Hey, haven't I heard that tune before?
Dies irae, dies illa... You may not realize it, but most of you are probably already familiar with this Gregorian chant from the Mass for the dead. How is that possible, you ask? Well, the "Dies Irae" is one of the most quoted (and thus most recognizable) pieces in music history. For centuries, composers have been quoting this little tune - to the point that it has even wormed its way into pop culture. You'll find the "Dies Irae" in movies and television programs, even TV commercials! Sometimes it's used symbolically. At other times, it's intended to be an inside joke, a funny little aside for those in the know, but whatever the motive, there can no doubt that composers love sneaking this tune into their work - and musical theatre composers are no exception. In honor of Halloween, let's take a look at where this spooky tune pops up in the musical theatre canon.
First, we need to learn how to recognize the piece. The "Dies Irae" is part of the Latin Requiem Mass. That title translates to "Day of Wrath," and the text of the chant describes the day of judgment and the wrath of God. So, you know, heartwarming stuff. Listen to the video below to familiarize yourself with the tune. You can listen to the whole thing if you feel so inclined (everyone needs a little Gregorian chant in their life, right?), but for our purposes you only need to know the opening - the melody that corresponds with the lines, "Dies irae, dies illa."
Does it sound familiar? That's probably because this motive is heavily featured in some pretty famous scores. It's built into the opening theme of the horror classic The Exorcist. It shows up in Star Wars at the moment when Luke returns to his family home on Tatooine and (spoiler alert!) finds the bodies of his aunt and uncle. It even makes an appearance in The Lion King after Scar gives the order for Simba to be killed. To hear these examples and more, take a look at this fun little video from radio host Tom Allen as he explains the various places where this chant has appeared throughout history.
So where can we find it in musical theatre? Well, certain composers have altered it to fit their particular musical style or dressed it up a bit so it's not immediately recognizable, but then there are others who don't even bother trying to disguise it. This is the case, for instance, in Rent. Yes, the Song of the Dead appears in the 90's rock musical Rent. It shows up in "La Vie Boheme" - a song which, when I played it for my husband, he described as "angsty bohemian 'My Favorite Things.'" An apt description.
"Dies Irae" appears pretty early on in "La Vie Boheme." It follows the lyric, "Dearly beloved, we gather here to say our goodbyes." The chant is especially appropriate under the circumstances since Benny has just pronounced that Bohemia is dead. The others use the "Dies Irae" to mock him, feigning sorrow at the "death" of their lifestyle.
Okay, that one was pretty easy to identify. But can we recognize it when it's been altered a bit? Listen to this number from Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera and see if you can hear the influence of the centuries-old chant.
"Hounded out by everyone," sings the Phantom, "Met by hatred everywhere. No kind words from anyone. No compassion anywhere." The melody here is not a direct translation of the "Dies Irae" but it's clearly related to the famous sequence. The defining feature of the Requiem chant is this series of interlocking seconds and thirds and "Down Once More" is likewise built on seconds and thirds. Let's break it down. The intervals for the famously quoted phrase of "Dies Irae" are as follows: descending minor second, ascending minor second, descending minor third, ascending major second, descending major third, ascending minor second. The phrase from Phantom goes like this: ascending minor third, ascending major second, descending minor third, ascending minor second, descending minor third, ascending major second. I know that probably sounds like gibberish, but in shorthand, it looks something like this:
"Dies Irae" ↓m2 ↑m2 ↓m3 ↑M2 ↓M3 ↑M2
"Down Once More" ↑m3 ↑M2 ↓m3 ↑m2 ↓m3 ↑M2
It matches up more than you would think. Apart from the opening interval, the general shape of "Down Once More" follows the same ascending and descending motion as "Dies Irae." And although the major/minor quality of the notes has shifted a bit, Webber has generally matched thirds with thirds and seconds with seconds. The sound of it is distinct enough to be its own thing, and yet it retains enough of the original to be recognizable - not a direct quotation, but part of the same musical family tree. The implied connection with the famous Requiem chant lends Webber's melody a sense of foreboding. The Phantom is close to losing it and the familiar sound of the "Dies Irae" allows us to subconsciously understand the underlying threat.
Okay, so we've learned to recognize the "Dies Irae" as it appears in the work of Jonathan Larson and Andrew Lloyd Webber. Now let's turn our attention to one of Stephen Sondheim's most famous works: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
Sweeney Todd is a musical with a lot of dark themes so I guess it's not surprising that Sondheim would make use of the sinister "Dies Irae" motive in his score. The motive appears in the very first number of the show, "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd," and it makes quite an entrance. You see, the first few verses of this number are relatively understated (each is presented by a solo singer with a minimized orchestral texture), but then the chorus and orchestra come in at full volume with the following text: "Swing your razor wide, Sweeney. Hold it to the skies. Freely flows the blood of those who moralize." Because of the stark contrast between verse and refrain, this part of the song really makes an impact. And this is where Sondheim has incorporated the "Dies Irae." It's not a direct quote, but like Webber's version, there's enough of the original there to be recognized.
Clearly, this is an appropriate choice of musical quotation. Sondheim has chosen a motive that has very clear associations with death and we all know death is very present in Sweeney Todd, as are themes of judgment and wrath. That, in and of itself, is pretty straightforward. But what I love about the appearance of the "Dies Irae" in this show is how it is worked into the rest of the score. We clearly hear the influence of the motive in the refrain of the ballad, but did you notice how tiny little seeds of that musical idea are planted throughout the rest of the piece?
Listen to the second verse to get a feeling for how this is done. (This is the verse that begins, "He kept a shop in London town." It starts at 1:13 in the video.) High above the vocalist you should be able to hear a countermelody in the orchestra. These little orchestral bits are all built from the "Swing your razor" refrain - in fact, they are seeds of the "Dies Irae." Thus, the disturbing motive is built into the very structure of the show - foreshadowing the death and destruction that is to come.
Star Wars, The Lion King, It's a Wonderful Life, Rent, Phantom, Sweeney Todd - these are movies and musicals with totally dissimilar plots and themes, and yet the "Dies Irae" has crept into all of these scores. It may be centuries old, but if one thing is certain, it is that the Song of the Dead is alive and well.