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Requiem Mass History

Composing a Requiem: What Is A Requiem?

I’ve been composing a requiem for several weeks. Usually, when I share this with friends, they simply say, “What’s a requiem?” So, I thought it might be interesting to really answer that.

The Requiem Mass in History

The Catholic Church brought us the requiem: it was the mass for the dead. Think of it as music for a funeral. Though there are indications of a specific funeral mass from as early as the 2nd century, it seems that the church did not adopt musical forms (mostly chants) in this ritual until about the 10th century.

Though the church called it a “mass for the dead”, they celebrated this mass for one person who had died. Much like our modern funerals, these commemorated one individual.

What’s In A Name?

The name “requiem” comes from the first lines of the text:

Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine:
et lux perpetua luceat eis.
Grant them eternal rest, O Lord,
and may light eternal shine upon them.


Since it started as a mass, most Protestant musicians (such as Bach) did not compose a requiem. Over time, some composers from other traditions did find their way to writing requiems. Most of these did not follow the form or text of the Catholic mass. These changes included a departure from using the Latin text as well, notably in Johannes Brahms’ “German Requiem”.

By the 20th century, requiems were composed for humanity as a whole. John Foulds’s World Requiem (1919–21) and Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem (1961) are examples. These were inspired by the first and second world wars, respectively.

Why a Requiem Now?

The short answer is: COVID-19. We have lost so much humanity in the past year. Currently, more than three million people are confirmed dead from this terrible virus. Sadly, this pandemic is not over — though we have greater hope with multiple vaccines.

In my own life as well as what I’ve witnessed with other people, there is so much grief. I was looking for a way to express this grieving and loss. For me, that’s currently taking the form of a requiem.

Next week, I’ll tell you more about composing the five movements in “Requiem for a Stranger“.

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