top of page

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 pi