The name ‘Requiem’ is taken from the words Requiem aeternum, meaning eternal rest in Latin. A requiem is a religious piece of music made up of multiple small pieces called movements. Each movement is quite different in character and mood and is about a particular religious scripture based on the topic of death. Requiems are religious works originating from the Catholic church doctrine and have had a place in religious services since the 6th century, usually a funeral or memorial service.

History of the requiem.

Requiems came out of the religious doctrine of the Catholic church on the subject of death. The very first requiems that we know of were composed during the Renaissance period, and to this day there are over 2000 requiem compositions. The earliest requiems would have been composed around the 6th century and the texts were sung to Gregorian chant, where single melodic lines (monody) were sung without accompaniment by monks of the church. During the renaissance period, music was more frequently notated. Polyphonic music became more widely used, increasing the number of voices and variation in the music, which sometimes included a basic accompaniment. Notable Renaissance composers of requiems were Victoria, Lassus and Palestrina.

During the baroque era, polyphony really came in to the fore. In addition, it became commonplace to add instrumental accompaniments to the vocal lines of requiems, although the forces were still very much small chamber groups at this point. The harpsichord continuo would lead the performance from the front, with mostly string instruments making up the orchestral section. In terms of the vocal lines, the baroque requiem often used a choir of 4 voices; sopranos, altos, tenors and basses along with some soloists. Given the output of music during the baroque era, it is perhaps surprising there are relatively few requiems written during this time.

The classical period saw the birth and regeneration of music as a whole, largely due to the influence fo the Enlightenment. However, it was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s requiem which transformed the genre. Written in 1791, Mozart did not finish it by his death later that year, so it was finished by Franz Suessmayr. It is perhaps the first notable example of a full-scale requiem mass which is entirely geared towards the music, with one of the first examples of word-painting. It is scored for 2 basset horns, 2 bassoons, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, organ and strings. Interestingly Mozart omitted the bright and energetic sounds of the flute and oboe in favour of the more sonorous and brooding timbre of collective brass instruments. It was Mozart’s work which gave the requiem a more solid foothold in the realm of instrumental writing, with melodies for solo instruments and the introduction of homophony. In this way, Mozart’s requiem paved the way for a more vertical ‘melody plus accompaniment’ style which allowed individual instruments and singers to dominate the texture.

During the romantic period, composers became increasingly independent of the church or royalty for patronage and therefore composed for the sake of composing, rather than for the formality of a formal work contract with an employer. This brought about much freedom amongst composers to express themselves with much more fluidity in their works, allowing requiems to be performed with larger forces in concert halls rather than in churches and overruling previous notions of form, structure, harmony, texture and timbre. Composers felt at liberty to omit or include sections of the requiem liturgy and even alter the standardised language it was sung in. Even composers who were not religious or held differing views to that of the catholic church wrote requiems freely as a work primarily focused on musical rather than religious qualities. Verdi’s requiem, begun in 1873, was written for the concert hall for full symphony orchestra, double choir and soloists. For the first time in history, female singers performed the work, although Verdi’s insistence was met with a degree of resistance and the inclusion may have setback the initial reception of the piece. Another notable work is Brahms’ German Requiem, written entirely in German. Other requiems from the romantic era include works by Berlioz, Fauré, Dvorak, Saint-Saëns and Schumann.

The twentieth century was a period of great change in classical music. All notions of harmony and tonality in particular were completely fluid. Composers during this era wrote requiems entirely removed from any religious context or impulse. The two world wars of 1914-1918 and 1939-1945 greatly influenced composers of the time and many requiems were written to commemorate those who died fighting. Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem is an example of a work written about death but void of religious liturgy, instead setting music to the poems of war poet Wilfred Owen. Most requiems of the twentieth century were large-scale works for hundreds of performers and are nowadays performed, like most requiems, in a concert setting, rather than a religious one.

Musical features of the requiem.

The standard requiem follows religious texts written in Latin, with the exception of Brahms’ German requiem, which was written in German. All the texts were used by the church and written for the occasion of a funeral.

The requiem as a whole is a piece made up of several shorter pieces called movements, each one from a different religious text. Being of sombre and serious nature, a requiem is typically set in a minor key, but the musical characteristics of each movement can be quite different depending on the nature of the text. Some movement such as the Dies Irae denote pain and suffering, whilst the Sanctus is typically more joyful.  Whilst requiems vary in which movements are included, most requiems consist of at least the Sanctus, Benedictus, Dies Irae, Kyrie, Agnus Dei, and In Paradisum.

The forces used are typically orchestra, choir (SATB) and soloist singers, although this varies depending on when the work was written. Some movements would be written for full choir with orchestra and some were written for either one or multiple soloists. Some romantic requiems consisted of fewer soloists and early requiems dating from before the romantic era would have only had men performing, since women were not allowed to perform in a church setting.The final movement would often be written for full forces, including all the soloists, bringing all performers together for a grand finale.