Requiem: Definition & Composers

Instructor: Charis Duke

Charis has taught college music and has a master's degree in music composition.

The Requiem is a Mass performed in honor of the dead. In this lesson we will explore the sections of the Mass, how it has changed through history, and its important settings.

Composing a Requiem

Imagine you are a composer. If a friend or family member dies, how would you pay tribute to their memory? Many composers write a Requiem for their lost loved ones, in a tradition that goes back more than a thousand years. It is an almost sacred responsibility, and not one to be undertaken lightly. It is considered to be in poor taste to compose a Requiem without an appropriate loss to commemorate. So how did the Requiem achieve this status?

Origins of the Requiem

Requiem refers to the Requiem Mass, or as it is more properly known, Missa pro defunctis, the 'Mass of the Dead.' The name 'Requiem' is taken from the opening text in Latin, Requiem aeternum (eternal rest).

The origins of this Mass are a part of the origins of liturgical worship, and are therefore lost in antiquity. Catholic tradition suggests that the order of the Mass has not changed substantially since the 6th century. The texts and order of the Requiem would have developed in tandem and are therefore equally ancient.

A medieval church where Requiems would have been sung.
Interior of medieval church

Prior to the Council of Trent, a series of meetings of Catholic bishops and the Pope held from 1545-1563, the texts of the Requiem varied widely depending upon the local tradition. The Council of Trent sought to unify these discrepancies, and gradually an official order of the Requiem was devised.

The Order of the Requiem

The Requiem contains texts from both the Ordinary and Proper sections of the Mass. The Ordinary consists of the Mass sections that have unchanging text. The Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei make up the Ordinary. The Proper sections have changing texts that apply to the specific day. The Proper contains the Introit, Gradual, Alleluia, Tract, Offertory, and Communion.

The Requiem most commonly uses the Introit, Kyrie, Gradual, Tract, the Sequence Dies Irae, Offertory, Sanctus, Agnus Dei, and Communion. These sections are variable, however, and composers have always felt free to omit and add sections according to their needs. It has become popular with many composers to use the Communion Lux aetaerna and the Responsory Libera me, which are borrowed from the Burial Service.

The Music of the Requiem

Johannes Ockeghem
Portrait of Johannes Ockeghem

Until the 14th century, Requiems were monophonic chant, or a single melody performed with no accompaniment. By the Renaissance period, polyphonic Requiems appeared. Polyphonic music has two or more melodies of equal importance sounding simultaneously. A Requiem Mass written by Johannes Ockeghem in the 1470's is the earliest surviving polyphonic example, with all sections composed by one composer. Other important Renaissance composers who wrote polyphonic Requiems include Lassus, Victoria, and Palestrina.

In the Baroque period (1600-1750), the Requiem Mass setting grew in popularity. Instrumental accompaniment was added. A section of text might be given to a soloist rather than the whole choir. The polyphonic style continued, becoming more complex and adding more imitative melodic lines. Pergolesi, Johann Christian Bach, and Domenico Cimerosa are a few of the composers who wrote Requiems at this time.

The Classical period (1750-1820), produced a Requiem so significant it outshines all others from that time and is still one of the most performed Requiems, that of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. This Requiem was unfinished at Mozart's death in 1791. Franz Süssmayr was chosen by Costanze, Mozart's wife, to finish the work. While it does have polyphonic sections, it also incorporates the new style of the Classical period, homophony. Homophonic music has a single melody accompanied by a harmonic foundation.

Manuscript of Mozart

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