Dies Irae

It was the 19th of May 1790 in New England. For several days odd signs had been showing—the sky was yellow and the sun was red. Suddenly, the sky darkened further. Animals ran for cover. When seen, the moon was red and soot was seen to be floating in the river. By noon it was dark, forcing people to light candles and wonder—was the great and terrible day of the Lord’s return at hand?

A dark day caused by a fire in Pine Valley, California 2002. A similar occurrence happened in New England during the late 1700’s, causing people to wonder if the day of judgment was at hand.

Such events have sparked awe and terror throughout the history of the world. For Christians, dramatic statements about the Second Coming of Jesus Christ found in the New Testament often spark both terror and excitement about the coming of such events. There have been many times that people have wondered how close those times are. On the Dark Day, for example, many came “out wringing their hands and howling, the Day of Judgment is come” (http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/Ten-Notable-Apocalypses-That-Obviously-Didnt-Happen.html).

The End-Day scenario for Christians is a major focus of many denominations of the faith. It has been the subject of theological writings, speculation (often inciting excitement and terror when any signs are seen as fulfilled), artwork, and music. These events are used as motivation for repentance and building faith, and the artwork surrounding these events reflect this usage.

With the descriptions given in the scriptures and by preachers, it is no wonder that the events of the last days have sparked such interest and excitement throughout history. In the times leading up to the actual Second Coming, Joseph Smith—who was acquainted with the Bible and 19th century eschatology—said that: “there shall be great destructions upon the face of this land…. it shall be a token that there shall be famine, pestilence, and great distress among the nations, and that the coming of the Messiah is not far distant…. There will be wars and rumors of wars, signs in the heavens above and on the earth beneath, the sun turned into darkness and the moon to blood, earthquakes in divers places, the seas heaving beyond their bounds; then will appear on grand sign of the Son of Man in heaven.” (Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith [2007], 252.) The days of preparation are dramatic enough, but more is to happen when Christ Himself comes.

When Christ is to come, it “shall burn as an oven; and all the proud, yea, and all that do ‘wickedly, shall be stubble: and the day that cometh shall burn them up, saith the LORD of hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch.” (Malachi 4:1) And “who may abide the day of his coming ? and who shall stand when he appeareth? for he is like a refiner’s fire, and like fullers’ soap” (Malachi 3:2). Zephaniah spoke of that day as “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.” (Zep 1:15-16.)

The sounding of the trumpet has other associations in the Second Coming. While speaking on “resurrection of the dead”, Paul noted that “the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.” (1 Corinthians 15:12-13, 52.) He was speaking of the time when “all that are in the graves shall hear his [the Son of God’s] voice, and shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation.” (John 5:28-29.) It truly is a vivid image of a trumpet being blared by an angel of God, and the dead responding by rising up in the resurrection, preparatory to the Judgment.

The concept of the wicked burning in fire is also repeated elsewhere in the Bible, notably concerning the Judgment. Christ Himself taught that: “As therefore the tares are gathered and burned in the fire; so shall it be in the end of this world. The Son of man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity; And shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth. Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Who hath ears to hear, let him hear.” (Matthew 13:40-43, emphasis added.) John—whose Revelation has become so intertwined with the concept of the End Days that the Greek word for Revelation (Apocalypse) has become synonymous with it—spoke of seeing “the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works…. And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire.” (Revelation 20:12, 15.) Such discussion of sifting of righteous and wicked, ending with the wicked being cast into fire to burn in eternal punishment is a vivid picture to remind Christians to be anxious about their sins, believe in Christ and repent so that they will not be among those cast into the fire.

The Second Coming of Christ is often depicted in dramatic, apocalyptic ways.

Ever since the time Christ left, dire predictions that the end is near have occurred again and again. St. Paul had to warn the saints in his day to “be not soon shaken in mind, or be troubled, neither by spirit nor word, nor by letter as from us, as that the day of Christ is at hand” and went on to talk about how a falling away and revealing of the son of perdition would occur before Christ’s return (1 Thesselonians 2:2-4). Even the earliest Saints wondered if the time was soon.

“In 1213, [Pope] Innocent III wrote: ‘A son of perdition has arisen, the false prophet Muhammed, who has seduced many men from the truth by worldly enticements and the pleasures of the flesh… we nevertheless put our trust in the Lord who has already given us a sign that good is to come, that the end of this beast is approaching, whose number, according to the Revelation of Saint John, will end in 666 years, of which already nearly 600 have passed.’

“The predicted date was 1284. Seven years later, the last crusader kingdom fell, when the Sultan Khalil conquered the city of Acre, in present-day Israel. The rest of the world, however, remained intact.” (http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/Ten-Notable-Apocalypses-That-Obviously-Didnt-Happen.html#ixzz1vTy4mvFt.)

During the period of the Black Death (the bubonic plague—particularly the twelfth century) nearly a third of Europe’s population perished. In the fear, death and chaos created by facing this pandemic one Italian recorded that “all believed it was the end of the world” (“Plague readings”. University of Arizona. Retrieved 2008-11-03).

The Dark Day was another event that led to belief that Judgment Day was at hand. The nineteenth century saw a few people claiming the Judgment Day was near as well: Shakers practiced celibacy because they thought the Second Coming was close enough that they wouldn’t have to have children before it occurred. William Miller calculated through clues in the Bible that 1843 would be the year of the Second Coming causing widespread speculation (note that D&C 130, which mentions that Joseph Smith was praying to know when the Second Coming would be was given in 1843. The Saints at the time were concerned about the prediction). The Jehovah’s Witnesses have tried to predict a date several times, starting with 1874 and most famously in 1914. When He didn’t appear, they claimed He had appeared, but invisibly. People have often expressed a belief that the day of wrath and judgment would soon be arriving.

From the earliest times up through our time and continuing to this day, people have predicted that the end of the world is going to happen soon.

In more recent times, we still have had several millennial scares. At the turn of the Twenty-first century we had the Y2K scare—the fear that computers wouldn’t handle the changeover to a new millennium led to panic. Some people I knew of rented a house boat and moved everything to a lake, hoping to survive the calamities. As recent as last year, we had the widely-publicized 21 May 2011 Judgment Day prediction by Harold Camping.

Early Mormonism was initially one of the groups that believe the end would come soon. Unlike several others, however, they didn’t predict a specific date. At first many thought it would be within a half-dozen years or so (see Richard L. Bushman, Rough Stone Rolling [New York, Vintage Books. 2005], 166) and many of the early revelations dealt with the subject (see D&C 29 for the prime example). The New Jerusalem that was the focus of the Church during its first decade was to be built up as “a city of refuge, a place of safety for the saints of the Most High God” (D&C 45:66)—a place to be protected from the terrors of the end times. In addition, many of the early leaders of the Church such as Sidney Rigdon and Orson Pratt were obsessed with the subject and addressed it often in their teaching and sermons. One American historian suggested that the reason for this was because it made things so that “Mormons felt the pressure of time. The errors of the present pressed against the calamities of Christ’s Coming, making radical change a necessity.” (Richard Lyman Bushman, Rough Stone Rolling [New York: Vintage Books, 2005],166.) The end day was a major concern for the early Church.

As Mormon doctrine crystalized, however it has come to be believed that it will come somewhat soon, but not as soon or terrible as we believed at first. A “study of Mormon general authorities’ rhetoric at the church’s biannual general conferences between 1850 and 1979, demonstrates that references to eschatology[the study of the End Day] decline strikingly…. Mormon leaders, rather than looking to the end of the world, preached instead of the present and the need to shore up personal morality and build strong families.” (W. Paul Reeve, et. all. Between Pulpit and Pew [Logan: Utah State University Press, 2011], 141, 145.) One indication of that trend was President Boyd K. Packer’s address from a year ago wherein he stated: “Sometimes you might be tempted to think as I did from time to time in my youth: ‘The way things are going, the world’s going to be over with. The end of the world is going to come before I get to where I should be.’ Not so! You can look forward to doing it right—getting married, having a family, seeing your children and grandchildren, maybe even great-grandchildren.” (“Counsel to Youth,” October 2011 General Conference.) We are reminded once in a while to look for the Savior’s Coming, but it is a doctrine that has been dramatically deemphasized since the Church’s conception.

The Mayan Calendar solution.

Since we’re coming up on the next big apocalyptic prediction—the 21 December 2012 end of the Mayan Calendar—I suppose I should state my opinion on the subject: I agree with Abraham Davenport’s statement as he sat in the Connecticut legislature on the Dark Day: “the day of judgment is either approaching, or it is not. If it is not, then there is no cause of an adjournment [of the legislation meeting]; if it is, I choose to be found doing my duty.” Carry on with life and do what you’re supposed to—when it happens, it will happen, all we can do is be prepared.

Obviously the terror and high drama of the end of the world as we know it has had the capability of catching the imagination of mankind for thousands of years. In art and literature, our creativity has poured into the subject. Below are three paintings of the Judgment Day—from Harry Anderson’s relatively benign depiction to some of the more dramatic Renaissance portrayals of the event. Other such paintings exist, underscoring the events that are to take place at the end day.

Harry Anderson’s Second Coming, Hans Memling’s Last Judgment Triptych, and a Michelangelo mural from the Sistine Chapel

Beyond the visual arts, the Judgment Day has been captured in literature and music, most famously (and the main subject of this series of posts) in the Dies Irae chant.

The Dies Irae text was composed somewhere in 11th or 12th centuries, and is usually attributed to Thomas de Celano. From there it gradually became an important part of the Catholic Masses, particularly the Requiem Mass. “While the Mass itself took several centuries to coalesce into its precise form, once it achieved this form it became an extremely important cultural institution in Europe. The immense centralized power of the Catholic Church during the medieval era made the Latin Mass an important unifying device across ethnic and linguistic boundaries. The Requiem Mass, (‘Mass for the Dead’), was also codified so as to offer the ‘definitive’ Catholic medieval ideology concerning death. As such, the Requiem Mass contained several special components; the Dies Irae was one of these, formally added to the Mass in 1570. This medieval text… offers a graphic depiction of the horrors of Judgment Day for sinners. The New Catholic Encyclopedia states that ‘the Preface for the Dead emphasizes the joyful aspects of the Resurrection. The medieval Sequence, however, stresses fear of judgment and condemnation.’” (Brooks, Erin. “The Dies Irae [‘Day of Wrath’] and the Totentanz [‘Dance of Death’]: Medieval Themes Revisited in 19th Century Music and Culture.” Inquiry 4.Fall (2003): 10-13.) The text, printed in Latin and English (one poetic version and one more literal) is as follows:

1 Dies iræ! Dies illa
Solvet sæclum in favilla:
Teste David cum Sibylla!
Day of wrath and doom impending,
David’s word with Sibyl’s blending,
Heaven and earth in ashes ending!
The day of wrath, that day
Will dissolve the world in ashes
As foretold by David and the sibyl!
2 Quantus tremor est futurus,
Quando iudex est venturus,
Cuncta stricte discussurus!
Oh, what fear man’s bosom rendeth,
When from heaven the Judge descendeth,
On whose sentence all dependeth.
How much tremor there will be,
when the judge will come,
investigating everything strictly!
3 Tuba mirum spargens sonum
Per sepulchra regionum,
Coget omnes ante thronum.
Wondrous sound the trumpet flingeth;
Through earth’s sepulchres it ringeth;
All before the throne it bringeth.
The trumpet, scattering a wondrous sound
through the sepulchres of the regions,
will summon all before the throne.
4 Mors stupebit, et natura,
Cum resurget creatura,
Iudicanti responsura.
Death is struck, and nature quaking,
All creation is awaking,
To its Judge an answer making.
Death and nature will marvel,
when the creature arises,
to respond to the Judge.
5 Liber scriptus proferetur,
In quo totum continetur,
Unde mundus iudicetur.
Lo! the book, exactly worded,
Wherein all hath been recorded:
Thence shall judgment be awarded.
The written book will be brought forth,
in which all is contained,
from which the world shall be judged.
6 Iudex ergo cum sedebit,
Quidquid latet, apparebit:
Nil inultum remanebit.
When the Judge his seat attaineth,
And each hidden deed arraigneth,
Nothing unavenged remaineth.
When therefore the judge will sit,
whatever hides will appear:
nothing will remain unpunished.
7 Quid sum miser tunc dicturus?
Quem patronum rogaturus,
Cum vix iustus sit securus?
What shall I, frail man, be pleading?
Who for me be interceding,
When the just are mercy needing?
What am I, miserable, then to say?
Which patron to ask,
when [even] the just may [only] hardly be sure?
8 Rex tremendæ maiestatis,
Qui salvandos salvas gratis,
Salva me, fons pietatis.
King of Majesty tremendous,
Who dost free salvation send us,
Fount of pity, then befriend us!
King of tremendous majesty,
who freely savest those that have to be saved,
save me, source of mercy.
9 Recordare, Iesu pie,
Quod sum causa tuæ viæ:
Ne me perdas illa die.
Think, kind Jesu! -my salvation
Caused thy wondrous Incarnation;
Leave me not to reprobation!
Remember, merciful Jesus,
That I am the cause of thy way:
Lest thou lose me in that day.
10 Quærens me, sedisti lassus:
Redemisti Crucem passus:
Tantus labor non sit cassus.
Faint and weary, thou hast sought me,
On the Cross of suffering bought me.
Shall such grace be vainly brought me?
Seeking me, thou sat tired:
thou redeemed [me] having suffered the Cross:
let not so much hardship be lost.
11 Iuste iudex ultionis,
Donum fac remissionis
Ante diem rationis.
Righteous Judge! for sin’s pollution
Grant Thy gift of absolution,
Ere the day of retribution.
Just judge of revenge,
give the gift of remission
before the day of reckoning.
12 Ingemisco, tamquam reus:
Culpa rubet vultus meus:
Supplicanti parce, Deus.
Guilty, now I pour my moaning,
All my shame with anguish owning;
Spare, O God, thy suppliant groaning!
I sigh, like the guilty one:
my face reddens in guilt:
Spare the supplicating one, God.
13 Qui Mariam absolvisti,
Et latronem exaudisti,
Mihi quoque spem dedisti.
Through the sinful woman shriven,
Through the dying thief forgiven,
Thou to me a hope hast given.
Thou who absolved Mary,
and heardest the robber,
gavest hope to me, too.
14 Preces meæ non sunt dignæ:
Sed tu bonus fac benigne,
Ne perenni cremer igne.
Worthless are my prayers and sighing,
Yet, good Lord, in grace complying,
Rescue me from fires undying!
My prayers are not worthy:
however, thou, Good [Lord], do good,
lest I am burned up by eternal fire.
15 Inter oves locum præsta,
Et ab hædis me sequestra,
Statuens in parte dextra.
With Thy sheep a place provide me,
From the goats afar divide me,
To Thy right hand do thou guide me.
Grant me a place among the sheep,
and take me out from among the goats,
setting me on the right side.
16 Confutatis maledictis,
Flammis acribus addictis:
Voca me cum benedictis.
While the wicked are confounded,
Doomed to flames of woe unbounded
Call me with thy saints surrounded.
Once the cursed have been rebuked,
sentenced to acrid flames:
Call thou me with the blessed.
17 Oro supplex et acclinis,
Cor contritum quasi cinis:
Gere curam mei finis.
Low I kneel, with heart submission,
See, like ashes, my contrition;
Help me in my last condition.
I meekly and humbly pray,
[my] heart is as crushed as the ashes:
perform the healing of mine end.
18 Lacrimosa dies illa,
qua resurget ex favilla
Iudicandus homo reus.
Huic ergo parce, Deus:
Ah! that day of tears and mourning!
From the dust of earth returning
Man for judgment must prepare him;
Spare, O God, in mercy spare him!
Tearful will be that day,
on which from the ash arises
the guilty man who is to be judged.
Spare him therefore, God.
19 Pie Iesu Domine,
dona eis requiem. Amen.
Lord, all-pitying, Jesus blest,
Grant them thine eternal rest. Amen.
Merciful Lord Jesus,
grant them rest. Amen.

This text was set to a Gregorian Chant, which has had its use in the traditional liturgical services at the Requiem Mass and as “a hymn for use in the Liturgy of the Hours, namely in the Office of Readings for the Second Sunday of Advent.” (http://causafinitaest.blogspot.com/2011/10/franz-liszt-1811-1886-october-22-was.html.) The musical imagery of the theme matches and magnifies the themes of the text very well—so well that the two have become somewhat inseparable.

Old Dies Irae chant in Medieval style, via http://www.waywarde.com/oddities/dies_irae/irae.html

Yet, as all texts in the Requiem Mass have been set to music many times and in many ways, the Dies Irae has taken on many forms in the musical world—often resulting in some of the most dramatic choral pieces in Western Music. Some of the notable Dies Irae’s in Requiem Masses include Mozart’s, Verdi’s, Britten’s, Stravinsky’s and so forth. Verdi’s is among my favourites, with its thunderous beginning and high drama, but I also find Mozart’s very appealing. The latter has had particular recognition in advertisement and films, including the Pixar Short Jack-Jack Attack . These various artist have captured the text in music in their own ways, to great effect.

The Mozart Dies Irae: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pqaARDsiJv4

Jack Jack Attack Dies Irae: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eXNuUKOMJUg

Verdi Dies Irae: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pW1Uc-grcMs

As notable as the great composers who included the Dies Irae in their compositions of the Requiem Mass, the composers who did not include it are just as notable. Fauré and Brahms have the most-performed Requiems of all, yet they both did not include the Sequence (Dies Irae) in the compositions. For the former, French Baroque tradition was being followed, while the latter brought with him the idea of bringing together Biblical texts to build a different type of Requiem—one focused on living, breathing humans, rather than the dead. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Requiem_(Faur%C3%A9) & http://www.theosophy-nw.org/theosnw/arts/ar-azeb.htm). Both, however, reflect a trend to de-emphasize the Dies Irae in the liturgy, a trend the Catholic Church itself followed by removing the Dies Irae  from its services in the mid to late 20th century. Archbishop Annibale Bugnini wrote the reasoning for this: “[The Consilium] got rid of texts that smacked of a negative spirituality inherited from the Middle Ages.  Thus they remove such familiar and even beloved texts as the Libera me, Domine, the Dies Irae, and other that overemphasized judgement, fear, and despair.  These they replaced with texts urging Christian hope and arguably giving more effective expression to faith in the resurrection.” (The Reform of the Liturgy: 1948-1975.) The Dies Irae has dropped out from liturgical use.

While the Dies Irae may be fading from official use, it still exists in the minds and hearts of the people, and has found other ways to survive. The continuing performances and popularity of the Requiem Masses by classical composers attest to that, with choral composers still turning out settings of the text from time to time. A more interesting mode of survival, however, has been the incorporation of the Gregorian chant into classical and popular music in symbolism of and relation to the macabre and the infernal. It is such an interesting subject, that I intend to fill the next post or two on the subject. Join me in two weeks for more on the Dies Irae chant in music.

In summary, the End Day scenario for Christians is to be a dramatic cleansing of the earth climaxing with Christ’s Second Coming. The high drama of these events has inspired repentance, speculation, and extensive depiction in the arts. Of particular note to our discussion is its representation in the Catholic liturgical text and hymn Dies Irae. This particular section of the funeral service (Requiem Mass) has been set to music by many notable composers to great effect, but before all of them went to work with it, it was sung to a Gregorian Chant tune. The Dies Irae has fallen out of official use in the church, but continues to have a life of its own in choral settings of the texts and incorporation of the plainchant tune in different settings.


  1. […] the Dies Irae Gregorian chant as its musical representation. The Dies Irae was discussed last post (https://chadlawrencenielsen.wordpress.com/2012/10/03/dies-irae/). It’s haunting and memorable melody and textual representation of the hellfire and destruction […]

  2. […] a few years ago. In past discussions, I wrote the origins and meaning of the Dies Irae plainchant (https://chadlawrencenielsen.wordpress.com/2012/10/03/dies-irae/) and its appearance an context in classical music in relation to the Totentanz or dance of  death […]

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