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.

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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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