Today the Church observes the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed, better known as All Souls’ Day. The entire month of November is dedicated to remembering, honoring, and praying for all who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith, entrusting them to God’s mercy and love.
This month of All Souls provides an opportunity to explore one of the most beautiful musical traditions in Catholicism: the sung Requiem Mass. Masses for the dead took place as early as the second century. Eventually, music became an integral part of these liturgies. By the end of the fifteenth century, composers were creating polyphonic (multi-voice) settings of the Requiem Mass texts. While some variety persisted in the texts composers chose to set, by 1880, the following had become widely normative in musical settings:
- Requiem aeternam (introit)
- Requiem aeternam (gradual)
- Absolve Domine (tract)
- Dies irae (sequence)
- Domine Jesu Christe (offertory)
- Agnus Dei
- Lux aeterna (communion antiphon)
- Requiescant in pace (final commendation)
In the Renaissance, Baroque, and Classical periods, divisions in the musical movements varied across settings, and some texts were omitted altogether. Throughout the Romantic era and the twentieth century, composers treated the Requiem Mass texts even more freely, setting them not for liturgical use but for concert performance, omitting or including texts at will—and at times choosing other sacred texts themselves—in order to express their particular spiritualities.
Musical style in Requiem settings ranges from visceral and terrifying to radiant and serene. In a compositional technique known as “text painting,” the words themselves inspire the style and tone of music employed. The Lacrimosa movement from Mozart’s Requiem is a perfect example: the text speaks of the tears that will be shed on judgment day; therefore, the string accompaniment features sighing two-note phrases, the angular choral melody sounds like an anguished cry, and the chromatic harmonies lend drama and pathos.
If you have never listened to a Requiem Mass setting, November is an ideal time to do so. Recordings are readily available through any music streaming service, and a quick internet search will usually bring up the texts a composer has set, along with a translation. Ten recommendations and brief descriptions are given below.
This immersion into the Church’s musical tradition can be more than an aesthetic experience. As you listen, ponder the texts. Consider the way the melody, harmony, rhythm, and orchestrations express those texts. Then, make your listening an intercession: offer the prayers of the Requiem Mass on behalf of a loved one, or on behalf of all the souls in purgatory.
Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May their souls and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.
Settings of the Requiem Mass texts:
- Tomas Luis de Victoria (c.1548–1611), Missa de profunctis a 6 (1605)
A sublime a capella setting; the individual voices swirl around one another and create such exquisite harmonies that one can’t help but think of heaven.
- Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791), Requiem in D Minor, K. 626 (1791)
Arguably the most famous Requiem Mass of them all, Mozart died in 1791 before completing this masterpiece. Equally terrifying and consoling, it’s a must-listen.
- Luigi Cherubini (1760–1842), Requiem in C Minor (1816)
The highly dramatic nature of Cherubini’s Requiem reflects its purpose: it was composed for the anniversary of the execution of King Louis XVI of France.
- Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901), Requiem (1874)
Not for the faint of heart, Verdi’s Requiem clocks in at nearly 90 minutes, with a musical intensity that will take any listener on an emotional journey.
- Gabriel Fauré (1845–1924), Requiem, Opus 48 (1888); Orchestral version (1900)
Fauré leaves behind the day of wrath and judgment; his tranquil Requiem Mass focuses on mercy and peace.
- Maurice Duruflé (1902–1986), Requiem, Opus 9 (1947)
Inspired by Fauré’s setting, Duruflé incorporates ancient chant melodies to stunning effect in his luminous Requiem Mass.
Settings of other texts in lieu of or in combination with proper Requiem Mass texts:
- Johannes Brahms (1833–1897), Ein Deutsches Requiem, Opus 45 (1865–1868)
Utilizing scriptural texts he chose himself, Brahms’ deeply moving work paints a triumphant picture of victory for those who die in Christ.
- Herbert Howells (1892–1983), Requiem (1932/33)
A return to purely a capella choral music, Howells sets two Requiem Mass texts, two hymn texts, and two Psalms (23 and 121).
- John Rutter (b.1945), Requiem (1985)
With five Requiem Mass texts and two Psalm settings (130 and 23), Rutter’s music moves gracefully from darkness to light.
- Morten Lauridsen (b.1943), Lux Aeterna (1997)
Like Brahms and Fauré, Lauridsen grieved through music, composing his Lux Aeterna following his mother’s death. Excerpts from the Requiem Mass bookend the five movements of this piece, whose texts focus on different scriptural references to light.
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Featured image by Willard; CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0.