The vampire made its musical début on this side of the Atlantic in a slight piece for piano solo titled “Vampire Polka” (Boston, 1850), of unknown authorship (its composer is identified as “Four Eyes”), a work undoubtedly intended for performance by amateur pianists in genteel parlors.
While vampire-related musical works appeared sporadically throughout the nineteenth century, the creature arose with renewed life at the turn of the twentieth century with the publication of the immensely popular Gothic novel Dracula (1897), by Irish writer Bram Stoker. Stoker’s novel in turn inspired German director F. W. Murnau’s film Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1921), widely considered a masterpiece of German Expressionism. American composer Aaron Copland saw Nosferatu while a young student in Paris, and was inspired to create his first large scale orchestral work, Grogh (1922-25), a ballet featuring vampire characters and even featuring on-stage coffins. While the work was soon withdrawn by the composer, and its musical material recycled into other works, Copland’s “vampire ballet” was a rather incongruous beginning for a composer who would become renowned for his quintessentially “American” musical depictions of the open prairie in the ballets Billy the Kid (1938) and Rodeo (1942).
During the first decade of the twentieth century in the United States, the predatory associations of the word “vampire” were extended to designate the personality type of the femme fatale – a seductress who willingly exploited men, and who, like the sirens of ancient legends, lured them to their doom. The term soon entered common parlance in its shortened form, “vamp.” This archetype appeared in various cultural manifestations: in film (as personified by silent film actress Theda Bara, herself nicknamed “The Vamp”), stage works (the “Lulu” plays of German playwright Frank Wedekind, which followed the rise and demise of a sexually licentious young woman), and even opera (Austrian composer Alban Berg based his provocative Lulu (1929-35) on Wedekind’s plays).
Several American popular songs were produced during this era which extolled the “vampire” – but curiously, nearly always referring to the woman-siren rather than to the supernatural being. Noted Broadway composer Jerome Kern, for example, penned a song titled “The Baby Vampire” (on lyrics of Harry B. Smith) for the musical Love O’Mike (1917), in which the title character is described as “young and fair,” with “skirts as brief as a sinner’s pray’r,”; “her face [having] the guile of the Mona Lisa’s smile”; “a juvenile sphinx, no one knows what she thinks, though you may imagine you do…” Closer to our day, the appeal of the vampire (the legendary blood-sucking one) may be illustrated by the success of the Grammy-nominated, top-ten hit song “Quentin’s Theme” (1969), composed by Robert Cobert and featured in the aforementioned television series Dark Shadows. The vampire – as subject and/or metaphor – has also reappeared in the songs of popular singer/songwriters Buffy Sainte-Marie, Neil Young and Ivan Lins.
The musical compositions mentioned above are just a few examples of the many vampire-inspired works waiting to be unearthed. The momentum of such legends in our day has not abated. The continuing popularity of film, television, and narrative depictions of vampires appears to ensure that these supernatural characters will live on, both in our imaginations and in our nightmares… eternally.