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“Dies irae”: The Catholic contribution to film scores

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When composers need to capture the most potent emotions, they turn to the music of the Catholic Church.

In the horror film genre, when ghosts come out of the walls or little girls’ heads begin to spin, one of the characters inevitably calls in a Catholic priest. After all, as Catholics we believe in “all things visible and invisible,” so who could be better suited to combat the wickedness and snares of the devil than the Catholic clergy?

In the same vein, it is perhaps perfectly fitting that the composers who score these films so frequently turn to the Catholic musical tradition to provide an appropriately ominous soundtrack. In particular, they reference the “Dies irae.”

The “Dies irae” (“Day of wrath”) is the sequence from the traditional Catholic Requiem Mass. The text speaks of the wrath of God to be doled out on the Day of Judgment. Settings of this text are commonly the most intense movements of Requiems scored by composers for performance outside the liturgy.

The liturgical origins of the “Dies irae” are unclear. Some sources date it to the 13th century, while others suggest that it could go all the way back to St. Gregory the Great of the 7th century. Regardless of how old it is, all the biggest names in musical composition — including Mozart, Dvořák, Fauré — have written settings for the Requiem that include the “Dies irae.”

There are many versions, and each has a distinct musical style, but most reference the original plainchant. The sequence itself is quite long, but modern composers seem most intrigued with the opening four notes.

While the atmosphere created by these four notes seem perfectly suited to horror movies, composers have utilized this motif in all sorts of genres. A recent video produced by Vox, featured above, takes us through many examples of the “Dies irae” popping up in a wide range of movies, from Star Wars to It’s A Wonderful Life.

With just four notes the composer can evoke fear, desperation, anxiety, and, in the case of The Lion King, even chaos. In another example, The Exorcist, as shown in Tom Allen’s excellent video featured below, the composer wrote a variation on the “Dies irae.” To highlight this, Allen has a chorus sing the four notes from “Dies irae” over The Exorcist‘s theme, to show that they match perfectly.

The beauty of the variation is that even those who have been extensively musically trained could easily miss the reference. This is a relief when we hear the “Dies irae” so often that we get the feeling the Day of Judgment might actually be approaching. Now, thanks to some clever masking by the composer, we can both enjoy the feature film and ignore our sense of existential dread.

Like the Wilhelm Scream, the “Dies irae” has almost become an Easter egg to search for in our favorite movies. So next time a movie approaches a particularly sorrowful or ominous climax, keep your ears open. You may find yourself treated to a short clip of a Catholic dirge.

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