Verdi, Berlioz, Daugherty, & Friends: Dies Irae

'A big hand please, ladies and gentlemen,' he hollered, 'for the Great Prophet Zarquon! He has come! Zarquon has come again!'  
Thunderous applause broke out as Max strode across the stage and handed his microphone to the Prophet. Zarquon coughed. He peered round at the assembled gathering. The stars in his eyes twinkled uneasily. He handled the microphone with confusion.  
'Er...' he said, 'hello. Er, look, I'm sorry I'm a bit late. I've had the most ghastly time, all sorts of things cropping up at the last moment.'  
He seemed nervous of the expectant awed hush. He cleared his throat.  
'Er, how are we for time?' he said, 'have I just got a min--'  
And so the Universe ended.
~Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

Our piece today is not necessarily of a specific example, but more of a usage of the text and melody which has been placed into the human psyche as a rather forbidding explanation of the days to come. Dies Irae is a poem, though its composer and the time frame in which it was composed is subject to a bit of debate.  We know it was written between 500-1300 AD and historians have attributed at one time or another to the following individuals:

  • Thomas of Celano of the Franciscan Order (1200 – c. 1265)
  • Latino Malabranca Orsini (~1294)
  • St. Gregory the Great (d. 604)
  • St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153)
  • St. Bonaventure (1221-1274)
The text of the Dies Irae centers around the biblical judgement day, heralding the end of the world with a descriptive story-telling of the day as so described in biblical text.  The account of the prophet Zephaniah provides us with the title:
That day is a day of wrath, a day of trouble and distress, a day of wasteness and desolation, a day of darkness and gloominess, a day of clouds and thick darkness, a day of the trumpet and alarm against the fenced cities, and against the high towers.
Dies Irae itself translates from Latin to mean "day of wrath".  Wikipedia does a good job of showing examples of the text in Latin and two translations, so I don't intend to waste time reproducing that here.  There are other portions of the bible that also dictate to the poem, the Revelation being the most prominent.

This piece was originally purposed for use in the Roman Catholic Requiem mass, which is a time where the church turns its attention toward the departed and reflects upon the dead, most times in the context of a funeral.  The music itself is ancient, brought about from a tradition of plainchant, which might be more recognizable to the layperson as "Gregorian Chant".

Plainchant is a single, monophonic melody that is unaccompanied by other instruments. They are often responsorial, meaning that a leader or choir would sing one stanza and the congregation would respond with a sort of "chorus" to put it into today's terms. Alternatively, they could be in antiphonal 
format where the choir/leader would alternate verses with the congregation instead.

Plainchant evolved in the Christian church out of combined traditions of Jewish and Greek music, replacing the lost art of notation developed originally by the ancient Greeks. Plainchant used "nuemes" instead of notes, each symbol implying a certain sound, but for the most part it remained unstandardized from region to region until the 12th century.  You also begin to see the development of the music staff at this point in history, as seen below:

Now the thing about Dies Irae is that it just sounds so...dark

Now imagine for a moment the Roman church in the 13th century.  Nobody's got their iPhone out. It's probably dark. It's probably pretty musty too since there's no central air and showering wasn't really a thing until after the Black Death some 100-150 years later. Lighting is either natural light filtering dimly through stained glass or candle light.  

If you've attended a Catholic mass today, it's not all that different in terms of format and style.  Then these guys stand up and start singing Dies Irae.  You're just a potato farmer in the middle of Europe and these guys in robes are telling you in Latin that God is going to come back and wreck stuff with flaming swords and angels that look like John Cena on steroids.

And while your medieval mind is trying to wrap around the fact that you have no idea who John Cena is (the saddest part of which being your total inability to appreciate perhaps the most unexpected John Cena in all history) the only other thing you can think of is how cool this sounds.  And that's what has captivated composers ever since.

The first of which we'll look at is Joe Green.

So, Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) is essentially the king of Italian opera in the Romantic era. He was a big fan of Italian culture and a champion of his fellow Italian composers.  So one of his personal heroes, Gioachino Rossini, dies and he and a few other composers decided they needed to create a fitting, Italian tribute to the master. Verdi's vision was that they would construct an Italian Requiem, written by twelve Italian composers.  It would then be sealed it in the Italian archives and performed annually in honor of Verdi's death as a public service and without financial gain toward any of the authors.  Verdi wasn't interested in money or fame (he was already doing alright in both).  Verdi was interested in nationally honoring a fellow whom he held in the highest esteem.  Sadly, the project tanked near the finish line and the work was not performed as intended, though it did receive a revival performance in 1988, some 100+ years after Rossini died.

Verdi was a bit of a firebrand throughout his life and was quite passionate about things he felt were important. As a result of the failed Rossini Requiem, he refused to allow his portion of the work to be performed and five years later rededicated his efforts to write the mass in honor of an Italian author by the name of Alessandro Manzoni, a man who had inspired Verdi in his youth.  Verdi reworked the finale portion of the original mass and wrote the rest of the music himself, premiering the work in 1874.

Critics look at Verdi, a cynic of religion, openly agnostic and with a significant flair for the dramatic, and question why would a man who had such mastery of the dramatic arts compose something so sacred as a requiem mass?  It was denounced by some in the church as "cheapening religion with theatrics" and German conductor Hans von B├╝low went as far to say it was "opera in ecclesiastical dress".

In any event, it's a hell of a thing to listen to and I'm willing to bet you've actually heard this work before.  It's very common in movies where you need a scene of comically overt dramatics where all hell is breaking loose.  The whole Requiem is about 70-80 minutes long, so I'll start the video right at the Dies Irae.

The next work we'll look at is something we have explored a bit already.  Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) was a French composer in the early portion of the Romantic era.  He struggled greatly to attain recognition for his work, and would spend a great deal of time fighting his critics in the Parisian newspapers some of which seem to take sadistic glee in denouncing his music.  

One piece that managed to break above this negativity was his Symphonie Fantastique which premiered to almost universal acclaim at the Paris Conservatory in 1830. The whole work is programatic in that it is a tone poem that describes a young man's distress at failing to win the affectations of a young lady and in a depressed and dejected state attempts to kill himself by overdosing on opium.  Instead he has a really bad drug trip. As Leonard Bernstein puts it, 'Berlioz tells it like it is. You take a trip, you wind up screaming at your own funeral.'

So our hapless friend eventually dreams that he has been executed (that's in movement four), and now in movement five, "Songe d'une nuit du sabbat" or Dream of the Night of the Sabbath he finds that he's descended into hell and finds himself at a witch party.  Berlioz's program notes:

He sees himself at a witches’ sabbath, in the midst of a hideous gathering of shades, sorcerers and monsters of every kind who have come together for his funeral. Strange sounds, groans, outbursts of laughter; distant shouts which seem to be answered by more shouts. The beloved melody appears once more, but has now lost its noble and shy character; it is now no more than a vulgar dance tune, trivial and grotesque: it is she who is coming to the sabbath ... Roar of delight at her arrival ... She joins the diabolical orgy ... The funeral knell tolls, burlesque parody of the Dies irae, the dance of the witches. The dance of the witches combined with the Dies irae.

Here you go, kids:

Our last Dies Irae moment for today comes from a time a bit closer to home. Michael Daugherty (b.1954) is an American composer who happens to be a big fan of the comic book hero, Superman. He was commissioned and composed a work entitled The Metropolis Symphony which explores the Superman canon through five movements: Lex, Krypton, MXYZPTLK, Oh Lois!, and...

...the Red Cape Tango.

The fifth movement chronicles a pivotal issue in the Superman comic world where the caped crusader fights a seemingly unstoppable villain known as Doomsday.  The two trade blows through Metropolis and ultimately kill each other, Superman sacrificing his life to save the world from what would have been an unstoppable trail of destruction. The immortal hero, died in 1992.

Daugherty uses the Dies Irae as a recurring theme throughout the piece, transforming it into a sultry tango that is punctuated by cymbal and gong hits emphasizing the massive attacks the two titans deliver upon each other.  The work, originally composed for orchestra, has been transcribed for concert band and I had the privilege to be a part of a performance of this work in front of the composer in my time at FSU. An interesting side note that we learned in hearing from Professor Dougherty: this is allegedly the first time the original melody of the Dies Irae has been used in a tango form.

So I normally have some sort of undercutting metaphor and witty commentary on life to supplement the knowledge I haphazardly impart on you, but today I've got nothing.  I've been mired in a bit of writer's block trying to get one of these off the ground (I've got 3 or 4 half-written ones at the moment), but I can't quite hit my stride. 

In thinking about the Dies Irae, I guess I just find it impressive that we still find meaning and value in a piece of music that is potentially 1400+ years old.  That in our search for the newest and brightest things, we should always remember to look introspectively and remember where we came from as they still exist within us, whether we recognize that or not.

See you next Friday.