This website launched in June 2022. It is the most comprehensive list of secular “classical music” compositions that quote the Dies Irae plainchant melody. I have been assembling this list for 20 years, starting with an exploration of Rachmaninoff’s deep connection with the dies irae. I found time in 2022 to self-publish the collection to this website. (I’ll note I’m not as bullish as I used to be with regards to Rachmaninoff – I think many Russian Znamenny chants and folk songs must bear a great intervallic similarity to the dies irae; take, for example, Lyapunov’s “Chant Épique”, Liadov’s “Religious Chant” from 8 Russian Folksongs, or Schnittke’s 4th Symphony)
For some simple background on the dies irae, refer to the Wikipedia entry: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dies_irae For a more detailed history, read Kees Vellekoop’s Dies Irae: Studien zur Frühgeschichte einer Sequenz.
I’m not considering scores at this time (film, TV, anime, video games, etc). One reason is that those quotations are best served by compilation video formats like those created by Alex Ludwig (see alexludwig.net or https://www.youtube.com/user/celexo22/videos). I’m also not considering rock/metal/popular songs. This reveals my biases, but serendipitously it’s an easy way to limit the scope of this investigation, otherwise this list would rapidly extend into the thousands of entries and would be a never-ending task. This leaves out some interesting examples, including the ur-film-quote from Metropolis, multiple scores by Tiomkin (student of Glazunov who is found on this list), and Wendy Carlos (who may have been inspired by Walter Greene’s The Scream Skull’s soundtrack), or Schnittke’s Agony. Several film score composers did create concert suite versions of their scores, I have included several of those (Roszla, Rota, Shostakovich, etc). From the non-soundtrack side, it leaves out interesting examples like Fahey’s Stomping Tonight on the Pennsylvania-Alabama Border, Diamanda Galas, Juelz Santa’s The Second Coming, DJ Shadow’s Organ Donor, Maria Carta, Violet Onsen Geisha, and any number of Nordic or eastern European death metal bands.
I also have not considered pre-Berlioz liturgical settings. This would add hundreds of requiems but in a category that doesn’t really fall into “quotation” or “reference”. A few post-Berlioz settings do appear, but I do not try to be exhaustive. I did try to include French and Italian liturgical settings from 1800-1830ish, in the hopes that I might later cross-check against Berlioz’ travels to see if he may have heard them and been further inspired for the Symphonie Fantastique (beyond being inspired by just Faust). Examples include Neukomm, Plantade, Pavesi, and De La Fage.
Judging whether or not a piece contains an intentional and/or discernable reference to dies irae is subjective. An effective musicological study should consider the semiotics involved in classifying dies irae quotations; I have not attempted this. I have simply divided the compositions into two categories: “definitely quoted” and “maybe quoted”. This effort is exactly that which Taruskin derides as “shorthand historiography that inevitably devolves into inert survey”, fully devolved. For starting reference points for future analysis, I would start with:
-J. Peter Burkholder (author, Indiana University professor, https://chmtl.indiana.edu/borrowing/about) is commonly referenced when categorizing musical quotations.
-In the 1960s, Zofia Lissa, Günther von Noé, and Budde published important articles examining musical borrowings especially in a modern context. Other authors to investigate would be Clemens Kuhn, Glenn Watkins, Clayton Henderson.
-With specific regards to the quotations of Dies Irae, Lithuanian musicologist Audra Versekėnaitė has made several strong attempts to properly examine these questions in a limited handful of works.
Much more could be done; perhaps now that now that several hundred quotations are collected and identified in one place, this could facilitate some interesting studies. Certainly some interesting concert programs could be constructed.
I also present a separate lists of compositions that I suspect may contain a dies irae quotation but am still trying to confirm with my own eyes or ears. Based on where I live and the languages I can read, my research will have North American and western European biases. There are surely hundreds more unidentified quotations from other parts of the world. I welcome your input in either bringing new compositions to my attention, or arguing the merits or non-merits of a particular piece’s quotation. Contact me at
Published academic efforts exploring general use of dies irae are rare: in English at least, there are only articles by Joseph Yasser (1927), Robin Gregory (1953), and Malcolm Boyd (1968). A doctoral dissertation from Wanninger (1962) also exists. An excellent early review by Katie Clare Roys (wife to longtime BSO clarinettist Rosario Mazzeo) exists in program notes to a December 19, 1952 Boston Symphony Orchestra concert (Honegger’s La Danse des Morts was on the program); one wonders if there’s a connection to Robin Gregory’s 1953 article. Composers’ correspondence can be useful – think Rachmaninoff consulting Yasser about dies irae, or Rachmaninoff consulting Kastalsky about Russian Orthodox chants; these are sometimes printed in specialized books and typically never translated from the source language.
For this type of project, remarkable research resources included the following tools made possible by the internet: YouTube, Worldcat, JSTOR, and IMSLP. The various marketing tools that record companies use to promote their music (by providing samples or publishing to music streaming services) are helpful. Prior internet-based efforts of dies-irae-quotation compilers were also referenced, though these should all be obsoleted by this project.
Am I doing any particular good, or any particular harm, by publishing this information? Is it possible that broadcasting the wide history of DI use can cheapen any future attempts at its use? Or would the converse actually be true – that by exposing the pervasiveness of dies irae quotations, that it might incentivize a future composer to only quote when it can have greatest impact?
Will it diminish our listening experience? Or would the converse actually be true – that studying this so closely make us more careful listeners?
Thanks to several who contributed knowingly or unknowingly, including Ted Wilks, Olga Novak, Margaret Donovan, Stephen Gould, Wilhelm von Hindenburger, and rockstar librarian KT. Thank you Rosie Leung for the website design.
- While searching through so many 19th century works, I figured I might be able to find a non-liturgical quotation that predates Berlioz/1830. I could not. So let’s give a real tip of the hat to Berlioz for being the first to make that creative plunge, and making it so successfully that it kicked off a trend that shows no sign of slowing down 200 years later. It must have been a singular experience to have heard that tune for the first time in a secular concert hall.
- Many literary and visual arts that frequently inspired or are associated with music that uses the Dies Irae. First and foremost, of course, is Goethe (Faust which so inspired Berlioz and Liszt, and features the dies irae being sung in the cathedral scene, and also Totentanz). Others include Georg Trakl (Im Osten), Poe (Masque of the Red Death, The Bells, King Pest), Dante, and most surprisingly, several by Charles d’Orléans. On the visual side, there’s Boecklin, Holbein, Bacon, and Goya among others.
- Petr Eben for quoting it with deepest connection to the dies irae text’s source material – the island of Patmos in Greece, where John of Patmos received the visions found in the Book of Revelation (some of whose imagery ends up in the dies irae text)
- SO MUCH organ music, including a surprising number of entries inspired by destroyed/sunken/injured cathedrals (further including a surprising number specifically by the WWI destruction of Reims Cathedral)
- Surprising amount of carillon music
- Surprisingly high number of pieces with direct San Francisco bay area extra-musical connections: Terry Riley’s Cortejo Funebre en el Monte Diablo, Ferko’s Alma Submerged (based on a painting of Lexington Reservoir), Julian White’s Petite Suite with Requiem (based on the St. Mary’s Cathedral fire in 1963), and if you stretch a bit farther to Paradise CA then also Grossman’s Wildfires.
- Anything highly drony really worked for me, like pieces for accordion (Beautemps, Zolotaryov). Bolcom’s Black Host might be my favorite piece on the whole list.
- There’s an ancient French folk tune called “J’ai vu le loup” which has been traced to medieval times, and which might well be derived from, or even a parody of, Dies Irae. For the most part, I have ignored settings of “J’ai Vu Le Loup”.