23 March 2011


Today I want to talk about Requiems. They used to be my most-hated classical genre, I didn't get the attraction, they just made me nervous. But then I realised that really, requiems are pretty much the most badass thing in the world. They're the perfect excuse for a composer to write REALLY LOUD things because you can't go "Oh no, day of wrath!" quietly, right?

Requiems are an interesting medium anyway, because they generally have the same structure. They can have the Introit (Requiem Aeternam), Kyrie, Gradual, Tract, Sequence (Dies Irae), Offertory, Sanctus, Agnus Dei, Communion, Pie Jesu, Libera Me and In Paradisum. All these sections have set lyrics, from Latin church texts (apart from the Kyrie which is in Greek), used in Mass. There's some obvious exceptions to this though, Brahms' Ein deutsches Requiem was the first requiem set in vernacular (in this case, German) text, and is still one of the few. Britten's War Requiem not only uses the Latin texts, but also poems by Wilfred Owen.

Now, because there's quite a few versions of the Dies Irae I'm posting here, it might be worthwhile explaining a bit more about that piece in particular. The Dies Irae is quite a late hymn, it was written in the 13th century, probably by Thomas of Celano and it describes the day of judgment. It's actually no longer a part of the Roman Rite Mass, because apparently it's too dark and medieval. They might have a point though, the opening words are "Dies irae! Dies illa, solvet saeclum in favilla" which means "The day of wrath! that day will dissolve the world in ashes". Needless to say, these words have inspired a lot of music.

1. Camille Saint-Saëns, the Dies Irae from his Requiem (written in 1878). I never liked organs before I heard this requiem, maybe because I imagine that Saint-Saëns finished writing his requiem and thought "OH CRAP, I FOROT THE ORGAN" so added in a few random chords really loudly so no one else could possibly forget about organs. I like the random chords though, and it's a beautiful piece of music. I listen to it a lot to calm me down and cheer me up (I know requiems shouldn't be cheerful, but c'mon the organ's pretty hilarious!).

2. Giuseppe Verdi, the Dies Irae from his Requiem (1874). BAM BAM BAM BAM! If I was a zombie, this would definitely be my preferred 'here-I-am-I'm-gonna-eat-everyone' music.

3. György Ligeti's Requiem (1963-65) (this is part 2 out of 3, this requiem does not have the same structure the others do). Now this is something else, this requiem is actually not loud at all but it is without a doubt the creepiest thing I've ever heard in my entire life. There's a minimal amount of instruments used, it's mostly voices doing creepy things like screaming and ehm, being creepy. I don't know how else to describe it, I find it an incredibly beautiful but deeply disturbing piece of music. Essential listening.

4. Antonín Dvořák, the Dies Irae from his Requiem (1890). I kind of fear that all these Dies Irae's will sound alike to you, but I hope they won't. Dvorak's requiem is probably the one I listen to most, I find it incredibly comforting and powerful, sort of a friendly kick in the behind.

5. Benjamin Britten's second part of Libera Me, from his War Requiem (1961/62). Britten is one of those composers who I really want to learn more about and hear more by. This War Requiem is an exceptional piece of music, it's almost painfully moving.

6. The Dies Irae from Hector Berlioz's Grande Messe des Morts (1837). I really want to see this live someday because I imagine it'll be the loudest thing in the world, it's scored for a massive orchestra and usually performed with a choir of about 400. Here's a video of a performance at the BBC Proms with Sir Colin Davies, look at how massive the choir is and how many percussionists there are! Of course the music is amazing and actually very moving as well, not just loud, but I do like to emphasize loudness because I consider it a very good thing.

Because a lot of these requiems (except those by Ligeti and Saint-Saëns) are around 90 minutes, which is rather long, I've only posted relatively short pieces of each. If you like what you hear (and keep in mind, I do tend to post the loudest bits, so if it's a bit too much, don't discount requiems straight away) please please check out the rest of these pieces, you can find pretty much anything on youtube. And if you're really intereseting, some other requiems to listen to are Brahms' German Requiem, Fauré's Requiem and Rossini's Petite Messe Solemnelle (not officially a requiem, but it sort of is). Also, some of you might like Mozart's effort, but that's the only requiem that just doesn't sound right to me.. it's almost good, but not quite.

Hope you enjoy!


  1. Thanks a lot for the post! I'm just listening to Ligeti's Requiem and I'm astohished. What do you think of it?

  2. Oh, and bye the way, I also study philosphy. It's good to see that we're not totally alone. Congrats for the blog.

  3. Yay for fellow philosophy students :).

    I absolutely LOVE Ligeti's requiem so so much. I was kind of terrified of it at first, because it's so bleak and a bit scary, but I think it's absolutely beautiful. It is one of those pieces that I really have to be in the mood for, however, because if I listen to it when I'm already sad it'll just make things worse. How do you feel about it?

  4. Well, puzzled, I suppose. It is scary. I had listened to Mozart's and Brahm's, but Ligeti's was really different, "unexpected" and depressing, so to speak. I liked it, but I'll have to listen to it again --in the mood, of course. I'm afraid I'm not an expert, though... I've got Faure's, so I'll listen to it, and tell you what I think.

  5. I liked this post a lot. It was a nice idea to introduce us to a genre rather than a composer :)
    I enjoyed listening to the various interpretations of requiems by various composers.

    What I liked best though is that for the first time I felt like I didn't need to focus on the voices or the music. It felt like voices and music where a whole and I had no trouble to focus on both. I don't know if it's because of the way the music and the voices were used in those requiems, or if it's because I'm getting more used to the hearing both at the same time... but it was really nice and made the listening easier and more enjoyable :D

  6. Ooh I'm so glad you enjoyed it! Do you think maybe it makes a difference that it's mostly choirs as opposed to individual singers?

  7. It probably does make a difference as there is less of an emerging voice. So the voices end up sounding more like an instrument to me and less like a lot of single voices.

  8. Do you know 'Messa per Rossini' with a great Dies Irae of Bazinni? A while ago it was on Youtube...



  9. Hey Jan-Peter,

    I do know that work, yeah! Am not too familiar with it but have listened to it a few times, I find it really fascinating because so many different composers were involved.