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Pop Culture Keeps Resurrecting This Deathly Gregorian Chant


November, as nature declines to the starkness and death of winter, is traditionally commemorated as the month of the “poor souls” by the Catholic Church. For 29 days, the church prays with special emphasis for the departed who have not yet attained the bliss of Heaven.

On November 2, the Feast of All Souls, a priest would traditionally say, and the faithful all attend, three Masses, hearing the Latin “Dies Irae” sequence (a special, poetic form of prayer) each time. Dies irae, dies illa / solvet sæclum in favilla: “Day of wrath, dreadful day / where heaven and earth in ashes lay…” But use of the sequence was not limited to that day, much less that month. Rather, it could be heard year-round in every funeral Mass.

Out of this Gregorian chant born in the 1200s grew a musical death stamp, employed across the gamut of musical forms from powerful symphonies to video game soundtracks. Thomas of Celano, who is popularly credited as the source of the text, could little have expected his composition would be better recognized in the twenty-first century from its appearances in “Halo” and “Sweeny Todd,” or even a shoe advertisement, than the place it resided for most of a millennium: the Roman Catholic funeral Mass.

A Frenchman named Hector Berlioz with an addiction for the overly dramatic is largely responsible for the former; a church afraid of inspiring fear is sadly responsible for the latter. (Of the many changes coming out of the Second Vatican Council, the “Dies Irae” sequence was removed from the funeral Mass because it had too “terrifying” of a message.) In a world where classical music laments its own demise, it is almost ironic that the theme whose life it guaranteed is now the musical spelling for imminent destruction and death.

A Gentle Tune of Doom

All things considered, it is not shocking a tune so old remains so popular. With Hollywood spewing endless CGI-drenched end-of-the-world scenarios that movie-goers eagerly lap up, the drama of the “Dies Irae’s” opening text is not all that scary or foreign.

A day of wrath, with the world disintegrating into ash? Scenes from more than a dozen action movies describe that scenario. Someone about to decide the fate of the entire world? Pick a supervillain (or hero). The sequence was intended to remind the listener of epic endings, final judgment, and possible damnation, to encourage living a good life and avoiding sin, a task it filled ably for centuries. But now, it paints a picture only as real and as inevitable as the latest Avengers megabattle.

Sung in the traditional Gregorian chant, especially in the context of a funeral Mass celebrated in its centuries-old Latin form, the aural effect is far different than what the opening notes assume. The tune falls and rises in calm waves. The thunder of the opening words, never echoed in the melody, subsides into a sorrowful but hopeful plea for mercy, closing with a prayer for eternal rest. The tenor of the entire Mass is one of sorrow, yes, but a sorrow tempered by hope and peace.

How, then, did the “Dies Irae” become the doom tune of the TV world? As new choral and symphonic settings of the Requiem Mass became popular, the text of the sequence inevitably called for dramatic settings. Mozart’s opening for his “Dies Irae,” inscribed on the score gracing his monument in Vienna’s Zentralfriedhof, on through the trombone’s plaint in the stanza Tuba mirum and the powerful Rex tremendae, remain awe-inspiring to this day. Verdi’s “Requiem” took the “Dies Irae” in a frenetic, thunderous direction.

Others, such as Gabriel Fauré and Maurice Duruflé, refrained from including the “Dies Irae” in their “Requiems,” keeping the religious purpose of the text superior to the drama it could invite. But these settings all remained within the context of a Mass, and while they employed the text, they did not utilize the melody we still know.

From Tragic Hope to Deathly Despair

Berlioz is perhaps single-handedly responsible for the change. His “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath” from the “Symphonie Fantastique” (1830) tore the “Dies Irae” from the funeral Mass, interspersing and finally combining it with the dance theme of the witches’ diabolical funerary orgy. Numerous composers soon followed his lead, and the “Dies Irae” became a freestanding symbol of death and despair.

It also inspired creativity. It features in Franz Lizst’s “Totentanz” (“Dance of the Dead”) (1849) and “Mephisto Waltz” (1859-62), both of which formed the base of the score for Ben Stevenson’s popular ballet “Dracula.” It lilts through Camille Saint-Saens’ “Danse Macabre” (1874), where skeletons rise from their graves on Halloween and dance while Death plays the fiddle.

Sergei Rachmaninoff seemingly loved the tune, and was not content to use it merely where a composition’s title spoke of funerary topics. Not only does it feature in his symphonic poem “Isle of the Dead” (1908), it also appears in his wildly popular “Variations on a Theme of Paganini” (1934), as well as in each of his three symphonies (1895, 1906-07, 1935-36), his choral symphony “The Bells” (1913) (using the poem of the same name by Edgar Alan Poe), and his “Symphonic Dances” (1940).

A somewhat lighter-hearted treatment can be found in Michael Daugherty’s “Dead Elvis” (1993). Other examples abound.

‘Dies Irae’ Enters Film

The “Dies Irae’s” first famous film credit came in “Citizen Kane” (1941), via direct quotes at critical moments and heavily influencing the primary theme. (Bernard Herrmann, the composer, was purportedly much inspired by Rachmaninoff’s “Isle of the Dead” in creating the movie’s score.) Oft-noted cameos are present in cult classics such as “The Exorcist” (1973) and “Poltergeist” (1982). It introduces Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” (1980), immediately setting the tenor of the film.

Neil Lerner, in his book “Music in the Horror Film: Listening to Fear,” dubbed this use of the theme “one of the most blatant imaginable instances of music’s power to act as independent generic signature.” (When Kubrick was looking for a theme to signify death while the film was in pre-production, composer Wendy Carlos suggested the “Dies Irae”; the director was so enthralled that he reportedly listened to it over a hundred times and insisted on its use.)

Film composers employ the theme both as a subtle hint and a dramatic foretelling, sometimes unconnected to any religious undertone, and at others expressly because of it. In Alfred Hitchcock’s “I Confess” (1953), the theme follows the murderer from crime scene to confessional, signifying both the death of the human victim and the death of the killer’s soul.

In a twist, instead of indicating what is to come, the “Dies Irae” acts as a sort of commentary on what has happened. Often echoing this narrative usage, vampires in film have an affinity for the tune, inspired by their status as living dead as well as their darkly ritualistic propensities. The “Dies Irae” surfaces in “The Return of Dracula” (1958), Francis Ford Coppola’s “Dracula” (1992), where it accompanies the count as he thwarts Lucy’s Christian baptism with one of blood, and even in episodes of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (1997-2003).

Losing the Meaning of Death

While many of the movies and TV shows in which it appears trend to the darkly dramatic and horror genres—making the tune an October fixture despite its November ties—it is also used in action or other, friendlier films such as “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946). Unlike in “The Shining,” it is not always woven into one of the major themes of the work and frequently is too briefly noted to serve as commentary: the most common current use may be a single four-note (less often, eight-note) statement-of-impending-death in episodes of crime series like “Law and Order” or “Bones.”

Once the ‘Dies Irae’ was removed from everyday life, it was demoted from a shared language to a semi-exclusive dialect.

Up through the 1960s, composers employed the tune in film scores because many, if not most, viewers recognized the various secular and religious layers of meaning through at least vague familiarity with the Requiem Mass. Decades after the sequence was relegated to the annals of history, the theme’s significance lives on, nurtured by composers steeped in the classical canon, eager to mix the old with the new, the familiar with the foreign. But once the “Dies Irae” was removed from everyday life, it was demoted from a shared language to a semi-exclusive dialect, and modern listeners now hear it as a familiar unknown—understanding the general indication of doom yet senseless to its nuances.

Its thematic use having grown out of the classical canon, one might suppose that the “Dies Irae” only resurfaces in movies scored by modern classical giants like John Williams.

The celebrated composer has indeed pressed it to service on multiple occasions, including “obsessive, Herrmannesque repetitions” of the theme warning of the climax at Devil’s Tower in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977). Philip Hayward has described this score as “masterfully manipulat[ing] the audience” through its use of musical codes: the “Dies Irae” coupled with the jarring tritone interval, long considered a symbol of the devil.

Eternally Reviving the Dead

Yet the modern composer/director duo who have a Rachmaninoff-like obsession with it are a far cry from even Berlioz: longtime rocker Danny Elfman and Tim Burton. The “Dies Irae” traipses, crawls, crashes, and splatters through their films, from “Edward Scissorhands” (1990) to “The Nightmare Before Christmas” (1993) and “The Corpse Bride” (2005), along with the Burton-directed but Stephen Sondheim-scored “Sweeny Todd” (2007). (Given Burton’s directorial affinities, even if one watched these films sans score the trend is not necessarily surprising.)

Our culture may be afraid of dying, but it is also fascinated by death.

The theme, divorced from its original context, has been separated from the realm of its classical proponents. Of further irony, this leitmotif has gained in popularity as society has ramped up its efforts to postpone death as long as possible. In a culture that celebrates youth (“60 is the new 30”), is afraid of dying, refuses to accept death’s inevitability, and prefers to keep any thought of it at a distance, how is it that a funereal theme will not die?

Perhaps it is not so strange. Our culture may be afraid of dying, but it is also fascinated by death: sanitized, and safely enclosed by a TV screen.

Movies and TV shows are thus the lifeblood of the “Dies Irae” phenomenon. Perhaps also, as Peter Larsen and John Irons claim in their book, “Film Music,” the irony persists because using the “Dies Irae” leitmotif as a “warning… of death and calamity” is “a kind of coded comment that can only be ‘read’ by the initiated.” The death-fearing public doesn’t even know it is responsible for keeping death’s theme alive.