Its title taken from the opening phrase “Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine” (“Grant them eternal rest, Lord”), a Requiem is traditionally a mass for the dead. Its Latin texts (as well as the Kyrie, which is ancient Greek) have been set to music by many composers over the centuries, often inspiring them to heights of extraordinary genius. However, the words you get in a Requiem depend on the composer – although most define the core of the Latin Mass, some choose to add other texts, omit parts or, in the case of Brahms, define entirely different words.
There are so many outstanding parameters of the Requiem that picking six is an almost impossible task. Here, however, there are half a dozen to begin with. Watch this space for more in the future…
The best requiems of all time
Mozart’s Requiem in D minor
Few works have aroused as much intrigue and controversy as Mozart’s Requiem of 1791, including the popular tale that it was commissioned in the middle of the night by a mysterious stranger. Although the real story is a little more prosaic – it was commissioned by Count Franz von Walsegg, who probably wanted to pass it off as his own work – the piece itself is beautiful, powerful and an unequaled pathos. However, all is not mozart, as he died in the middle of his composition, leaving some movements complete, some in sketch form and others intact, the work later being completed by Franz Xaver Süssmayr. At the emotional heart of this exceptional work is its most poignant movement, the Lacrimosa, of which Mozart wrote eight bars before he breathed his last.
Written in memory of the novelist Alessandro Manzoni, whose death in 1873 affected him greatly, Verdi’s Requiem is arguably the most dramatic of all – the influential pianist and conductor Hans von Bulow went so far as to describe it as “Verdi’s last opera, albeit in ecclesiastical robes”. Written for soloists, choir and full orchestra, it is performed more often on the concert stage than in a church today, and is a work of blood and thunder, doom and gloom – Verdi had little time for visions of heavenly rest. The most famous moment, with a hammering bass drum, is the hair-raising Dies Irae, although thanks to Take That, millions of pop listeners also became familiar with the trumpet fanfares when the following Tuba Mirum opened .
Requiem in D minor by Fauré
In marked contrast to Verdi’s Requiem is Fauré’s benign work of 1888, originally written for soloists, six-voice choir and chamber orchestra with organ, but later adapted by the composer for larger orchestral forces. As befits a Requiem which Faure apparently written for its own enjoyment rather than to mark a particular occasion, the work’s seven movements largely have an air of serenity and acceptance of death – even the ominous D minor opening of the Introit quickly dissolves into a softer major key and, significantly, there is no Dies Irae either. Faure’s Requiem is completed by the sublime In Paradisum where, accompanied by strings and an undulating organ, the voices transport us to a world of perpetual peace.
A German Requiem by Brahms
Here is a Requiem with a difference. As the name suggests, by Brahms A german requiem does not define the Traditional Latin Mass, but instead uses texts from Luther’s German Bible. With the exception of the distinctive and unsettling funeral march of the second movement “Denn alles Fleisch es ist wie Gras” (For all flesh is like grass), the mood here is again one that looks more towards the happiness of the afterlife than the misery of getting there – especially in the fourth movement “Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen” (How beautiful are your homes). Written for soprano and baritone soloists, choir and orchestra, BrahmsThe Requiem was a hit when first premiered in Leipzig in 1869 and has rightfully remained a favorite ever since.
Britten’s War Requiem
‘Well, the idea was good,’ was the shot Brittonhis own damning verdict on his requiem of war after its premiere at New Coventry Cathedral in May 1962. Posterity has treated it far more kindly than that, acknowledging Britten’s genius for what it is. the requiem of war is an enormous affair, lasting around 90 minutes and composed for three soloists, a choir, a boys’ choir, an organ and a double orchestra – although Britten’s initial ambition that these three soloists of the first each consist of a British, German and Russian singer was wiped out by the Soviets, who would not allow Galina Vishnevskaya to travel. Part of Britten’s genius in the requiem of war resides in his decision to interweave the Mass in Latin with texts from the First World War poet Wilfred Owen, and for all the impressive scale of the work, it is the pathos of these more intimate passages that make the work particularly moving.
Victoria’s Officium Defunctorum (Requiem) 1605
Although not as widely known as the other requiems on this list, Tomás Luis de Victoria’s unaccompanied work of 1605 more than holds its own in their company. Born around 1548, the Spanish composer honed his craft in Rome before returning to his home country to spend the last 24 years of his life in the service of the Monasterio de las Descalzas de St Clara in Madrid, initially serving the Empress Dowager. Mary, sister of Philip II. It was after Maria’s death in 1603 that Victoria wrote what has become widely accepted as one of the choral masterpieces of the Renaissance, its brilliantly crafted six parts slowly intertwining and forming an arc, filling the building with a truly heavenly sound.