Martin Luther King, 1968 © Hulton Archive

A Short History of Death 

Since the fifteenth century, the requiem – also sometimes called missa pro defunctis or Mass for the dead – has inspired composers to write some of the most beautiful works in music history. 

In the beginning… 

The first polyphonic settings of the Mass Ordinary date from the beginnings of the ars nova. During the Renaissance, they became extremely popular in Flanders and France, but strangely enough, composers were quite reticent to take on the Mass for the dead or the Requiem (the name is derived from the liturgy’s introit, which begins with the words Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine) for quite some time. 

It’s probably Guillaume Dufay who composed the first requiem, which is now lost. The earliest surviving requiem was composed circa 1470 by Johannes Ockeghem. Soon after which Antoine de Févin, Antoine Brumel and Pierre de la Rue followed suit. 

Requiem: Kyrie

It is difficult to say with any certainty why the Requiem Mass was added to the repertoire of polyphonic settings so relatively late. It is safe to assume that these expressive contrapuntal elaborations did not mesh well with the restraint that was expected during this type of circumstance. 

Some of these requiems are genuine masterpieces. They were composed in memory of kings (Pierre de la Rue wrote the Requiem mass for Philip the Handsome) and even composers, such as Richafort’s Requiem, an in memoriam for Josquin des Prez. 

Missa pro defunctis: Requiem

The now largely forgotten Missa pro defunctis by the Frenchman Eustache du Caurroy was sung at the funeral of Henry IV of France and subsequently during the funeral mass for Louis XIII. This Mass for the dead would subsequently be dusted off for every royal funeral until 1725, i.e., 135 years (!) after it was composed. 

John F. Kennedy, 1963
John F. Kennedy, 1963
Between church and opera 

The Requiem Mass underwent several transformations at the end of the sixteenth century and early seventeenth century, which is typical of this turning point in European history. These changes did not, however, influence the number of requiems that were composed in subsequent decades. 

Palestrina’s polyphonic arrangements, which were clearly inspired by the contrapuntal style of the French and Flemish composers, were copied all over Europe. The principle of the vocal solo with instrumental accompaniment, which was typical of operas, was soon disseminated around the continent, influencing the entire vocal repertoire. 

Francesco Cavalli – Missa pro defunctis. 01. REQUIEM AETERNAM

The Italian Cavalli and the Frenchman Moulinié, in the meantime, kept faith with the old style while their respective compatriots, Brunelli and de Bournonville, soon applied the principle of the basso continuo, a form of musical accompaniment that is inextricably linked with the soloist. 

Instruments started to play a defining role in countless requiems. Roughly speaking, the requiem gradually adopted the opera’s structure, alternating arias with choruses. 

Jean Gilles - Requiem - Introit

Over time, the requiem also took on a social function. Jean Gilles’s Requiem became one of the most famous works in the repertoire of the Concert Spirituel, a prominent musical institution in eighteenth-century Paris. It was performed on several occasions, at the funeral of distinguished Frenchmen, like Rameau and Louis XV. 

René Angelil, 2016
René Angelil, 2016
From the Baroque to the classical period 

Generally, the Catholic Mass for the dead is a grandiose memorial service, while the protestant mass for the dead is a more subdued affair. The protestant ceremony mainly aspires to comfort the living, those who have been left behind. This possibly also explains the simplicity of German requiems and the differences in terms of textual structure and content. 

Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber - Requiem à 15 in A-Dur, I - Marcia Funebre

The Musikalische Exequien by the Lutheran Heinrich Schütz are a good example of this. The patron would choose the texts and determine when the choir and the soloists should sing. This freer, and slightly theatrical approach was even more manifest in Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber’s noble and majestic Requiem a 15, which he composed in 1687 for Cardinal Gandolf’s funeral. 

The treatment remained very much the same during the classical period, although it was slightly updated, in tune with prevailing aesthetic preferences. Over time, the Mass for the dead became more of an oratorio, combining a choir, soloist and orchestras. The theme of death and resurrection, moreover, inspired Händel to compose his sacred oratorio, titled La Resurrezione. Its dramatic structure and expressive power are the epitome of the evolution of the classic requiem. 

Handel: La Resurrezione, HWV 47, Pt. 1: No. 10, Duetto, "Dolci, chiodi, amate spine" (Maddalena, Cleofe)

And, of course, there can be no discussion of the requiem without referring to Mozart’s Requiem, which continues to be shrouded in mystery. This works plays a seminal role in the history of the Requiem Mass, setting a new benchmark for the genre, both in terms of its expressiveness and emotional power. Michael Haydn’s stunning Requiem was an important source of inspiration for the Salzburg master. 

Elvis Presley, 1977
Elvis Presley, 1977
Soundtrack to the soul 

Towards the end of the classical period in Vienna, the requiem became more important than ever. Once Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 had shown that profane music was also capable of capturing the human soul’s loftiest desires, the genre lived on, albeit in a new form. 

The Requiem Mass continued to embody the most universal and most moving experience in our life, while seamlessly combining this with the nineteenth-century aesthetic and philosophical principles. 

The genre became more personal, drawing on the dazzling array of means of expression in symphonic music and opera for its orchestration. As such requiems could be either bombastic or intimate. Sometimes they were even rooted in a country’s political history. 

Hector Berlioz: Grande Messe des morts - Gustavo Dudamel (Notre-Dame de Paris 22-01-2014, HD 1080p)

Hector Berlioz’s Grande Messe des Morts is a good example of the new wind of change, that swept through the requiem during the Romantic era. He composed it to remember the soldiers who died in the Revolution of July 1830. Berlioz gave his creativity free rein for his Requiem, the performance of which required approximately 450 musicians. 

The French poet Alfred de Vigny described the piece as ‘beautiful and bizarre, ferocious, stressful and harrowing’ and it is fair to say that the music does add a gruesome emphasis at times. The mass’s almost mystic dramatisation, however, also gives rise to several sublime movements, such as the Sanctus, the heavenly and hallucinatory penultimate movement of the Mass. 

Diana Princess of Wales, 1997
Diana Princess of Wales, 1997

The requiem thus traces human existence, outlining its tragedy and its beauty. And that is why even composers who had no affinity whatsoever with religion were quick to embrace the genre. 

Verdi, who was a known, self-professed atheist, composed one of the most important requiems in music history, namely his Messa da requiem in memory of Alessandro Manzoni, a poet and patriot who died during the Risorgimento, which culminated in the unification of Italy. His requiem transcended the liturgy and could not be compartmentalised as such. 

Verdi Requiem finale - Requiem aeternam Libera me

Verdi’s requiem is clearly a subjective work, which is probably also the reason why it has all the characteristics of a sacred opera, with an orchestra, two choirs and soloists who tell the story of death. After the premiere, Hans von Bülow in his rather acerbic review called it ‘Verdi’s latest opera, albeit in ecclesiastical garb’. The listener is literally overwhelmed by the most violent contrasts. 

La Messe de requiem by Gabriel Fauré, who also professed to being an atheist, is a stirring, contrapuntal composition. However, the seven movements of this requiem are replete with a celestial light and serenity. Fauré told the musicologist Louis Aguettant that he considered death ‘a happy deliverance, an aspiration towards happiness above, rather than as a painful experience’. 

Rudolph Valentino, 1926
Rudolph Valentino, 1926
Requiem universalis 

The twentieth-century requiems are enormously diverse. The conservative trend continues to be popular, with works such as Maurice Duruflé’s magnificent Requiem, which is entirely inspired by Gregorian chants. 

2001: A Space Oddysey OST# 3 - Requiem for Soprano, Mezzo Soprano, Two Mixed Choirs and Orchestra

Another remarkable requiem is that of György Ligeti. He had an enormous admiration for Johannes Ockeghem, the renaissance master, but was also inspired by the past for his Requiem (1962). Ultimately, however, he created a very modern work. The Hungarian composer used the technique of micropolyphony, as an extension and new interpretation of the old counterpoint, creating some extremely expressive and unsettling music in the process. 

Other composers also wrote requiems that were not religiously inspired and created a more universal form of art that appealed to the whole of humanity. In his 1962 War Requiem, Benjamin Britten created a libretto that drew on the Roman Catholic liturgy and the poems of Wilfred Owens, a homosexual writer who died in the trenches during World War I. 

Benjamin Britten conducts War Requiem - Live Television Broadcast

He invited musicians of various nationalities to join him for the premiere, and in a sense, Britten’s requiem became the anti-war requiem, against militarism and in favour of reconciliation and rapprochement. This sentiment is echoed in Annelies van Parys’s A War Requiem - her newest composition - which will be performed at BOZAR this season. 

Bernd Alois Zimmermann: Requiem für einen junger Dichter - Rappresentazione

And finally, the German Alois Zimmermann wrote a very unusual requiem, called Requiem für einen jungen Dichter (1969), which is firmly rooted in post-modernity. Zimmermann used the collage technique, contrasting the Catholic liturgy with the poems of Vladimir Majakovsky, Konrad Bayer and Sergei Yesenin; three writers who all committed suicide. It includes the taped voices of famous personalities such as Pope John XXIII, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, the writer Albert Camus and even Adolf Hitler, as well as quoting music fragments from Milhaud’s La création du monde, Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and The Beatles’ Hey Jude

Charles-Henry Boland

King Albert I of Belgium, 1934
King Albert I of Belgium, 1934

See also