I know Easter was last week, but if you’re feeling up to a belated scavenger hunt, here’s a fun one you can try: see if the Dies Irae is in your favorite movie. Odds are it’s in there somewhere, because it is everywhere! It’s not quite as prolific as the Wilhelm Scream, but it crops up a lot. I’ll prove it to you in a minute.
But first, a fun little jaunt to Music History land. As my last post described, the Dies Irae depicts the last trumpet on the Day of Judgment, where the saved are delivered and the damned cast into eternal flame. Of course, the verse itself came before it was set to a plainchant melody, which was written in the thirteenth century. Even so, it is one of the oldest recorded melodies in European history and was eventually incorporated into the Roman Catholic Mass. Here it is, in all its glory.
Of course, the Dies Irae text has been set to many things due to composers taking it upon themselves to write new music for the traditional Requiem Mass::
…but the above melody is the one that has found its way into common use as a quoted musical idea. Due to the descending nature of the line itself (and of course its conceptual origins), it has come to symbolize death, burial, doom and peril. And it’s not just in classical compositions, but also film and television scores, our modern-day avenue for the majority of professional composers.
Now that you have the musical idea firmly parked inside your brain, you’ll be able to find it in each one of these examples. I’ll start with the most obvious example, which is Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Wendy Carlos basically just took the Dies Irae, plugged it into a synthesizer and turned it into the movie’s main title (it’s even a full statement of the entire theme, which is rare):
Of course, this probably doesn’t impress you. “Kubrick always relies heavily on music already written in his films!” you say. Well, then, it’s time to bring out the big guns. Here’s a compilation of all the instances I’ve caught just in my own DVD collection that clearly contain at least the first portion of the Dies Irae, either as a solitary statement or as a motif that becomes developed in an interesting way. Notice how each scene involves death or the idea of death in some way.
It even creeps into television shows. Here is Kate’s theme from LOST, and the Winter is Coming theme from HBO’s Game of Thrones. See if you can spot a familiar influence:
The classical composers of old threw it into their works all the time as well. In particular, Rachmaninoff was in love with it, as it’s in the majority of his orchestral pieces:
It was a common joke back then that Paganini was amazing at playing the violin because he sold his soul to the devil, so the inclusion into Variation is rather tongue-and-cheek. There is always a reason for it to be in there, even if it’s just “this piece is about death.” Case in point:
Of course, the most famous example in classical music, the Witches’ Sabbath from Symphony Fantastique, depicting the narrator of the program piece after he has been beheaded and has descended into hell:
Mahler used it in one of my favorite pieces ever, his Resurrection Symphony. In this case, the composer actually uses the first four notes to develop a full-fledged theme that recurs throughout the final movement:
And one of my other favorite composers, Ottorino Respighi, used it in his Brazilian Impressions to illustrate that coming face-to-face with poisonous snakes don’t exactly give him an overwhelming sense of safety:
So there you have it! Now you can nerd out like me whenever that particular phraise pops out at you. Or, you could just enjoy music like a normal person. 😛