History of musical settings of the Requiem Mass

In musical history, settings of the Mass form an important part of choral music, from the Middle Ages till the present day. Composers have mostly set the 'Ordinary' or 'Common' of the mass, leaving the 'Proper' (varying with the occasion) to traditional plainsong, except for the Requiem Mass, of which many have been composed and are the subject of this Web site.

The first polyphonic mass traceable to a single known composer is one by Guillaume de Machaut, written in 1364 or earlier. Later celebrated composers of Masses for church use include Palestrina who wrote nearly one hundred masses (I recommend Missa Papae Marcelli), Haydn, Beethoven (Miss Solemnis) and Mozart.

Polyphonic Settings to 1600

There are single requiem mass movements from the late 15th Century, and the earliest reference to a complete polyphonic requiem is in the will of Guillaume Du Fay (1397 - 1474) who requested:

...that twelve or more capable men .... on the day following my funeral sing my requiem mass in the Chapel of St Stephen (Cambrai) and for this I bequeath four pounds Parision.

Unfortunately, there is no record of this composition.

The oldest requiem in existence is that of Ockegen written before 1500, possibly around 1470. It is a work of small scope but was used as a model for later 16th Century composers particularly in its use of chant. Ockeghem set only the Introit, Kyrie, gradual (Si ambulem) and tract (Sicut cerves) and varied the texture frequently ranging from two to four voices.

The requiems of Brumel, La Rue and Johannes Prioris immediately followed Ockeghem's. Brumel and Prioris both included the Sanctus, Agnus Dei and communion which had been omitted by Ockeghem.

There are several anonymous settings that survive from the 16th century. In the later decades of the 16th century were settings by Anrio, Asola Belli, Lassus (two settings), Palestrina and Victoria (two settings) to name a small selection. Palestrina's four-movement requiem has a refined style.

Some 41 requiem masses survive from Ockeghem to the end of the 16th Century - quite an output for just over 100 years! Stylistically they are conservative in attitude, and rigid in structure.

Masses after 1600

There were hundreds of masses composed during the 17th Century as composers were eager to expand the range of musical expression. By contrast the 16th Centry Renaissance composers were slow to incorporate new musical styles. Some of the additions were an assimilation of concertato principles (Another name for concertino or concertante group in Baroque music which contained the solo instruments, or violins in contrast with the ripieno) and the use of basso continuo and equally rapidly incorporating instrumental forces.

Some examples are Jean de Bournonville (1619), and Antonio Brunelli (three settings from 1619). Many requiems were printed (published) and as many remain in manuscript notably in the collections of monasteries. The first instance of independent instrumental sections in a requiem occurred at the funeral of Cosimo II de' Medici on 21 May 1621. The setting was a composite of sections written by Monteverdi, Giovanni Grillo and Francesco Usper. Giulio Strozzi who was at the service reported that:

"the ceremonies began with a plaintive instrumental sinfonia which moved the listeners to tears. Don Franceso Monteverdi, son of Claudio sang most delicately these words of sorrow: 'O vos omnes attendite dolorem ostrum...Requiem aeternam'.....the delicate 'De Profundis' was, as it were, a dialogue between souls in purgatory and visiting angels...it was profoundly admired for its novelty and exquisiteness.'

Requiems written for special occasions proliferated after 1600. Continuing a convention begun in the Renaissance, composers from the 17th century onwards established what became a tradition for some 200 years: the use of fugal technique - or at the very least, clear imitation - in the offertory at the words ‘Quam olim Abrahae promisisti'. The most famous examples are the settings by Mozart and Berlioz.

Composers of requiems in the 17th century incorporated into their settings the widespread changes of musical style seen in other church music, instrumental music and opera. The principal musical change was simple expansion of the settings through more frequent text repetition, and in particular, through more lengthy treatment of the sequence.

Giuseppe Bonno's Requiem in C minor includes trombones, creating an extraordinary dynamic opening of the sequence. Bonno wrote another Requeim in E flat containing one of the longest settings of the sequence in the 18th Century. Each verse is treated as a separate movement.

Other requiems include: Carlo Campioni's memorial requeim for Empress Maria Theresia, Pasiello's Requiem for soloists, double chorus and orchestra (1789), Giuseppe Moneta's Requiem. Many composers contributed to the repertory of the requiem including J.C. Bach, Cimarosa, J.F.Fasch, J.A. Hasse, Michael Haydn, Leopold Mozart, Pergolesi and Vogler.

Mozart's Requiem (KV 626 - written in 1791) was unfinished at his death and was completed by F. Süssmayr. Uncertainty persists over precisely what each composer contributed to the work we know today. Complicating the matter are various additions made by Joseph Eybler, a contemporary Kapellmeister in Vienna and a composer of requiems. The composition is among the most important of Mozart's works as well as the most widely performed of all 18th-century requiems. It was featured prominently in the film Amadeus. The expressiveness and intensity of the work match the poignancy of the circumstances surrounding its composition during the final months of Mozart's life.

19th Century

Eybler's Requiem in C minor dates from 1803 and is an ambitiously large setting for eight voices, strings and organs - a sophisticated and skillfully composed work.

Cherubini composed two requiems - one in C minor (1817) first performed at the commemoration of Louis XVI's execution (how ironic!). Beethoven thought this work was greater than Mozart's and Berlioz thought this work to be Cherubini's greatest work. There are no soloists and the sequence is one continuous movement. The work uses a Chinese gong to begin the sequence and foreshadows the spectacular effects used in Berlioz's requiem.

The requiems of Berlioz (1837) and Verdi (1874) are both large-scale, opera-dominated pieces that call for vocal and instrumental resources equal to or exceeding their operas. Berlioz's setting stretches liturgical propriety in its gargantuan orchestra and chorus. Verdi's does so in its rearrangement of the requiem text. Both works have survived the initial intense musical, aesthetic and liturgical criticism to become staples of the repertory, and I recommend both works.

The requiems by Liszt, Sant-Saëns, Bruckner and Dvorak are more conservative that those of Berlioz and Verdi and are in the expressive tradition of Cherubini.

Fauré contributed the most widely-performed requiem of the late 19th century (1887). The work has secured a permanent niche in the repertory, at least partly because of its songlike character and simplicity and the composer's restraint in vocal and instrumental requirements.

George Henschel, the first conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra produced a curious requiem (op 59) that juxtaposes chant and chant-like vocal sections against bombastic passages. Written in 1902, it seems to have been performed rather often within a short period.

Other important requiem composers in the 19th Century include Aiblinger, Gounod, Meyberbeer, Reinicke and Rheinberger.

The general inluence of Romanticism may have provoked interest in setting such a dramatic text, and the 19th century Cecilian movement doubtless accounted for dozens if not hundreds of works.

Requiems of all forms have been published: settings for mixed voices, men's voices, children's voices and solo voice, settings with optional instruments, with and without organ, a cappella, accompanied, and so forth. Many of these requiems were used for a short time and then discarded and very few remain in the active repertory.

Twentieth Century

A notable contributor to the 20th-century repertory is Duruflé whose setting of 1947 has achieved wide success, comparable to Fauré. These two works are often compared because of their restraint, lyricism and general musical style.

My favourite requiem of this century is the War Requiem of Benjamin Britten and deserves a web page of its own (coming soon!). Britten interspersed the Latin words with the poems of Wilfred Owen. The work conjures up images of the battlefields of World War I, and I always play this work on the 25th April each year to commemorate ANZAC Day (Gallipoli).

John Foulds's (1880 - 1939) "A World Requiem" (1919-21) is another important requiem of this century, but not appropriate for liturgical presentation.

Andrew Lloyd Webber, composer of such musicals as Evita, Cats, turned his hand to writing a requiem and was premiered in 1985. I think this work is successful, although the addition of drums makes the work too popular instead of liturgical.

The most recently composed requiem is The Fire Requiem (Flamma Flamma) by Nicholas Lens. A review by Fred Flaxman is available from the Classical Net web site. I hope to purchase a copy of this CD in the near future.

The Requiem is a popular subject for many composers and some 1600 requiems may be identified for the period from Ockeghem to the present day:

In French the name for Requiem Mass is Messe des Morts, in Italian Messa per i defuncti (or pei defunti), and in German Totenmesse (all of which terms mean 'Mass for the Dead').

Requiem Web home

Last updated: 4th October 2000