Yesterday, for the first time, I sang a funeral mass according to the pre-Vatican II “Tridentine” form of the Roman rite, and it made me realize how we, 21st century people, could easily misunderstand the medieval concept of God’s judgment and of “wrath”.
This funeral mass is also called “Requiem mass”, and its text was echoed by the many musical versions offered by composers over the centuries. Two famous examples are below:
Dies Irae from Verdi’s “Requiem Mass” (1874)
Dies Irae from Mozart’s “Requiem Mass” (1791)
Until a recent past, I identified this music to “God’s wrath”, and I am probably not alone in having thought so. Singing the “original” Dies Irae, the one that entered the funeral mass in medieval times made me realize how wrong I was.
First, God has nothing to do with that wrath. The text does not say “Ira Dei” (God’s wrath), but “Dies Irae” (day of wrath). Whose wrath is it, then? The second verse tells us that “David and Sibylla” foretold us about it. I have not read Sybilla, but we consider the psalms to be David’s writings, and in the psalms, God is the protector, not the angry one. In Psalm 109 for example, the anger is clearly human, on both sides. Death and judgment ensue from wrath, but the psalmist is not denying that the anger is his.
In singing the “medieval” Dies Irae yesterday, the music given me for this text was introspective, begging, sad and full of contrition. But it was not angry at all. By the time I was singing the last verses, starting with “Lacrimosa dies illa, qua resurget ex favilla” (Mournful day! That day of sighs, when from dust shall man arise), I was holding back tears, in awe, but still hopeful. This is a funeral mass after all: the casket is present, and the role of the cantor (or choir) is to humbly pray God for the salvation of the soul of the deceased. While singing, I did feel on the “edge” between this world and the next. Exactly where sacramental music is supposed to take me.
So singing the Dies Irae has nothing to do with acting out God’s anger. I say this with all due respect to Mr. Mozart and Mr. Verdi. They had no idea their outstanding work was going to become the soundtrack for a so-called “God’s anger” to our generations. As a comparison, here is a recording of the medieval (and liturgical) Dies Irae I sang yesterday at mass:
What I felt while singing it is that God is all-powerful, beyond our understanding, but also just and merciful. And I will die someday. The liturgical music makes clear that the “wrath” mentioned in the text is not God’s. I hope this is as helpful to you as it is to me.
This video is gold. In just 4 minutes, from 7:57 to 11:45, Brother John explains what i always wanted to express to other musicians… but never knew how. He does it by a wonderful description of modality, its similarity to jazz, opposing the “resolution” concept in the major and minor keys of modern music to the “hic et nunc” (here and now) of chant. Chant is the most appropriate music in the liturgy because it expresses that we have “nowhere else to be”. Chant actualizes timelessness. This video is a must-watch!!!
You may have noticed that the above video was the second of a 2-part series. The most interesting part, in my opinion. But if you are not as excited as I am, you may find it helpful to watch the first part, below.
In most churches, the best we have accepted to hope from the music leadership is that they teach us HOW to participate in songs. Usually, this is done with loud instrumental support, hinting we should sing along… In better situations, group rehearsals are organized to show HOW to sing.
But rarely the leadership explains WHY we sing what we sing. Yet most parishes have a website and/or a youtube channel, and could follow this fine example of a music director doing his job: explaining congregations WHY we sing what we sing. Let us hope to see many more such efforts in our parishes very soon….
(New to this website? See Questions? ).
Click on the coming Sundays to download sheet music and sound files of the sung Proper of the Mass. (Click here for the 1962 Traditional Calendar) The sound files are unaccompanied (a-cappella) to replicate as closely as possible the conditions of individual practice at home. Three versions:
- Roman Gradual, in Latin (the universal and official music of each Mass)
- Two English translations: a very simple one, and another closer to the original Latin.
Sunday, February 20, SEVENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME green
Sunday, February 27, EIGHTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME green
Wednesday, March 2, Ash Wednesday violetContinue reading →
Yesterday at St Peter in Rome, the Midnight Mass was celebrated in Latin. It was beautiful.