What is a Requiem in music?

The Requiem: Our quick guide to the musical settings of the mass for the dead

requiem

A Requiem is a Catholic mass for the dead. But to be more specific, it’s the Tridentine version of the votive Mass for the dead of the Roman rite, which begins with the words ‘Requiem aeternam dona eis Domine’.

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Basically, the Requiem is a liturgy for use at funerals and memorial services that over the centuries countless composers have set to music in a variety of ways. As a Catholic Mass, protestant composers such as Bach or Mendelssohn stayed away, although there are exceptions, as you’ll see below.

The earliest surviving example is a rather sober 15th-century setting by Johannes Ockeghem, but the most famous examples bring out the best in their composers. Mozart’s Requiem (1791) was the last piece he wrote, and although unfinished at the time of his death (whereupon it was completed by Franz Xaver Süssmayer and Joseph Eybler), it contains some of Mozart’s most rapturous and poignant music.

For sheer drama, look no further than Cherubini (the one in C minor from 1834), Verdi (1874) or Berlioz (the Grande Messe des morts, 1837), all three of whom bring an operatic flavour to the mass. Verdi’s thunderous Dies Irae is perhaps the best-known passage from any of his non-operatic works. By the 19th century, the Requiem had become all but a concert work, with texts altered and reordered at the composer’s whim.

Removing various parts of the mass didn’t stop both Duruflé’s (1948) and Fauré’s (1890) being recognised as bona fide masterpieces. Neither of these French composers set the Dies Irae, preferring a rather more benign view of paradise. But both feature music of exquisite delicateness and beauty, Duruflé’s drawing beautifully on ancient plainchant while Fauré’s is as melodically inspired as any French choral work of the late 19th century.

Brahms’s A German Requiem (1868) is a famous non-Catholic Requiem – this is where things get complicated. But in short, Brahms’s epic masterpiece is a non-liturgical work setting sacred texts, including passages from the Lutheran Bible, assembled by the composer himself. John Rutter took a similar path in his own Requiem (1985), adding Bible passages and psalms to the basic Latin Requiem mass.

There are examples, too, of Requiems written purely as concert works. Britten’s War Requiem (1961) juxtaposes settings of poetry by Wilfred Owen with parts of the Requiem Mass as a commentary on the horrors of war, and was first performed in the newly-built cathedral in Coventry, a city that had been levelled by aerial bombing during the Second World War. In a similar vein, Penderecki’s Polish Requiem (1984, revised 1993 and 2005) is dedicated to heroes of Polish history and blends the traditional Requiem liturgy with Polish translations of texts from the Orthodox church.

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