Notes on the Requiem Mass

The requiem mass depends in large part for its format on the whims of the composer and differs from the ordinary mass in several ways. This page purports to enumerate the variety and differences as well as furnish the text of several, seminal requiems in history and make other, useful comments.

The word requiem itself is Latin (feminine noun, requies, -etis), means “rest,” and is taken out of the mass itself from the first word of the Introit, “Requiem æternam” (“rest eternal”), or the phrase, “Dona eis requiem” (“[Lord] grant them rest”). This is mass is ssociated, therefore, with the death of a person or persons. Typically, a requiem begins with the Introitus, uses much the same texts as the ordinary mass, but almost always omits the more joyful texts (such as the Gloria) and sometimes the Credo. It almost always includes the flamboyant Dies iræ (“day of wrath”).

In the ordinary mass, the worship service practiced by communicants in the Roman and Anglican churches on a more or less weekly basis throughout the year, certain textual parts depend upon the day within a liturgical year*, thus vary and therefore aren’t chosen willy nilly by the composer of the mass. However, in a requiem mass, which is concerned less with liturgy and more with the singular event of a person’s death, these parts can be more freely chosen and structured by the composer.

(The “liturgical year” refers to the emphasis placed on commemoration of important events whose anniversaries are traditionally observed such as Lent and Easter in the spring and Advent and Christmas in December.)

The various parts of a mass take their name from a first or oft-repeated phrase in their text, as already noted, an example of this is found in the Introit, the words of which give its name to the mass, and the repetition of the phrase that gives this mass its name.

Another example can be found in the Agnus Dei in which words giving the name of requiem to the mass, to wit “Dona eis requiem,” are substituted for the ordinary plea of “Miserere nobis” or “[Lord] have mercy upon us.” Also in the Agnus Dei, the phrase “Dona nobis pacem” (“[Lord] grant us peace”) is changed to “Dona eis requiem sempiternam” (“[Lord] grant them rest eternal”).

Although most of the requiem mass is set to the original Latin text of the ordinary mass, composers tend to flavor their requiems by the choice of texts from outside the mass, by the language employed, whether they stick to the Latin text or make use of a modern tongue, as well as by composing whole, new texts.

Note that some requiem masses, particularly some composed starting in the XVIIIth century, are purely musical compositions or concert requiems since their length or the number of singers and orchestra members needed to perform them would prohibit their use in a worship or funeral setting.

Structure and Composition

The requiem mass consists of a number of sections each having a name that describes the section or moment in the mass, or that is the first line or other principal wording of that section (here, in italics). These comments become more interesting as you examine the text of the various requiems I include here.

  • Requiem æternam, the opening lines of the requiem mass are based on a passage from an apocryphal book (nevertheless contained in most if not all editions of the Catholic Bible), 4 Esdras ii.34,35:
    “Await your shepherd; he will give you everlasting rest ... Be ready for the rewards of the Kingdom, because the eternal light will shine upon you for evermore.”
    as well as on Psalm lxv.1,2 (not the King James translation):
    “Praise is due to thee, O God, in Zion; and to thee shall vows be performed. O thou who hearest prayer! To thee shall all flesh come on account of sins.”
    It must also be noted that Zion is the citadel of Jerusalem taken by David from the Jebusites (2 Samuel v.6,7), the name signifying God’s holy mount (Psalm ii.6) as well as the city itself (Isaiah i.27). Zion is symbolic of the point on earth between God and men from which holiness and salvation radiates.
  • Kyrie eleison (“Lord have mercy”), the only text in the mass to be sung in Greek; I have never learned why this is.
  • Gradual, a name given to a vocal piece that is often sung by a chorale while standing on steps in a church (from Latin gradus, “steps”)
  • Tract, “Forgive us our sins, O Lord,” obviously a preoccupation with the need to purify oneself prior to entering the next world.
  • Sequentia or Dies iræ (“day of wrath”), not incorporated into the mass itself until the XIVth century; its authorship is in doubt, but mostly attributed to the Franciscan order, possibly Thomas of Celano (1200-55), friend and biographer of St. Francis. The text is inspired in part by the Libera me sung at the Absolution following the mass which comes from impressively graphic verses of Zephania i.14-17:
    The great day of the LORD is near, it is near, and hasteth greatly, even the voice of the day of the LORD: the mighty man shall cry there bitterly. 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. And I will bring distress upon men, that they shall walk like blind men, because they have sinned against the LORD: and their blood shall be poured out as dust, and their flesh as the dung.
    More inspiration might be found in the VIIth century Advent hymn, Apparebit repentina dies magna Domini (“The great day of the Lord will suddenly appear”) and from 2 Peter iii.7-11, Psalm icvii.1-6 and Matthew xxv.41-46. The Dies iræ is a personal meditation on the Gospel for the First Sunday of Advent, Luke xxi.25-36, and its first liturgical use was probably for that day. The Dies iræ has no real place in the mass and as it’s cast in first person singular, it violates the otherwise third person norm of the liturgy which should be concerned with the whole of the people and not one person. However, a requiem mass is often personalized and the wildly graphic imagery of the Dies iræ makes it a favorite. Especially by reason of the last six lines, of which the first four are taken from a hymn at least as old as the XIIth century, this section was adapted.
  • Offertory, theologically amiss, appears to derive from a Coptic rite where the reference to Saint Michæl is in accordance with what is known of Egyptian iconographical art depicting the Archangel weighing the merits of the dead (specifically to be confused with the more modern popular notion of employing Saint Peter at the gate of Heaven). See Daniel x.13 and xii.1 as well as Genesis xi.26,18. Michæl’s name is linked to that of Abraham.
  • Sanctus, see comment for the ordinary mass below.
  • Pie Jesu Domine, petition addressed to the Lord Jesus Christ in favor of the dead.
  • Agnus Dei, see comment for the ordinary mass below.
  • Communion (self-explanatory).
  • Exsequiæ, “Deliver me, O Lord.”
  • Valedictio, literally the “fare thee well” of the mass. Of the masses I cover here, Fauré’s has this.

A more complete choice of requiem texts including the sources of all or most of Mozart’s text may be found by clicking on this sentence.

A Brief Note on the Structure and Composition of the Ordinary Mass

A full mass consists of the following six sections which can be compared to the requiem mass:

  1. Kyrie eleison, in Greek: “Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy.”
  2. Gloria, celebratory passage praising God.
  3. Credo, more or less a setting of the Nicene Creed.
  4. Sanctus, the doxology praising God’s holiness.
  5. Benedictus, continuing the Sanctus, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.”
  6. Agnus Dei, invocation of the Lamb of God beseeching His mercy.

Sometimes other sections oriented toward liturgy, often motets or even Gregorian chants and other musical compositions are added. Below are the texts of several requiem masses to compare and contrast.

Other famous requiem masses include compositions from Belioz’ (Grande messe des morts), Giuseppe Verdi, Benjamin Britten (War Requiem) and Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Requiem Mass Composers by Period

A Wikipedia article lists the following composers as known to have created requiem masses whether still extant or not.

  • Renaissance
    • Giovanni Francesco Anerio
    • Giammeteo Asola
    • Giulio Belli
    • Antoine Brumel
    • Manuel Cardoso
    • Joan Cererols
    • Pierre Certon
    • Clemens non Papa
    • Guillaume Dufay (lost!)
    • Pedro de Escobar
    • Antoine de Févin
    • Francisco Guerrero
    • Jacobus de Kerle
    • Orlande de Lassus
    • Jean Maillard
    • Jacques Mauduit
    • Manuel Mendes
    • Cristóbal de Morales
    • Johannes Ockeghem (earliest to survive!)
    • Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina
    • Costanzo Porta
    • Johannes Prioris
    • Jean Richafort
    • Pierre de la Rue
    • Claudin de Sermisy
    • Jacobus Vaet
    • Tomás Luis de Victoria
  • Baroque
    • Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber
    • Marc-Antoine Charpentier
    • Jean Gilles
    • Claudio Monteverdi (lost!)
    • Michael Prætorius
    • Heinrich Schütz
    • Jan Dismas Zelenka
  • Classical
    • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
    • Luigi Cherubini
    • Florian Leopold Gassmann
    • François-Joseph Gossec
    • Michael Haydn
    • Andrea Luchesi
  • Romance Era
    • Anton Bruckner
    • Carl Czerny
    • Antonín Dvorák
    • Gabriel Fauré
    • Charles Gounod
    • Franz Liszt
    • Camille Saint-Saëns
    • Robert Schumann
    • Charles Villiers Stanford
    • Giacomo Rossini
  • Post-romance/Contemporary
    • Maurice Duruflé
    • Herbert Howells
    • Karl Jenkins
    • György Ligeti
    • Frank Martin
    • Krzysztof Penderecki
    • Jocelyn Pook
    • Zbigniew Preisner
    • John Rutter
    • Alfred Schnittke
    • Robert Steadman
    • Igor Stravinsky
    • Toru Takemitsu
    • John Tavener
    • Liva
    • Mack Wilberg