Taking its title from the opening phrase “Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine” (“Give them eternal rest, Lord”), a requiem is traditionally a mass for the dead. Its Latin texts (and ancient Greek Kyrie) have been set to music by many composers over the centuries, often inspiring them to exceptional genius. However, what words you find in a Requiem depends on the composer – although most set the core of the Latin Mass, some choose to add other texts, omit portions or, in the case of Brahms, use entirely different words.
There are so many extraordinary settings of the Requiem that it is almost impossible to choose six. However, here are half a dozen for now. Check out this space for more to follow in the future…
The best requiems of all time
Mozart’s Requiem in D minor
Few works have generated the same level of intrigue and controversy as Mozart’s Requiem from 1791, not least the popular tale that it was commissioned by a mysterious stranger in the middle of the night. Although the true story is somewhat more prosaic – it was commissioned by Count Franz von Walsegg, who probably wished to pass it off as his own work – the play itself is one of incomparable beauty, power and pathos. However, it’s not all over Mozart, when he died in the middle of composition, leaving some movements complete, some in sketch form and some untouched, the work then being finished by Franz Xaver Süssmayr. The emotional heart of this extraordinary work is its most poignant movement, the Lacrimosa, of which Mozart wrote eight bars before he breathed his last.
Written in memory of the novelist Alessandro Manzoni, whose death in 1873 deeply affected him. Verdi’s Requiem is arguably the most dramatic of all – the influential pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow went so far as to describe it as “Verdi’s latest opera, albeit in ecclesiastical guise”. Scored for soloists, chorus and large orchestra, it is now more often performed on the concert stage than in a church and is a work of blood and thunder, doom and darkness – earnings had little time for visions of heavenly rest. The most famous moment, complete with pounding bass drum, is the hair-raising Dies Irae, but thanks to Take That, millions of pop listeners have also become familiar with the trumpet fanfares at the opening of the following Tuba Mirum.
Fauré’s Requiem in D minor
In sharp contrast to Verdi’s Requiem is Fauré’s benevolent work of 1888, originally written for soloists, six-part choir and chamber orchestra with organ, but later adapted by the composer for larger orchestral ensembles. As befits a requiem lazy Evidently written more for his own amusement than for any particular occasion, the work’s seven movements largely exude an air of serenity and acceptance of death – even the ominous D minor opening of the Introit soon resolves into a softer major key and, significantly, there is no Dies Irae either. Faure’s Requiem is rounded off by the sublime In Paradisum, in which the voices, accompanied by strings and a babbling organ, transport us to a world of eternal peace.
Brahms: A German Requiem
Here’s a requiem with a difference. As the name suggests Brahms a German Requiem does not set the traditional Latin mass to music, but uses texts from the German Luther Bible. With the exception of the distinctive, unsettling funeral march of the second movement, “Because all flesh is like grass,” the mood here is again more geared towards the bliss of the afterlife, the misery of the journey – especially in the fourth movement, “How lovely are your homes.” Written for soprano and baritone soloists, choir and orchestra, Brahms‘s Requiem was a hit when it premiered in Leipzig in 1869 and has rightly remained a favorite ever since.
Britten’s War Requiem
“Well, the idea was good,” was the dejected one British‘s own scathing judgment on his war requiem after its premiere in Coventry’s new cathedral in May 1962. Posterity has treated it much more kindly, acknowledging Britten’s genius for what it is. That war requiem is a huge affair, lasting around 90 minutes and scored for three soloists, choir, boys’ choir, organ and double orchestra – although Britten’s original ambition that those three soloists should be composed of one British, one German and one Russian singer at the premiere has been dashed was by the Soviets, who would not allow Galina Vishnevskaya to travel. Part of Britten’s brilliance in the war requiem lies in his decision to intersperse the Latin Mass with texts from the First World War Poet Wilfred Owen, and despite the work’s impressive scope, it is the pathos of these more intimate passages that makes the work uniquely moving.
Victoria’s Officium Defunctorum (Requiem) 1605
Although not as well known as the other requiems on this list, Tomás Luis de Victoria’s unaccompanied work from 1605 more than holds its own in their company. Born around 1548, the Spanish composer honed his craft in Rome before returning to his homeland to spend the last 24 years of his life in the service of the Monasterio de las Descalzas de St. Clara in Madrid, first in the service of the Empress Dowager Maria, Sister On the death of Philip II in 1603, Victoria wrote what is widely regarded as one of the choral masterpieces of the Renaissance, its brilliantly crafted six voices slowly weaving and arching, filling the building with a truly heavenly sound.