Where to start with Requiems

Requiems persist as one of the most dynamic and exciting forms of music, immortalising a composer’s thoughts about death in a (usually) liturgical piece. Read on for a look at some of the most famous and interesting Requiems there are, as well as a quick overview of what a Requiem is.

What is a Requiem?

A Requiem Mass, sometimes known as the Mass for the dead, is a mass used in a liturgical context to offer repose for the soul of a deceased party, often in a funeral setting.

Named for the first line of the indroit (‘requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine’ – eternal rest grand them, O Lord), Requiems are usually a piece of music for Chorus and Orchestra that set the words of the Requiem text to music.

As such, many Requiems follow similar (if not exact) texts, but may differ in selections of the Requiem they adapt. For example, in Mozart’s Requiem, the eight texts used are:

  • I – Introitus
  • II – Kyrie
  • III – Sequentia
  • IV – Offertorium
  • V – Sanctus
  • VI – Benedictus
  • VII – Agnus Dei
  • VIII – Communio

Mozart's Requiem (1791-2)

The circumstances surrounding the composition of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart‘s Requiem have been largely mythologised, thought to have been caused by his widow, Constanze. At the time of his death in 1791, only two movements of the eight that Mozart outlined were completely orchestrated, which led Constanze to keep secret that the work was unfinished in order to successfully collect the final payment from Count Franz von Walsegg, having run short on income. Nevertheless, the work is considered one of Mozart’s finest, having been completed by Franz Xaver Süssmayr, a contemporary of Mozart.

Britten’s War Requiem (1962)

Alongside the traditional Latin texts, Benjamin Britten included poems by the WWI era poet Wilfred Owen, one of the foremost poets of the 20th Century. Influenced by Britten’s own status as a pacifist and conscientious objector during the Second World War, War Requiem was intended to be a requiem mass for all those who lost their lives in the tumultuous wars that consumed the early years of the composers own life.

Verdi’s Messe da Requiem (1874)

Possibly the most recognisable Requiem in the Western canon (and recognisable as ‘that dramatic music from any reality TV show’), Giuseppe Verdi’s Requiem is more operatic than most requiems, the piece is rarely performed in a liturgical setting, instead primarily being presented as a concert centrepiece. Dedicated to Alessandro Manzoni, an Italian writer than Verdi admired, the piece was premiered on the first anniversary of Manzoni’s death.

Berlioz’s Grand Messe des morts (1837)

One of Hector Berlioz’s better-known works, his Requiem was commissioned by the Minister of the Interior of France to commemorate those soldiers who died in the Revolution of July 1830, but was eventually used to commemorate the death of soldiers during the Siege of Constantine in 1837. The piece used one of the biggest orchestral forces at the time of composition, including four offstage brass ensembles that are often positioned around the venue. The work continued to be revised throughout the composer’s life, with the final edition finished in 1867, just two years prior to Berlioz’s death.