The melody of the dies irae or ‘day of wrath’ is possibly as old as the 6th century. The tune was traditionally set to a Latin poem, describing judgement day – a trumpet call summons all souls to God’s divine judgement of salvation or damnation. This dark, historic melody has captured the imagination of many composers since then. Take a listen to the Dies Irae playlist, only on Primephonic.
Liszt – Totentanz: Paraphrase on “Dies Irae”
Piano virtuoso, romantic poster-boy and death-obsessive Franz Liszt based his "Totentanz" entirely on the dies irae. The piece opens with a few spiky, strident piano chords followed by the dies irae at terrifying volume in the brass. From there, see if you can spot all the different ways the tune appears throughout (hint – it’s a lot.)
Haydn – Symphony No. 103 "Drumroll"
Haydn’s penultimate symphony may take its nickname from the ominous timpano roll which begins the work, but the next thing we hear is the dies irae… or at least, the first four notes of it. Whether this is merely coincidence or an actual quotation is often debated, but in my view things rarely happen by accident when it comes to a composer as inventive and witty as Haydn. If you hear something in his music, he probably wanted you to hear it.
Holst – The Planets, "Saturn, Bringer of Old Age"
Holst does a marvellous job of disguising the dies irae in a few different ways in this movement from The Planets. It’s often hard to hear because it’s either been broken up into smaller cell components, adapted slightly to fit his harmony or both, but this seems to add to the menace of the tune – ever present, always felt, but never explicitly heard.
Brahms – Six Piano Pieces Op. 118: No. 6, Intermezzo in E flat minor
Late Brahms at its best. This suite of six piano pieces – one of the last works Brahms completed – has a sense of darkness and introspection about it, so it maybe isn’t too surprising that the final piece in the set has the dies irae running right through it.
Gounod – Faust
Thanks to the many composers who have been drawn to the story of Faust, the devil really does get all the best tunes. In Gounod’s version, this includes the dies irae, as Mephistopheles foretells Marguerite’s doom in the fourth act complete with organ and choir.
Berlioz – Symphonie Fantastique
As the fourth movement of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique ends with the protagonist’s head being chopped off, it stands to reason (at least in Berlioz’s mind) that the fifth movement should be a psychedelic, grotesque depiction of the afterlife. A few minutes in, the whole orchestra stops, sinister bells chime, and two tubas cry out the dies irae, then picked up by the rest of the orchestra. Music doesn’t get more spine chilling than this!
Rachmaninov –Symphonic Dances
It’s difficult to pick just one Rachmaninov piece featuring the dies irae: he was seemingly obsessed with it, and included it in many of his pieces. But perhaps nothing beats the final movement of the magnificent “Symphonic Dances”, where the theme is passed all around the orchestra in different shapes and iterations.
Myaskovsky – Symphony No. 6
Myaskovsky in his day was as well known as Shostakovich and Prokofiev, yet for some reason his work remains undiscovered to many people today. In the 6th of his 27 symphonies, the dies irae appears several times in the last movement, reflecting the dark, melancholic feeling of the piece. Read more in this great programme note from the American Symphony Orchestra.
Mussorgsky –Songs & Dances of Death, No. 3 "Trepak"
This set of songs is as cheerful as the title implies. The third song describes a drunken peasant getting caught in a snow storm. As he freezes to death, he has a vision of the grim reaper himself inviting him to dance the folk dance "Trepak" with him, to the tune of the dies irae.
Shostakovich – Aphorisms, No. 7 "Danse Macabre"
Shostakovich's "Aphorisms" are a small collection of short piano piece composed in 1927, and they feature a remarkably frantic "Danse Macabre" – a whirlwind rush of notes and motifs, one of which is the dies irae, fully stated. Blink and you'll miss it.
Stephen Sondheim – Sweeney Todd
Sondheim is a master of mood, and in the opening number of Sweeney Todd he uses the dies irae to great effect to set the tone of his darkly comic masterpiece. You can hear it creeping in the string harmonics and high woodwinds, before the brass and chorus bellow it in abbreviation to the words "Swing your razor wide, Sweeney! Hold it to the skies!"
Gottfried Huppertz – Metropolis
Gottfried Huppertz, the composer of the score for the cult classic film Metropolis was instrumental in the successful restoration of the film in 2010. His meticulous notes on the parts and score helped piece together various lost chunks of the movie, and the dies irae appears throughout his colourful score, as demonstrated here in the interlude titled simply, "Death".
Image: Detail from "The Garden of Earthly Delights" by Hieronymus Bosch