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Music for the Dead – The Requiem

Music for Remembrance

Vinyl Record of Mozart's Requiem and Musical Keyboard
Photo Anton Shuvalov, Unsplash, Instagram: @noproxima

We've reached Fall 2020, a year that will no doubt be remembered as a year of transition and mourning. This past weekend was Halloween on Oct. 31 and All Saints Day on Nov. 1 in the United States, holidays that sprung from age old celebrations where people remember and honor the dead. Many traditional celebrations including the Celtic Samhain (Oct. 31) and the Mexican Día de Muertos or Day of the Dead (Nov. 1 and 2) occur at this time because traditionally many cultures have believed that the "veil" between the world of the living and the world of the dead "is thin" at this time. As Nov. 1 marks halfway between the Autumn Equinox and the Winter Solstice, it has also historically been a time for celebrating the harvest and recognizes that the days are quickly becoming shorter. To honor this time of year in the Perennial Blog, we are going to take a listen to some musical works from the Western tradition that were composed to honor the dearly departed, namely a select of requiems.

Traditional Día de Muertos Costume and Decoration

What Is A Requiem?

In the scene above from Miloš Forman's 1984 film Amadeus, we see Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (27 January 1756 – 5 December 1791) on his deathbed furiously instructing rival composer Antonio Salieri (18 August 1750 – 7 May 1825) as Salieri transcribes the music that Mozart hears in his mind. While the historical veracity of this scene is highly dubious (Salieri was a well-respected composer in his day), it does teach us a few things about the requiem as a type of music. (It also shows us, musicians, how important it is to exercise our musical ears by transcribing and playing by ear!)

Listening to the clip, you will hear that a Requiem is a piece of music that deals with themes of the afterlife, has Latin text which is sung by a choir, and is accompanied by orchestration and harmony that is meant to portray the meaning of the text. The requiem is a serious piece of music that is not meant to be taken lightly. Listen to how Mozart illustrates the "flames of woe" with blazing instrumentation and "call upon me with the blessed" with the women's voices singing angelic legato lines. Listen and follow the score to the entire section, Confutatis Maledictis, from the scene in the video below.

Mozart died before the work the finished and it was completed by one of his students, Austrian composer Franz Xaver Süssmayr (1766 – September 17, 1803). Now that we've listened to one section of one of the most famous requiems of all-time. Let's discuss what makes a piece of music a Requiem.

While there are formal music services to honor the dead in many traditions, the Requiem that is usually set in Western music organized with the Roman Catholic Requiem Mass, a religious service in the Roman Catholic tradition. In music, the Mass refers to the setting of the liturgy (the text) of the Eucharist (Christian communion). The traditional liturgy contains sections sung by a choir as well as sections sung by the celebrant (the priest). Until 1966, all of the text, except one section the kyrie which is in Greek, were sung in Latin. The Requiem Mass is also known as the Missa pro defunctis (Mass for the dead). It is often celebrated as part of a funeral but is also performed as in non-religious contexts as concert music as well. All of the pieces included in this post are performed as concert music.

Like the Mass, the text of the Requiem is traditionally in Latin as well. The Latin Requiem Mass contains many sections of tradition text, including:

  • Introit

  • Kyrie eleison

  • Sequence (Dies Irae, Confutatis, Lacrymosa)

  • Offertory (Domine Jesu, Hostias)

  • Sanctus

  • Agnus Dei

  • Communion (Lux æterna)

  • Pie Jesu

  • Libera Me (not part of the Mass but sung at burial)

  • In paradisum (not part of the Mass but sung at burial)

Not all composers set all of the sections when they compose a Requiem setting and others may add additional texts, especially when the Requiem is composed as concert music as we will see. To read the Latin text, along with English translations, click here.

Early History

As we saw in the previous post, Orchestration Basics – Choir – Voices Types, choral music, as well as Western art music in genral, is the descendant of plainchant (Gregorian chant) music. The earliest settings of the Requiem were plainchant. While the composers of these chants are largely unknown today, the Latin text that is still set by composers today originated with this unaccompanied chants. The video above contains a selection from a plainchant performance of the Requiem aeternam or Prayer for Eternal Rest from the Introit. Listen to the flowing singing and follow along in the score written in neumes (medieval notes).

Belgian Renaissance composer Johannes Ockeghem (c. 1410 – 1497) composed the oldest still-known notated polyphonic Requiem Mass, Missa pro Defunctis. Possible dates for compostion range between about 1461 to 1483. Ockeghem's Requiem is considered an incomplete setting as it does not include Sanctus, Communion, or Agnus Dei, but it may have contained more sections that are now lost. The Requiem is unique in that the movements vary in style. It is unclear if the work was composed to a specific event or in honor of a specific person. It may have been composed for the funeral of Charles VII of France in 1461; an alternative hypothesis is that it was written after the death of Louis XI of France in 1483. Listen to a performance of the Introit in the video above and follow along with the text. Notice how Ockeghem uses long melismas, a group of notes sung to one syllable of text, along with flowing vocal lines similar to that of the plainchant example while introducing different types of motion between the voices as well as harmonies.

The Requiem As Art

Some composers choose to set the Requiem in a language other than English. Romantic German composer Johannes Brahms (7 May 1833 – 3 April 1897) composed a Requiem that was not liturgical but was still sacred, A German Requiem, to Words of the Holy Scriptures, Op. 45 (Ein deutsches Requiem, nach Worten der heiligen Schrift). The work is Brahm's longest consisting of seven movements and lasting about 75 minutes. It is large-scale work for mixed chorus, orchestra, and soprano and baritones soloists. It was composed between 1865 and 1868.

Brahms assembled the libretto, the text of a long vocal work, himself. Rather than use the Latin Mass text, he choose to draw text from the German Luther Bible. As an agnostic, the texts he chose reflected a positive humanist worldview rather than a religious one. He choose biblical texts such as the Beatitudes that focus on how to live, rather than on those the reflect on death. He may have been inspired to write a Requiem either by the death of his mother in 1865 or by the death his mentor Robert Schumann (8 June 1810 – 29 July 1856). The work was deeply personal for Brahms and shows how composers can take a tradition genre of music, the Requiem, and create a work that is reflection of themselves. Listen to the first section with text from the Beatitudes, Selig sind die da Leid tragen (Blessed are those who suffer), notice how the Brahms shifts the focus between the instruments and the voices, creating a lush texture.

Italian Romantic composer Giuseppe Verdi (9 or 10 October, 1813 – 27 January 1927) wrote his Messa da Requiem (1874) to celebrate the life of Italian poet and novelist Alessandro Manzoni whom Verdi admired. It is a huge work, written for orchestra; soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor, and bass soloists; and double choir. Although Verdi wrote it using the Liturgical text, the work was considered too "operatic" for church use. Verdi wrote it to be performed by women and men singers. At the time, female musicians were not allowed in a ritual setting. With the above video, listen to the dramatic Dies Irae (the Day of Wrath) and notice how Verdi uses orchestral stabs and swirls along with descending lines and dotted rhythms to create a piece of music that illustrates the world being burnt by flames and the trembling fear of those about to be judged.

The Requiem On Screen

Rather than compose a full Requiem Mass some composers will chose to set portions of ir or to write music that is inspired by the literary theme of the traditional liturgy. Hungarian-Austrian composer, György Ligeti (8 May 1923 – 12 June 2006) took this approach when we composed his four section version of the Requiem between 1963 to 1965 and then his free-standing Lux Aeterna in 1966 . Originally, he had intended to write an entire setting of the Latin Requiem Mass but decided that he only needed that Introitus, Kyrie, Dies Irae, and the Lacrymosa were needed to fit the structure of the piece he intended to create. The final work for orchestra, a polyphonic choir sining in 20 different parts, celesta, and harpsichord. While the Lux Aeterna is an a cappella work for choir singing in 16 different parts. Watch the performance of Lux Aeterna in the video above and listen to how the voices singing in very close intervals in a staggered polyphony creates an ambient texture that slowly opens up as the width between them increases to create the effect of ever-brightening light. Director Stanley Kubrick (July 26, 1928 – March 7, 1999) chose to use the Kyrie from Requiem and Lux Aeterna to create an other-worldly atmosphere as part of the score to his 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey.

While Ligeti's Kyrie and Lux Aeterna and Mozart's Confutatis were chosen by filmmakers to appear as part of their films' scores, the idea of the "Requiem" has been used an inspiration for other types of art as well. American author, Hubert Selby, Jr. (July 23, 1928 – April 26, 2004) used the idea of a "requiem" for his 1978 novel, Requiem for a Dream. The novel tells the stories of four New Yorkers struggling with addictions. Written in a frantic stream of consciousness style, the Requiem in this case is for the lost American dream. American filmmaker Darren Aronofsky (b. February 12, 1969) turned this tragic novel into the 2000 film. When composing the theme, English musician Clint Mansell (b. 7 January 1963) took inspiration from musical Requiems and created his free-standing Lux Aeterna

for piano, drums, orchestra, and choir singing vocalizations rather than the traditional text.

Watch the MIDI score above to see how Mansell created his musical structure. Then watch the orchestra and choir performance below to hear to how Mansell uses widening intervals, similar to Ligeti, to create little musical shimmers of light against an ominous minor harmony and repetitive piano ostinatos and a driving drum beat. The singers seem to plead for a darkened sky to open up and let the sun shine. The Lux Aeterna theme appears and reappears through the film in many forms, offering small glimpses of light in a very dark story. This piece proved so effective at creating drama that versions of it have been used in the trailers for other films, most famously TheTwo Towers (2002), as well as other scores.

The Contemporary Requiem

Photo Shalone Cason, Unsplash
Photo Shalone Cason, Unsplash

While the Requiem Mass has been used as a traditional ritual to honor the dead as well as a backdrop of personal artistic expression, it is a larger classical form that has inspired some of the most significant works of many composers careers. Starting with Brahms' in the 19th century and spanning until today in the 21st century, there are no limits to how a composer may choose to use the Requiem's text, mood, or meaning to express themselves. Below I have include some more recent Requiems from a diverse range of composers.

German composer Hans Werner Henze (1 July 1926 – 27 October 2012) composed Das Floß der Medusa (The Raft of the Medusa) as a Requiem in honor of left-wing revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara (4 June 1928 – 9 October 1967). The works gets its name from a translation of the name painting by French artist Théodore Géricault (26 September 1791 – 26 January 1824) Le Radeau de la Méduse (1818 - 1819). Rather than a setting of the traditional religious Requiem, Henze composed a secular oratorio with German language text by German writer and radio documentary pioneer Ernst Schnabel (September 26, 1913 – January 25, 1986), along with Italian text from Dante Alighieri's (c. 1265 – 1321) Divine Comedy. The work calls for orchestra, soprano soloist as "Death", a baritone soloist, a narrator, a chorus of the living and a chorus of the dead, as well as a children's choir.

The story in about a shipwreck in which many people where left to die and was meant to be a metaphor for the treatment of poor and working people. At the premier an image of Guevera was hung along with the red Communist and back Anarchist flags. When police removed them, it stirred up political unrest that lead to the cancellation of its premiere. Recordings of its rehearsals were later broadcast on the radio. It finally premiered in Vienna in 1971 and Henze created a new version of the work in 1990. Watch the trailer for a Dutch performance of the work above and see how theater, video, choir, orchestra, and ballet come together to create a Requiem that comes alive.. This work shows how the Requiem can be used as a relevant reflection on current events, as well as an event meant to honor a deceased person.

Another non-Christian Requiem take on the Requiem is Requiem Ebraico (Hebrew Requiem), 92nd Psalm by Austrian-born American composer Eric Zeisl (May 18, 1905 – February 18, 1959). The work was composed in 1944 and 1945 towards the end of World War II as a setting of Psalm 92 (Tov l’hodot,from the kabbalat shabbat service) for an interfaith service held in Hollywood, CA. However, the piece evolved into about 20-minute long, one movement concert work for soprano, contralto, and baritone solos, chorus, organ, and a large symphony orchestra.

Zeisl wrote the work upon learning that his father and other relatives had been murdered by the Germans and their collaborators in a Nazi death camp. The piece is based on a simple, folk-like melody this in extended and turned into a fugue. About the piece, Zeisl wrote to his publisher, who was at-first reluctant to publish the work, "I wrote this piece dedicated to the memory of my loving father and the other countless victims of the Jewish tragedy in Europe. . . . [W]ith a heart full of tears [Jews] hold on to God and do not cease to thank Him and do not cease to hope. This is the message and the consolation which I found in the 92nd Psalm. . . I conceived the work as a requiem and it was generally accepted and liked that way. The Jews need a requiem, so let's try to give it to them. . . I wrote it from my heart and therefore it will find its way to their hearts." Listen to the section in the video above and observe how Zeisl uses a singable melody and rich harmonies to create a solemn musical remembrance.

German-born American composer Paul Hindemith (16 November 1895 – 28 December 1963) was commissioned by choral conductor Robert Shaw (30 April 1916 – 25 January 1999) to compose When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd: A Requiem for those we love in 1945 in remembrance of Present Franklin D. Roosevelt (January 30, 1882 – April 12, 1945). The piece premiered on May 14, 1946 at New York City Center. The work calls for mezzo-sopranos, baritone soloists, mixed chorus, full orchestra, and off-stage bugle. The text is based on English language poem by the same name by American poet Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819 – March 26, 1892). After an instrumental introduction the piece has 11 movements. A performance lasts about an hour.

French-Lebanese composer Rami Khalifé (b. 25 September 1981), inspired by the Arab Spring, Requiem for Beirut (2013). The work is for piano, soloists, choir, and full orchestra, along with an extra large percussion section. Watch the performance above with Khalifé on piano and listen to how he combined elements of Western classical music, popular music, and Lebanese traditional music to honor the people of the city of Beirut.

American folk musician, Eliza Gilkyson (b. 24 August 1950) composed her song "Requiem" in honor of the over 260,000 victims of the December 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and resulting tsunami. Gilkyson's original lyrics are inspired by the Catholic Ave Maria rather than a text from the traditional Requiem Mass. The piece extensively uses a singable melody paired with suspended harmonies to set a meditative mood. Watch a moving performance of to the work in the above video, arranged for choir and piano by conductor Craig Hella Johnson.

Concluding Thoughts

Now that we've heard some various examples of Requiems, how would you define a Requiem? Do you feel that the sacred or secular, ritual or concert takes on it have their place. Why or why not? How would you compose a Requiem? What inspiration would you take from the original medieval text, if any?


Like what you read in the Perennial Blog? This blog, while a labor of love, takes considerable time and research to keep it going. Consider supporting the content via Patreon. I appreciate you taking the time to explore the world of music and arts with me. Contact me via email with your questions or to schedule online lessons.


Further Reading

Gutman, Peter. Verdi's Requiem. (Accessed 2 November 2020).

Makalintal, Bettina. How the 'Requiem for a Dream' Song Became the Default Sound of Epic Drama. Vice. (Accessed 2 November 2020).

Oestreich, James R. How Brahms’s ‘A German Requiem’ Became an Anthem for Our Time. The New York Times. (Accessed 2 November 2020).

Requiem Survey. (Accessed 2 November 2020).

A TIMELESS REQUIEM. A Timeless Requiem.


Janae J. Almen is a professional music instructor, composer, sound artist, and writer. She has a BA in Music/Education from Judson University and a MM in Computer Music/Composition from the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University. She is the founder of Perennial Music and Arts and is passionate about sharing her love of music and arts.



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