The Creepy 13th-Century Melody That Shows Up in Movies Again & Again: An Introduction to “Dies Irae”

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Why Mar­vel and Oth­er Hol­ly­wood Films Have Such Bland Music: Every Frame a Paint­ing Explains the Per­ils of the “Temp Score”

Hear 9 Hours of Hans Zim­mer Sound­tracks: Dunkirk, Inter­stel­lar, Incep­tion, The Dark Knight & Much More

All of the Music from Mar­tin Scorsese’s Movies: Lis­ten to a 326-Track, 20-Hour Playlist

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (9)
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  • Dale says:

    I found the Vox video prob­lem­at­ic. Beyond the incred­i­bly dif­fi­cult-to-lis­ten-to vocal fry of the nar­ra­tor, the Requiems of Mozart and Ver­di are in no way exam­ples of the medieval Dies Irae chant; they use the Latin text, of course, but the melodies are the work of the com­posers.

  • Jim says:

    Agreed. The vocal fry is ridicu­lous. And it is more preva­lent among young women than the Dies Irae chan­tis inn films and musi­cal works. When did this non­sense start?

  • Matt says:

    Thank you to Dale for point­ing out the error in the claim that the Gre­go­ri­an chant is heard in the Requiems of Mozart and Ver­di since it isn’t. In fact, very few of the larg­er scale Requiems use the orig­i­nal plain­chant at all. Even Berlioz (hav­ing so overt­ly used it in his Sym­phonie Fan­tas­tique) in his gigan­tic Grande Messe des Morts steers clear of the tra­di­tion­al plain­chant for the Dies Irae.
    Anoth­er error in the arti­cle is the descrip­tion of the scene from Amadeus. Mozart was not dic­tat­ing the Dies Irae to Salieri, it was the Confu­tatis Male­dic­tis.
    And yes, the vocal fry is hor­ri­ble, could­n’t watch after a minute.

  • Ray says:

    It’s just 4 notes, unless a com­pos­er tells you that’s why they used them you shouldn’t make assump­tions.

  • Mike G. says:

    My favorite Gre­go­ri­an chant! I got to chant it at an All Souls Day Requiem Mass a few times…

    Here’s a rock song inspired by the chant!

  • Andy Briggs says:

    PLEASE tell that nar­ra­tor that her vocal fry is off­putting, ridicu­lous and she needs to learn not to do it. Why do young Amer­i­can women use such a child­ish man­ner­ism? What’s it meant to con­vey about them, oth­er than gross stu­pidi­tiy?

  • A Fan says:

    My God! I loved this well researched piece and noticed all the work that went into but that Vocal Fry PLEASE, don’t ever do it any­more! I thought it was only me that was cring­ing until I saw the com­ments. The host you have a great voice, don’t waste your tal­ent by vocal fry­ing.

  • Terry says:

    It IS just 4 notes. How­ev­er, when you have heard them all your pro­fes­sion­al life, over and over, it becomes a part of who you are and what you write. The author is not real­ly say­ing, I believe, that it was done inten­tion­al­ly, but that those 4 notes become a part of our reper­toire as the use of the word “blue” has become asso­ci­at­ed with sor­row. We did­n’t invent the word or rede­fine it, but nei­ther do we have to think about whether it is ours or not when we use it in a book, poem or descrip­tion about sor­row.

  • Matt Huesmann says:

    Yes… please as a DP I strong­ly sug­gest the VO take a vocal dia­log les­son TO PREVENT THE voice break­ing or fry that’s hap­pen­ing.
    So dis­tract­ing.

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