The Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead—the Requiem, sometimes called Missa pro Defunctis (or Defuncto) or Messe des Morts—is surely the most dramatic of liturgical forms and has inspired countless composers, from medieval times to the present. What the Czech composer Antonin Dvořák, a devout Roman Catholic, said in regard to his Mass in D could just as easily be applied to his famous Requiem: “Do not wonder that I am so religious. An artist who is not could not produce anything like this.” And yet, not only Protestant composers but also those whose Christian faith was weak or non-existent wrote Masses for the Dead. After all, human life itself is the supreme drama, and what imagined scene could be more powerful than that of the individual soul pleading the case for salvation before the Almighty?
The term “Requiem” comes from the first Latin word of the Mass, which begins Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine (“Grant them eternal rest, O Lord”). The structure of the formal Requiem Mass and its Latin text developed within the Catholic Church over time, and composers have generally picked and chosen—and even added—when setting sections of the Death Mass proper. The Requiems of the classical and Romantic periods generally used some or all of these parts:
Introitus: Requiem aeternam
Graduale: Requiem aeternam
Tractus: Absolve, Domine
Sequentia: Dies Irae
Offertorium: Domine, Jesu Christe
Sanctus and Benedictus
During the Medieval, Baroque, and Classical periods, composers wrote Requiems with the intent of actually having them performed during the saying of the Mass for the Dead. This would later change, as during the Romantic period, composers wrote Requiems on a larger scale in terms of both length and required orchestral forces; they became, in effect, dramatic oratorios, and often operatic in style. Indeed, the great opera composers Giocomo Puccini, Giuseppe Verdi, and Gaetano Donizetti all wrote pieces in this genre. At the same time, composers began to take more liberties with both the form and text of the Catholic Requiem Mass; Verdi altered some of the words of the Latin liturgy, and Johannes Brahms incorporated words of Scripture in German translation.
In the twentieth century there appeared the “secular” Requiem, a work that was meant to commemorate the dead but which dispensed with traditional religious belief, retaining only a vague spirituality. For instance, Frederick Delius, an atheist, originally termed his effort in the genre, which used a text largely derived from the philosophies of Friedrich Nietzsche and Arthur Schopenhauer, A Pagan Requiem. Paul Hindemith’s When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d: A Requiem for Those We Love uses as its texts the poem of the same name by Walt Whitman, commemorating the death of Abraham Lincoln. Even those twentieth-century Requiems that employed parts of the Roman Mass for the Dead took greater liberties than ever before with the text: Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, for instance, uses the poetry of Wilfred Owen.
The list below ranks the greatest Requiems of all time, in order of greatness. Readers will notice that several popular Requiems have been left off this list: the aforementioned Requiems by Dvořák, Brahms, Britten, and Verdi, as well as settings by Gabriel Fauré and Maurice Duruflé (both of whom omit the Dies Irae, indicating the sedate nature of their settings). It is the present writer’s opinion that these six Requiems are vastly overrated: whereas Dvořák’s rambles over the course of its ninety-plus minutes, the Verdi is overly operatic and includes only one memorable moment—the brief and dramatic Dies Irae; Britten’s simply lacks music of the highest quality. The remaining three lack any sort of real fire; they may charitably be called “devotional” in spirit, but are more properly deemed somnolent. Brahms, Fauré and Duruflé seem to have thought that death and judgment are all about quite resignation and consolation, without any place for desperate pleading and the terror of possible, eternal damnation.
I should remind readers that, as with all my “top ten” classical lists, the following does not constitute a democratic assessment of the consensus greatest works of all time, but represents rather my informed opinion on the matter, which I hope is more interesting. There are many worthy Requiems which I have been forced to leave off this list. I welcome with interest the opinions of readers as to the merits of ones I have omitted—and the demerits of the ones I have included.
1. Wolfgang Mozart: Requiem in D Minor, K. 626 (1791)
It will surprise none that Mozart’s immortal Requiem tops this list. In all of sacred music, there are few works that rival the writing here: the mystery of the Introit, the fire of the Dies Irae, the brilliance of the Confutatis, and the majesty of the Rex Tremendae. Mozart’s work simply operates on a higher plane than any other examples in this genre. Famously left incomplete by the dying composer, its supreme status is enhanced by the mysterious circumstances of the composer’s death, and by the puzzle of who exactly finished the piece as we know it today. The performance below is the best among the fifty or so recordings I have listened to over thirty years.
2. Hector Berlioz: Grand Messe des Morts, Op. 5 (1837)
A massive work, in terms of the number of musicians for which it calls—sixteen timpani, four brass choirs, and at least 210 choristers—Berlioz’ Requiem is, contra the composer’s reputation, not simply a showpiece full of sound and fury, but a masterpiece full of beauty, and yes, even extended contemplative sections. Berlioz’ Dies Irae rivals Mozart’s in its fire and awesomeness., while the meltingly beautiful Sanctus, featuring a solo tenor [beginning at 57:45 in the recording below] stands as one of the most beautiful things ever penned by the human hand. Surely this work alone should guarantee the agnostic Berlioz a mansion in Paradise?
3. Michael Haydn: Requiem in C minor, MH 155—Missa pro defuncto Archiepiscopo Sigismundo (1771)
I have noted elsewhere how Mozart was surely influenced by the Requiem of Michael Haydn, the younger brother of the more famous Franz Josef Haydn. And though one will think of that greater Requiem when listening to this one, this Mass for the Dead, which takes about thirty-five minutes to perform, stands on its own as a work of genius, one imbued with an unrelieved sense of drama and urgency. The younger Haydn, some of whose works until recent times were long mistaken for those of Mozart, should be better known.
4. Georg Joseph Vogler: Requiem in E-flat major (1808)
Though Mozart thought little of him, the German-born Georg Joseph Vogler (1749-1814) had a successful career as a composer, performer, and teacher (Carl Maria von Weber and Giacomo Meyerbeer were among his pupils), and was something of an innovator in terms of music theory and practice, devising a new organ-like instrument and an alternative method of fingering for the harpsichord. An ordained Roman Catholic priest—and thus known also as Abbé Vogler—his Requiem dates from the last years of his life, and contains many dramatic moments, passages of sublime beauty, as well as some unusual arrangements. There is a supremely dramatic Dies Irae, a melting tune in the Lacrymosa, an absolutely gorgeous a capella Benedictus for the four soloists (listen at 38:00 in the video below), and an eerie Quantus tremor, whose echoing brass motif is a truly memorable effect. Weber called Vogler’s the “divine Requiem,” and it was indeed compared to Mozart’s in its day. Though the judgment of time has deemed it not to reach that exalted level, it is nevertheless a great work.
5. François-Joseph Gossec: Requiem (1760)
A severely underrated composer, the long-lived (1734-1829) Gossec had a career that spanned that of Baroque composer Jean-Philippe Rameau (his teacher) through the premier of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. He wrote much worthy, and sometimes brilliant, orchestral and chamber music, as well as many choral works and operas. Highly esteemed in his day, perhaps his reputation has suffered because of the propagandistic music he composed on behalf of France’s Revolutionary regime. Gossec’s Requiem, composed in 1760, is a monumental work, running about an hour-and-a-half and full of power and beauty. While on his tour of Paris in 1778, Mozart met Gossec, liked him, and—as in the case of Michael Haydn’s Requiem, though to a lesser degree—was probably influenced by Gossec’s setting when he wrote his own Mass for the Dead thirteen years later.
6. Luigi Cherubini: Requiem in C Minor (1817)
Luigi Cherubini (1760-1842) composed his first Requiem (a second, in D minor, would come twenty years later) on the occasion of a memorial Mass for King Louis XVI, who had been executed by French Revolutionaries in 1793. Cherubini’s Requiem was much admired by later composers; Robert Schumann deemed it “without equal in the world,” and Ludwig van Beethoven requested that it be played at his own funeral, declaring, “If I were to write a Requiem, Cherubini’s would be my only model.” (Beethoven never did write a Requiem.) In employing only a chorus and not soloists, Cherubini avoids any hint of the operatic. Though influenced by Mozart’s setting, Cherubini’s voice is entirely his own and anticipates several Requiems that would be penned later by Romantic composers.
7. Osip Kozlovsky: Requiem in E-flat minor—Missa pro defunctis for King Stanisław August Poniatowski (1798)
Possibly the first Requiem composed in Russia, Polish-born Osip Kozlovsky’s Mass for the death of King Stanisław August Poniatowski of Poland was commissioned by the king himself. Kozlovsky primarily wrote for the royal theater—dances and incidental music—but his Requiem is a grand creation that surprises with its profundity. It ends, atypically, with funeral march, followed by a setting of the Salve Regina. Unfortunately there presently exists only one recording of this work, a Soviet-era production in somewhat inferior sound; but it is well worth repeated listening despite its sonic shortcomings.
8. Franz von Suppé: Requiem in D Minor (1855)
A candidate perhaps for most unlikely to write a Requiem, the Austrian composer Franz von Suppé wrote some fifty operettas and stage works, but it is generally only the overtures to some of these that are played in the concert hall today. His Requiem is one of a handful of his sacred works and certainly his best. Dedicated to Pope Pius IX, the work clocks in around seventy-five minutes and is dramatic and profound, with only a touch of the operatic in one or two places. Unusually celebratory in tone for a Requiem, especially one in D minor, Suppé’s nevertheless contains passages both of quiet lament and blazing terror.
9. Camille Saint-Saëns: Requiem, Op. 54 (1878)
Camille Saint-Saëns is generally considered a second-rate composer, and he is known today primarily for pieces like his “Organ” Symphony and his “Carnival of the Animals.” His status as an unbeliever makes him an unlikely candidate for composing a Mass for the Dead. But indeed he did—and in a mere eight days. Though he may not have bought into the theology represented by the Catholic Requiem Mass, he considered his composition a serious work. “I know how to respect what is respectable,” the composer once said of religious belief. The urgent strings that open this Mass immediately grip the listener, and the trombone calls and organ notes of the Tuba Mirum sound bring to mind the famous opening of Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra, composed eighteen years later. Unlike some of the sprawling Requiems composed, Saint-Saëns’ clocks in at only thirty-five minutes, never outstaying its welcome.
10. Václav Tomášek: Requiem in C Minor (1820)
Czech composer Václav Tomášek wrote his Requiem not in response to the death of a loved one or a prince, but as a reaction to a devastating flood in western Bohemia that destroyed the village of Stran. Lovers of Dvořák’s Requiem will recognize the similar spirit and dramatic approach of that composer’s compatriot of a half-century earlier, and yet Tomášek’s work, at forty-five minutes, avoids any hint of long-windedness or an inappropriately oratorical style. “There was nothing in there which could possibly disgrace the sacred style,” Tomášek said of his Requiem. “Rather on the contrary, I was able to afford myself with good reason the benefit of having met the strictest artistic criteria, and of offering to the world of music an opus which can safely claim its rightful place alongside other Requiems, including even the most celebrated ones.”
*The Latin text of the Requiem can be found here. It is actually not quite correct to say, as I did above, that the Requiem Mass has inspired “countless” composers, for one aficionado has tallied more than 5,000 examples of this genre, penned by more than 3,100 composers, spanning the Medieval period to the present. The Latin text of the Requiem can be found here. Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.