Fine Arts Column: Art of the Requiem


I am always spellbound by the Requiem Mass. The timeless prayers and eerie chants are like unto a sacred drama, evoking the various images of the last day: earth and heaven burning in ashes; humanity uttering pleas for souls to be saved from the abyss of Tartarus; a soul’s cry to St. Michael the Archangel to be his guiding light to heaven and for angels and martyrs to bring the soul to rest in the bosom of St. Lazarus.    

Of course, these things were excised from the funeral rites after Vatican II, so most of you may not even know what I am talking about. No worries. I am here to relate ideas to you in a digestible way. 

Since the 19th century, it has been the tendency among Romanticists to reduce the Requiem texts to operatic drama and nothing more. Composing a Requiem, even today, is almost nothing more than producing a profound personal/spiritual statement rather than an act of liturgical devotion for the faithful departed. I will not question the motives of composers or accuse them of ill, because these texts render themselves worthy of majestic artworks through which the grief of death is dissolved. 

So, what is the Requiem? 

I will attempt a short explanation by briefly looking at key prayers. 

“Requiem” is derived from the entrance text of the pre-Vatican II Mass for the Dead: Requiem æternam  dona eis, Domine.” This is the first of continuous pleas for eternal rest for the dead and promises to render to God prayers and vows in Zion. The crowning prayer in the Requiem is the Gospel Sequence Dies Irae, a poem written by the 13th century Franciscan friar Thomas of Celano. This poem has inspired countless musical works. 

Celano calls forth images of God’s wrath on the last day, such as the angel’s trumpet, man’s cowering before divine justice and praises to Jesus for his incarnation and crucifixion. Offertory prayers beg God to deliver the soul from the lion’s mouth through St. Michael’s intercession, and the recessional In Paradisum tearfully asks God to bring the soul to the bosom of Lazarus. 

Using the Requiem text in a quasi-theatric manner need not be entirely condemned, but it is not to be wholly preferred either. I give it a partial endorsement because of how the timeless texts can give comfort to Catholics and non-Catholics alike. 

“War Requiem” was composed between 1961 and 1962 by English musician Sir Benjamin Britten (1913-1976), and in 2019 the Library of Congress selected this work for preservation in the National Recording Registry for its aesthetic, cultural and historical significance. The piece juxtaposes the Latin prayers with wartime poetry by World War I soldier Wilfred Owen. 

Britten was commissioned to compose this work for the dedication of the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral. History buffs will remind you of the Coventry Blitz, when on Nov. 10, 1940the Nazi Luftwaffe conducted one of its many air raids on the city. This particular blitz almost completely obliterated the 15th century cathedral; today, part of the ruins remains attached to the modern cathedral building. 

Britten’s postwar dramatization of the Requiem captures the horror and bleakness in war. To my analysis, it reminds me of the soundtracks in war movies at moments beholding a soldier’s sorrow at losing his friend, of church bells summoning mourners to prayer, snare drums narrating conflict and the psychological processing of grief via profound poetic prose. I discern a real genius level of originality in mixing these prayers with a soldier’s direct experience of war: Britten’s artistic statement is to cause audiences to be moved to grief for the fallen and to pray for God’s mercy on the whole world and the departed.  

Dramatizing the sacred is inherently medieval  the plays and dramas written and performed during this time helped delineate and enforce Christian doctrine or lives of the saints in a memorable fashion. There is, arguably, room to dramatize a liturgical prayer such as the Requiem, but the composer must be cautious not to lose sight of the sacral nature of prayers for the departed. 

As stated, I somewhat favor the act of making musical drama from the Requiem; I see in it a potential solution for modern man’s alienation from art, being an action by which to move him and change (or reinforce) his views of life. Find the Requiem text and pray with these words, and maybe try listening to part of Britten’s “War Requiem” while you do so. Sacred drama is a worthy art unto itself for the growth of the intellect and soul.