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the Dies Irae

You are now listening to the Dies Irae.

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Dies is the Latin word for day; irae is the Latin word from which the English word ire is derived. Together they mean day of ire, or as the phrase is translated in this context, the day of wrath.

Dies Irae is the name of a devoutly religious thirteenth century Latin hymn that was originally sung only by and for monks. Its subject is the end of the world, God's wrath on the Last Day, the Day of Judgment.

The style and structure of the hymn are in the tradition of what musicologists call plainsong. There are many styles of plainsong, otherwise known as plainchant or Gregorian chant, all of which are monophonic chants—songs sung by a group with one voice. Like it's plainsong relatives, the Dies Irae was meant to be sung in a monotonous, droning, steady rhythm intended to de-secularize the music and focus the listener's attention on God and what is to come in the next world.

Thomas of Celano, who died in 1256, is credited with originating the hymn. It became a regular part of the mass as late as the mid-16th century and was sung as a sequence in the Roman Catholic Requiem Mass until it was removed in 1970 because of its spiritual negativity.

What you are hearing is a sound snippet {Ref.} taken from the beginning of the piece. The entire hymn consists of this melody {Ref.}, repeated over and over. In modern musical notation, the melody looks like this:


What is the message of the Dies Irae?

  • See a complete line-by-line, stanza-by-stanza, side-by-side translation of the Latin text: click here.


viewing & Listening options

Arrange the window with the Latin text so you can see the text without blocking this page. If you are using a computer equipped with more than one monitor, try placing the text on your second monitor.

It helps to minimize your media player so it doesn't block your view.

Text and Music Together

  1. Listen to the melody again: click the musical notation (above) and it will play.
  2. Follow the music. Listen to the melody, which is the same for every stanza. (Variation in melody would defeat the purpose of the piece, which is to portray life on earth as preparation for an afterlife in another world.)
  3. Hint: If you need to see the text again, click the text translation again. If you are reading this on a computer equipped with a large monitor or more than one monitor, you have the option lyrics in new windows and arranging them on your monitor(s) before you continue: click here .
  4. Renew (replay) the music each time you read a new stanza. Hint: Click the PLAY button on your media player or click the musical notation on this page, above, each time you replay the music. Click again and again as many times as you need until you finish.
  • Don't expect the words in the text version to match the words that are sung, although they will come close to each other in the first stanza.


The importance of this theme {Ref.} in secular (classical) music cannot be overstated. This melody has often been incorporated in programmatic {Ref.} compositions having death or damnation as their subject, and the appearance of this theme in a performance has frequently functioned as a motif or a "tip off" about what the composer is saying, about what is happening in the music at the time the theme is heard, or about what the composer would have us think or feel. In program music, this theme is always a signal that something dreadful or final is about to happen, that we are witnessing an evil happening, or it is a mood or tone setter.

Composers who used the theme in this way include Berlioz in the last (fifth) movement of the Symphonie Fantastique, Dream off a Witch's Sabbath, Liszt in his Totentanz and in the Dante Symphony, and Saint-Saens in his Dance Macabre.

Other composers have retained only the text and have written their own (free) music to accompany it, music of a highly dramatic nature. Examples include the Mozart and Verdi Requiems. In these cases, the music is treated reverently.

Examples of the Dies Irae in Program Music

As cited above, many composers have used the theme in their own compositions to signify death, trauma, terror, or other morbid or dreadful notions.

Symphonie Fantastique

One such example is Berlioz in the Dream of a Witch's Sabbath, the title of the last (fifth) movement of his Symphonie Fantastique, which lasts a total of almost ten minutes. (We won't hear the entire piece).

  1. First play each sound sample (below) through from start to finish to familiarize yourself with it, listening carefully to what the composer seems to be "saying." When you are ready to play, click the word Play, below.
  2. Then play the sound samples again, reading each point, below, as the music progresses from point to point, following the action as it advances.
  3. Finally, play the samples again to get the "feel" of the whole example.

The scene is a mist-shrouded, broken graveyard, a ruined church, a moonless night. The clock strikes twelve. Ominous sounds are heard, evoking an unnamed evil. We bypass this section of the movement, as it contains no mention of the Dies Irae.


  • As our snippet begins, chimes ring out, heralding the witching hour. An unholy funeral rite for the dead hero of the piece is about to begin.
  • After a moment of silence, the holy chant, the Dies Irae, is played in the brass as the chimes ring along with it. Unholy, foul night creatures are now filling the scene. The irony does not go unnoticed; the effect is similar to satanic worship of the Christian cross held upside down.
  • Variations of each of three phrases of the chant are played three times, each time with greater intensity.
  • A frightful group of ghosts and monsters surrounds the hero's casket. An orgy entails.
  • We hear a parody of the Dies Irae intertwined with a Sabbath Round, danced by the spirits, a further befouling of the chant.
  • After more musical "business," a recapitulation {Ref.}occurs and the Dies Irae is heard again.

Play Coda

  • In the coda {Ref.}, the Dies Irae is heard a final time (in the brass, with the bass drum pounding the beat).
  • The piece continues to its finale without us.

Danse Macabre

Saint-Saens' Danse Macabre is another example of the use of the Dies Irae in program music. We have chosen to exemplify Saint-Saens' exploitation of the theme with a snippet from the start of the piece.

The scene could well be an unholy burial ground like the one chosen by Berlioz, but Saint-Saens leaves the details to our imagination; he is painting a picture of the mood and tone of the events which transpire, not specific actions or a plot.


  • The clock strikes twelve, setting the mood and presaging somber events to follow.
  • Swaying in time to plucked bases, ghosts, ghouls, goblins, and spooks begin to appear from out of nowhere. Dead souls arise from their graves and intrude upon the scene; they prowl and poke about.
  • A demonic fiddler strikes a few strident notes on the violin, calling on the creatures to assemble for the dance. Satan himself could well be drawing the bow.
  • The spooks sway to-and-fro, then start to circle about (in winds, bases, and violins).
  • The violin presents us with a twice-stated melody.
  • The creatures continue their frantic dance, which gradually increases in volume and ferocity.
  • The bases take up the theme previously introduced by the violin. On analysis, this theme turns out to be a variation on the Dies Irae, with extra notes interposed and with an upbeat, alterations from the original theme that lend a jocund but morbid air to the dance.
  • The music continues in this way for about five and a half minutes after the snippet ends.


Listen again to the notes of the ancient version of the original theme and then compare them with the notes of the theme played on the violin (and later the bases) composed by Saint-Saens.

The effect here is similar to what we experienced in the Symphonie Fantastique when foul night creatures sang the Dies Irae, reminding us of the satanic worship of the Christian cross held upside down. Why?

The two themes are in opposition:

  • The latter is an inverted variation of the former. That is, the second beat in each note pair in the original theme is lower than the first, a downbeat, while the second note of the corresponding note pair in the newer theme is higher than the first, an upbeat.
  • In the new version, four additional notes are interposed between what were the note pairs in the original theme, adding a rhythmic component, almost a snap.
  • The ancient version works its way down the scale, while the modern version climbs. (Of course, later the newer version changes direction).
  • The combined effect of Saint-Saens' variations is to convert the original work from a somber, introspective dirge into a grotesque and gruesome but almost lilting orgy for the ears.
  • The transformation is brilliant! Does the composer's treatment make your spine tingle and your skin crawl even as it thrills and exhilarates?

other examples

The list of pieces in which composers have employed the Dies Irae to achieve effects like those described above is seemingly endless. As a result, the Dies Irae has become an aural symbol of death and punishment known around the world. The theme is now so well entrenched in the psyches of composers and audiences, it has taken on a life of its own. No doubt, because of its usefulness as a musical symbol, it will be employed in works as yet unwritten,

  • Want to explore some of the musical pieces in which the Dies Irae theme appears and their composers? Consult the Musical Settings section of the Wikipedia page called Dies Irae for a partial list. Last time The Muse looked, there were over 70 pieces cited in the list: click here.


In both modern examples of the use of the Dies Irae, what we have heard is music that exploits the ancient piece to convey the ideas of evil and damnation, but adds other thematic ideas and a "program."

There is only one melody in the original Dies Irae, a melody that repeats and repeats like a dull hammer. We hang in a kind of stasis as we listen; seemingly endless repetition of sound and "story" reinforce the feeling of impending doom, enhance the notion of gloom, fear, and trembling.

There is virtually no action or change of any kind except for the anticipation of a final end to everything on earth. The piece is static, lacks progression; as in heaven and hell, there is no evolution. Indeed, the notion of "evolution" implies time, which doesn't exist in those realms. Of course, all this speaks for the skill of the the composer in achieving what he intended.

In contrast, Danse Macabre exploits two themes that complement and contrast each other. Each theme plays against the other, incites and challenges, eggs the other on to a fever pitch. Because of this interplay, the piece moves from a quiet awakening at midnight to a climactic orgy—it evolves.

Life in heaven or hell is static, timeless, whereas life on earth is temporal, is marked by change. By its very nature, a program is a plan for temporal change, a progression through time. Evolving interactions between the various themes of the Symphonie Fantastique and the Danse Macabre are the central mechanisms which propel the pieces forward in the intended directions. Without the multiple themes and their interactions there would be no program.

Explore Further

Serge Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini is another modern masterpiece that incorporates the Dies Irae theme. This dazzling  orchestral composition, constructed as a "theme and variations," is based on the 24th Caprice of Nicolo Paganini's 24 Caprices, a work for violin, an amazingly brilliant piece also structured as a theme and variations. The Dies Irae was important to Racmaninoff; he also used it in the last movement of his Symphonic Dances.

For more information on the Dies Irae, try searching the Internet.

shared musical treasures

Because the Dies Irae has been incorporated in so many works by composers other than Thomas of Celano, The Muse Of Music has designated it as a Shared Musical Treasure.

  • Explore other shared musical treasures. Visit The Muse Of Music's page called Shared Musical Treasures: click here.

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