The number of iconic scenes in cinema history can and do fill textbooks hundreds of pages long. Doubtless most of us have seen enough of these scenes to know the basic grammar of feature film, and to recognize the hundreds of references in movies and TV to classic cuts and compositions from Hitchcock, Kubrick, or Kurosawa.
Visual and narrative allusions might leap out at us, but music tends to work in subtler ways, prompting emotional responses without engaging the parts of our brain that make comparisons. Case in point, the videos here from Vox and Berklee College of Music professor Alex Ludwig demonstrate the widespread use of a musical motif of four notes from the “Dies Irae,” or “day of wrath,” a 13th century Gregorian requiem, or Catholic mass traditionally sung at funerals.
Of course, we know these notes from the iconic, oft-parodied Amadeus scene of Mozart composing the “Dies Irae” movement of his Requiem in his sickbed, as ultimate frenemy Salieri furiously transcribes. Once you hear the magisterially ominous sequence of notes, you might immediately think of Wendy Carlos’ themes for The Shining and A Clockwork Orange. But did you notice these four notes in Disney’s The Lion King, Star Wars: Episode IV—A New Hope, or It’s a Wonderful Life?
What about Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, or Home Alone? Both Vox and Ludwig show how the “dies irae” theme appears over and over, cueing us to peril or tragedy ahead, orienting us to the terror and unease we see onscreen. For almost 800 years, these four notes have signified all of the above for Catholic Europe, as well as, Vox notes, soundtracking the supposed future day when “God will judge the living and the dead and send them to heaven or hell.”
The “dies irae” has permeated narrative cinema for almost as long as film has existed. The oldest example in Ludwig’s compilation comes from a 1927 score written by Gottfried Huppertz for Fritz Lang’s silent Metropolis. Ludwig also brings his musicological expertise to bear in Vox’s exploration of “dies irae” references. He sums up the net effect as creating a “sense of dread,” bestowed upon modernity by hundreds of years of Christian theology as expressed in music.
Film composers were only the latest to pick up the cultural thread of fear and threat in “Dies Irae.” Their work stands on the shoulders of Mozart and later composers like Hector Berlioz, who lifted the melody in his 1830 Symphonie fantastique to tell a story of obsessive love and murder, and a nightmare of a witch’s sabbath. Later came Franz Liszt’s 1849 Totentanz (Dance of the Dead) and Giuseppe Verdi’s 1874 Messa da Requiem, a very recognizable piece of music that has made its appearance in no small number of movies, TV shows, commercials, and temp scores.
Vox and Ludwig show the “dies irae” phenomenon in film to be a slow cultural evolution from the ornate, sacred pomp of medieval Catholic rites to the ornate, secular pomp of Hollywood film production, by way of classical composers who seized on the theme’s “sense of dread” but remained at least ambivalent about happy endings on the day of wrath.