Special Report: The “Dies Irae,” Centuries On

Fairy-Tale Files, published once weekly, feature three variations of a fairy tale chosen by one of Fairy Tale Review’s editors, readers, editorial assistants, or contributors.


Fairy-Tale Files, published once weekly, feature three variations of a fairy tale chosen by one of Fairy Tale Review’s editors, readers, editorial assistants, or contributors.


Memling's triptych, Last Judgment (c. 1467–71)
Memling’s triptych, Last Judgment (c. 1467–71)

You’ve heard it in The Shining’s opening credits and in George Crumb’s quartet for amplified strings, Black Angels; the Latin Dies Irae (Day of Wrath) has been around for quite awhile. This multi-stanza hymn originates among the Franciscans, or the Dominicans, depending on which sources you reference. Trochaic in metre, the “Dies Irae” depicts the soul’s final judgment at God’s throne. Its earliest musical settings are attributed to Antoine Brumel and Engarandus Juvenis, the Gregorian chant style bearing strong influence:

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Musicians, particularly from the Romantic era on, have mined the “Dies Irae” to haunting effect.

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Hector Berlioz’s opium-inspired Symphonie Fantastique alludes to the “Dies Irae” in its fifth movement, “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath,” our musical protagonist beheaded the movement prior. Two tubas and four bassoons usher in the motif…

Belgian composer Eugene Ysaÿe makes prolific use of the “Dies Irae” in his Second Sonata for Solo Violin, nicknamed “Obsession.”

Ysaÿe’s technical innovations place him on par with the Russian Sergei Rachmaninoff, whose piano concertpiece Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini marries Paganini’s alleged diablerie to the “Dies Irae” theme through a series of variations shared between soloist and orchestra.

Never one to miss a resurgence, the King makes his bid for “Dies Irae” infamy in Michael Daugherty’s Dead Elvis for Solo Bassoon and Chamber Ensemble. A testament to the bassoon’s never-ending ability to out-weird itself (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, anyone?), the soloist dons rhinestones and a wig, rendering Judgment’s most Vegas iteration to date, to which we can only say, Viva the Monks!


This special edition of Fairy-Tale Files is brought to you by poetry editor Jon Riccio.