traditional concepts of belief and morality and a modern spiritual anguish which is also visionary.”
Benjamin Britten: Nocturne, Op. 60 (1958)
In a 2020 New York Times article on the historical roots and current iteration of Dark Academia, Culture x Curate founder Natalie Black describes the trend as “an interesting mix from a broad range of eras, from the 18th century to the 1940s.” For a classical avatar of the tweed-jacketed, French-cuffed, gender-ambidextrous fashion of this era, equal parts Romantic and post-War, look no further than Benjamin Britten, whose music matches this aesthetic as much as his fashion. Moments like the evocation of Peter Quint in “The Turn of the Screw” capture both the texture of the cloak of night and an unsettling—and unsettlingly seductive—tragic foreboding. These musical moments gather full force in Britten’s 1958 Nocturne for tenor, obbligato, and strings—a work conceived for Peter Pears, dedicated to Alma Mahler, and comprising eight sections set to eight different poets.
Dark Academia thrives on literary references, particularly the ancient and antiquated (M.L. Rio’s If We Were Villains is about a murderous group of Shakespeareans; the chapters for Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics form a syllabus ranging from Madame Bovary to Che Guevara). The libretto of Britten’s Nocturne—beginning with a verse by Dark Academia poster boy Percy Bysshe Shelley and ending with Shakespeare’s Sonnet No. 43—form a poetic mixtape ripe for modern-day rediscovery by the #BookTok crowd.
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky: “Manfred” Symphony (1886)
The venn diagram between the Romantic literary movement of the early 19th century and the Dark Academia culture of today is a circle. In addition to Shelley, Lord Byron looms large—both thanks to his literary output and his own biography. Berlioz, in a passage from his memoirs that could just as well be a 2012 DA Tumblr post, describes a moment in which he sat in Rome’s St. Peter’s Basilica, “drinking in that burning poetry” of Byron’s, adoring “that inexorable yet tender nature—pitiless yet generous.” Forbidden works that become even more sacrilegious given the setting? Welcome to the world of Dark Academia, Hector.
Byron, or at least his three-act dramatic poem, Manfred, was a tougher sell for Tchaikovsky. When Mily Balakirev presented him with an outline for a symphony inspired by the work (written by critic Vladimir Stasov), Tchaikovsky replied that it would be best suited to “a symphonist inclined to imitate Berlioz,” adding:
For some reason I imagined that your program would awaken in me a burning desire to reproduce it in music, and so I awaited your letter with great impatience. But when I received it I experienced disappointment.… It leaves me completely cold, and when the heart and imagination are not warmed, it is hardly worth setting about composition.
Still, Tchaikovsky felt compelled to make good on Balakirev’s request, though the theme of transgressive love between Manfred and his sister hit a little too close to home for the composer. At the time of the work’s composition, he was reckoning with his romantic feelings for his nephew, Vladimir “Bob” Davidov. “Occasionally I turn into something of a Manfred myself,” he told his patroness Nadezhda von Meck. “I want so much to quickly bring this to an end, and am using up all my strength… as a result of this, I am absolutely exhausted.” His feelings toward the work grew mixed over time. “It seems to me that this is the best of all my works,” he told von Meck shortly before the work’s premiere in 1886. Just two years later, he told Grand Duke Konstantin that, “without any wish to make a mere show of modesty, I would like to say that it is an abominable piece, and that I loathe it deeply.”
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Richard Wagner: Prelude to “Lohengrin” (1850)
One of the foundational texts for Dark Academia is The Secret History, Tartt’s 1992 novel about a murderous group of classics students at the fictional Hampton College (a stand-in for Tartt’s own alma mater, Vermont’s Bennington College). While the rest of the campus carries on in an unspecified time around the late ’80s/early ’90s, the six Greek students have a tendency to live in the past—one is surprised to learn, roughly 20 years later, about the moon landing. As Lili Anolik suggests in “Once Upon a Time…at Bennington College,” a history of the Bennington era that saw the beginning of Tartt’s career—alongside those of classmates Bret Easton Ellis and Jonathan Lethem—this is also slightly autobiographical. Tartt was one of the Bennington students swept up in the 1981 miniseries version of Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh’s novel rooted in (by its own description) “the atmosphere of a better age.”
Richard Wagner’s operas likewise live in the past, exalting the tales of Grail Knights and the Gods of Valhalla as stories from similar “better ages.” It would be easy to include on this playlist the Prelude to “Tristan und Isolde,” a work in love with its own misery with notes cast in capacious shadows. However, this obsession with the past sits squarely on the shoulders of his earlier work, “Lohengrin,” particularly in the singular fandom it sparked in Bavaria’s King Ludwig II.
Ludwig would have done very well at Bennington.
Clara Wieck-Schumann: “Soirées Musicales,” Op. 6, II.—“Notturno” (1836)
Skim a handful of Dark Academia playlists on YouTube or Spotify and you’ll be hard-pressed to find one that doesn’t include at least one or two nocturnes. Many of the books and films in the DA genre are centered around the dark of both nighttime and winter (“Dead Poets Society” revels in both of these elements). Nocturnes are a close musical correlation, and a conduit for a composer’s—and performer’s—most intimate and interior thoughts. The 19th-century music theorist Gottfried Wilhelm Fink described Chopin’s contributions to the genre as “reveries of a soul fluctuating from feeling to feeling in the still of the night.”
This is, as 21st-century music theorist Michael Weinstein-Reiman points out, equally applicable to the works of Clara Wieck-Schumann, whose Notturno from “Soirées Musicales” sounds like the wryly intelligent older sister to Chopin’s famed Nocturne No. 2.
Franz Schubert: “Winterreise” (1828)
Musically speaking, Schubert’s “Winterreise” is not a nocturne. But the interiority of the music—particularly in the piano lines—combined with a searching, obsessive, perhaps even pathological narration, makes it a cycle that could just as easily serve as the plot to a pretty twisted novel in the DA canon. Preferably one written by Elfriede Jelinek.
Emilie Mayer: “Erlkönig” (1870)
Schubert’s “Erlkönig” is also a natural fit for the Dark Academia genre, but even more psychologically dissonant is Emilie Mayer’s setting. Her Erlking’s serenade to the young boy sounds like the plaintive innocence of “Morgengruß” from “Die schöne Müllerin” with none of the sinister overtones added by Schubert. It makes the concluding tragedy all the more gutting—and inevitable.
Erik Satie: Gnossienne No. 1 (1893)
Satie’s biography has some hallmarks of Dark Academia: losing his mother at age six, living with a grandmother (who then mysteriously drowned), being raised by his father and much-disliked stepmother, deliberately contracting bronchitis to dodge military service and discovering the works of Flaubert during his recovery, abandoning what Robert Orledge called “the bourgeois musical aspirations of his parents” to play piano in the bars of Montmartre… Plus, Debussy described the man as “a gentle medieval musician lost in this century.”
His religious interests in the Gnostics and Rosicrucians fed the first of Satie’s gnossiennes, a series of dance-like works that have no choreographic precedent. The first is especially simple and mysterious in its melancholy, as if gingerly treading down an iced-over road; occasionally slipping, never falling.
Maurice Ravel: “Gaspard de la Nuit” (1909)
In his fiendishly-difficult piano suite, Ravel gives us the ultimate creature of the night: a devil who presides over an assemblage of the wayward and weird, from undines to goblins (he even sneaks in a reference to Goethe’s Faust). It’s hard not to fall under the work’s deeply charismatic spell, or to see it as a conduit towards some form of supernatural self-realization.
Daníel Bjarnason: “Sleep Variations” (2005)
Insomnia is a mainstay of Dark Academia, another reason that the nocturne is one of its musical styles of choice. The narrator of The Secret History describes “too many nights like this one (sour stomach, wretched nerves, clock inching tediously from four to five).” Likewise, the heroine of Special Topics refers to a three-month bout of insomnia, “not the sweet sleeplessness one has when one is in love, anxiously awaiting the morn so one can rendezvous with a lover in an illicit gazebo. No, this was the torturous, clammy kind, when one’s pillow slowly takes on the properties of a block of wood and one’s sheets, the air of the Everglades.”
Daníel Bjarnason’s “Sleep Variations” (inspired by a Margaret Atwood poem) begins in that tedious twilight, viola lines tossing and turning, gurgling with heartburn and anxiety. The fabric of time is pulled taut, to the point of becoming threadbare. Fortunately, Bjarnason ultimately offers us a drowsy, dreamy resolution.
Florence Price: “Fantasie nègre, No. 1” (1929)
As VAN contributor James Bennett II pointed out to me, Florence Price’s quartet of “Fantasies nègres” easily fits the bill for Dark Academic music. The first, in particular, with its foundation built on the spiritual “Sinner, please don’t let this harvest pass,” has a Faustian quality that plays through in a dramatic chiaroscuro.
The left hand plunges deeper into the crepuscular lower range of the piano, while the right reaches—two steps forward, one step back—towards redemption. It’s paced like a thriller, the sort you stay up all night to finish, but with phrases worth luxuriating in on endless repeat.
Philip Glass: “Orphée and the Princess” from “Orphée Suite” (2001)
Georg Philipp Telemann: “Ach tod, ach süsser Tod” from “Orpheus” (1726)
Claudio Monteverdi: “Tu sei morta” from “Orfeo” (1607)
Classical mythology is never too far out of reach in Dark Academia, and the genre’s fixation on death makes the multitude of musical iterations of the Orpheus legend a natural fit for a playlist. A winning triptych merges three distinct periods and three distinct musical voices, beginning with the piano suite for Philip Glass’s “Orphée” (an opera based on Cocteau’s dreamlike film).
Moving back a few hundred years, Telemann’s own opera tangentially touches on another DA subtheme: linguistics. While primarily written in German, several passages dip into French and Italian, taking their cosmopolitan musical cues from those styles as well. This Act I aria from Orpheus, however, revolves around just a few sparse words, drawn out by a lithe musical line:
Oh death, oh sweet death!
Oh death, where are you?
Come and end my troubles!
Oh death, oh sweet death
Come lead me to rest!
Oh death, where are you?
With so much going on musically in Telemann’s world, this most simple and profound expression of Orpheus’s grief stops traffic. It’s a similar elegance of delivery found more than a century earlier in Monteverdi’s “Orfeo.”
Ludwig van Beethoven: “Andante favori” in F Major, WoO 57 (1804)
Perhaps the most ubiquitous classical work on Dark Academia playlists is Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata No. 14, which ticks a lot of boxes: nocturnal imagery, a moody minor key, the Byronic figure of Beethoven, and the backstory of his “Immortal Beloved”—whom some posit was the dedicatee of the “Moonlight” Sonata, Julie Guicciardi.
More likely, however, Beethoven’s angel, all, and other self was Guicciardi’s cousin, Josephine Brunsvik. She’s also the dedicatee of this work, which was expunged from the original drafts of the “Waldstein” Sonata and posed as a standalone to Countess Brunsvik. Its wistful tenderness is rendered even more heartbreaking given the impossibility of their love. “Her heart must have the strength to say no,” wrote Josephine’s sister, Therese. “A sad duty.”
Gregory Spears: Requiem (2010)
It wouldn’t be Dark Academia without a Requiem (murder being another of the hallmarks of the genre). And while there are plenty of these to choose from, I’d like to suggest Gregory Spears’s comparatively recent contribution. Sung in limned and liminal tones that simultaneously call to mind Thomas Tallis and John Luther Adams, Spears’s setting of the traditional mass also weaves in old Breton texts and 16th-century French poetry with the stalwart Latin prayers, fashioning an arcadia out of the arcane. Much like a Rembrandt portrait, it’s the sort of work whose details are best observed over long stretches of time by candlelight.
Camille Saint-Saëns: “Danse macabre” (1875)
As sexy as some Dark Academia authors can make murder seem, Camille Saint-Saëns was doing the same thing 125 years earlier. ¶
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