Its title taken from the opening phrase ‘Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine’ (‘Give them eternal rest, Lord’), a Requiem is, traditionally, a mass for the dead. Its Latin texts (plus the Kyrie, which is Ancient Greek) have been set by many composers over the centuries, often inspiring them to heights of extraordinary genius. Quite which words you get in a Requiem, however, depends on the composer – though most set the core of the Latin mass, some choose to add other texts, leave parts out or, in Brahms’s case, set different words entirely.


There are so many exceptional settings of the Requiem that picking out six is a near-impossible task. Here, though, are half-a-dozen to begin with. Watch this space for more to follow in the future…

The best requiems of all time

Mozart’s Requiem in D minor

Few works have attracted quite the same level of intrigue and controversy as Mozart’s 1791 Requiem, not least the popular narrative that it was commissioned in the dead of night by a mystery stranger. Though the real story is a little more prosaic – it was commissioned by Count Franz von Walsegg, who probably wanted to pass it off as his own work – the piece itself is one of peerless beauty, power and pathos. Not all of it, however, is by Mozart, as he died midway through its composition, leaving some movements complete, some in sketch form and some untouched, with the job then being finished by Franz Xaver Süssmayr. At the emotional heart of this exceptional work is its most poignant movement, the Lacrimosa, of which Mozart wrote eight bars before breathing his last.

Verdi’s Requiem

Written in memory of the novelist Alessandro Manzoni, whose death in 1873 affected him greatly, Verdi’s Requiem is arguably the most dramatic of them all – the influential pianist and conductor Hans von Bulow went as far as to describe it as ‘Verdi’s latest opera, though in ecclesiastical robes’. Scored for soloists, choir and a large orchestra, it is performed more often on the concert stage than in a church today, and is a work of blood and thunder, doom and gloom – Verdi had little time for visions of heavenly repose. The most famous moment, complete with pounding bass drum, is the hair-raising Dies Irae, though thanks to Take That, millions of pop listeners have also become familiar with the trumpet fanfares at the opening of the following Tuba Mirum.

Fauré’s Requiem in D minor

In marked contrast to Verdi’s Requiem is Fauré’s benign work of 1888, initially written for soloists, six-part choir and chamber-sized orchestra with organ but later adapted by the composer for larger orchestral forces. As befits a Requiem that Fauré apparently wrote for his own pleasure rather than to mark any particular occasion, the work’s seven movements largely have an air of serenity and acceptance of death – even the ominous D minor opening to the Introit soon dissolves into a softer major key and, significantly, there is no Dies Irae either. Fauré’s Requiem is rounded off by the sublime In Paradisum in which, accompanied by strings and a rippling organ, the voices lift us into a world of perpetual peace.

Brahms’s A German Requiem

Here’s a Requiem with a difference. As the name implies, Brahms’s A German Requiem does not set the traditional Latin mass, but instead uses texts from the German Luther Bible. With the exception of the distinctive, disturbing funeral march of the second movement ‘Denn alles Fleisch es ist wie Gras’ (For all flesh, it is as grass), the mood here is again one that looks more towards the bliss of the afterlife than the misery of getting there – particularly so in the fourth movement ‘Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen’ (How lovely are thy dwellings). Written for soprano and baritone soloists, choir and orchestra, Brahms’s Requiem was a hit at its 1869 premiere in Leipzig and has rightfully remained a favourite ever since.

Britten’s War Requiem

‘Well, the idea was good,’ was the downcast Britten’s own damning verdict on his War Requiem after its premiere at the new Coventry Cathedral in May 1962. Posterity has treated it much more kindly than that, recognising Britten’s genius for what it is. The War Requiem is a huge affair, lasting around 90 minutes and scored for three soloists, chorus, boys’ choir, organ and double orchestra – though Britten’s original ambition for those three soloists at the premiere to consist of one British, German and Russian singer each were scuppered by the Soviets, who would not allow Galina Vishnevskaya to travel. Part of Britten’s brilliance in the War Requiem lies in his decision to intersperse the Latin mass with texts by the World War I poet Wilfred Owen, and for all the work’s awe-inspiring scale, it is the pathos of these more intimate passages that make the work uniquely moving.


Victoria’s Officium Defunctorum (Requiem) 1605

Though not as widely known as the other requiems on this list, Tomás Luis de Victoria’s unaccompanied work from 1605 more than holds its own in their company. Born in around 1548, the Spanish composer honed his craft in Rome before returning to his home country to spend the last 24 years of his life at the service of Monasterio de las Descalzas de St Clara in Madrid, initially in the service of the Dowager Empress Maria, sister of Philip II. It was following Maria’s death in 1603 that Victoria wrote what has become widely accepted as one of the choral masterpieces of the Renaissance, its brilliantly crafted six parts slowly interweaving and arcing, filling the building with a truly celestial sound.


Jeremy PoundDeputy Editor, BBC Music Magazine

Jeremy Pound is currently BBC Music Magazine’s Deputy Editor, a role he has held since 2004. Before that, he was the features editor of Classic CD magazine, and has written for a colourful array of publications ranging from Music Teacher to History Revealed, Total Football and Environment Action; in 2018, he edited and co-wrote The King’s Singers: Gold 50th anniversary book.