(Note: At the end of this post are listening recommendations I’ll be updating periodically. Last updated September 30, 2019))
About six weeks ago I decided to abandon rock and roll music and listen to nothing but classical music for the rest of the year. (I’m using the term “classical” very broadly here, including music from the Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic and modern periods.) This was a big change, since I’ve listened almost exclusively to rock (and a lot of it) practically every day for decades. I had some exposure to the basics of classical music — Beethoven, Mozart, Wagner and Schubert primarily . And to show you how naive I was, I feared I’d run out of “good” classical music before the end of the year. Turns out, I am just beginning to understand what “good” is — and there more of it out there than I’ll ever have time to listen to.
Within a week I gravitated to an ancient form, music for the Requiem, the Roman Catholic Mass of the Dead. In the Middle Ages, liturgical text was set to Gregorian music for the Requiem Mass; from that point forward to this day composers from devout Catholics to confirmed atheists have composed Requiems that would stir the soul of a baked potato.
I was attracted to Requiem Mass compositions for three reasons. First, I enjoy full symphonic arrangements with choral elements. Second, being somewhat familiar with the liturgy of the Latin Mass, I can at least partially understand the context and structure of Requiem compositions from centuries past, whose movements correspond to specific parts of that liturgy. Third, like almost anyone with exposure to classical music, I had heard (and dearly love) Mozart’s incredible Requiem in D Minor, a work whose power and beauty are beyond description. I figured if other Requiem Masses were half as good as Mozart’s, they’d still be fantastic.
My starting point was this excellent article, The Top Ten Greatest Requiem Masses. I listened to nine of them. A few left me cold, but several brought tears to my eyes. I wondered if many more Requiems had been composed over the years. More naivety: Here is a gentleman who has cataloged more than 5,200 of them. Who can guess how many thousands more exist in fragments or have been lost entirely in the mist of history? ( I’ll be linking to this website frequently in the recommendations section as a convenience to readers interested in learning more about the composers and the cited works.)
There are basically three types of Requiem compositions: those intended to be used in the actual Mass liturgy, those composed purely as concert performance pieces, and those that can be performed in both ways. Some composers follow the text of the Mass very closely; others make significant rewrites in order to better fit the music or for other reasons. All of the Requiems I’ve listened to so far — about 20 — are sung in Latin. In some cases the Requiems were composed in memory of someone or commissioned for the funeral of an individual.
Requiems are in the main deeply moving, and are all extremely complex. If you doubt just how complex they are, download this scholarly, 241-page analysis of the Grande Messe Des Morts by Hector Berlioz, one of the most famous Requiems. Don’t overlook the end when the author discusses the orchestration.
Part of what gives Requiems their punch is that they are written about something. Each section of the liturgy has a purpose which the corresponding movement of the Requiem strives to bring alive in the soul of the listener. For example, the first movement is often the Kyrie, when those gathered at Mass pray, “Lord have mercy.” How are we to feel when we hear these words sung in the Requiem? What does our relationship with God feel like at this point in our prayer? What is our attitude to be toward our Lord as we ask for His mercy? The liturgy of the traditional funeral Mass is filled with deep prayers, profound ideas, moments of sadness and moments of joy. Requiem music does far more than indulge a composer’s creative whims; neither is it music created simply for the sake of being heard. Instead, it is meant to lift up our souls and bring us consolation and hope and even joy when facing the death of a loved one, when mortality meets immortality. What could be more worthy of a musical composition? What could be more beautiful and useful to a listener? What could more inspire a composer to create music?
I hope this list will grow much longer over time. My tastes favor Requiems with a predominantly fast tempo, traditional choral treatments rather than an operatic flavor with extended vocal solos, strong melodic elements and a strong overall sense of drama and reverence. In addition to Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor, these Requiems stand out.
- Franz von Suppe (1819-1895), Requiem in D Minor. Melodic, solemn without being ponderous.
- Michael Haydn (1737-1806), Requiem in C Minor, MH 559. Michael Haydn is the much less famous brother of Joseph Haydn. Unlike his brother, Michael was a devout Catholic and it shows in the solemnity and emotional power of his work. I’ve listened to several other MH compositions; all are marvelous. (Update note: Requiem Survey reports that this work was actually composed earlier, by Georg Robert von Pasterwitz.)
- Georg Joseph Vogler (1749-1814), Requiem in E-Flat Major. Short movements, highly dramatic, and a sound rather different from most. Vogler was a priest and musician.
- Luigi Cherubini (1760-1842), Requiem in C Minor. To me this work sounded rather like Beethoven — intense, no wasted notes, solid from beginning to end.
- Joao Domingos Bomtempo (1775-1842), Requiem in C Minor. Bomtempo strikes the perfect balance, achieving tremendous drama without going over the top. The Offertorium, about 10 minutes long, is one of the most beautiful pieces of music I’ve ever heard.
- Jan Dismas Zelenka (1679-1745), Requiem in D Minor, ZWV 48. For his inventive and intricate compositions, Zelenka was thought of as the Catholic counterpart to J. S. Bach. This Requiem runs the gamut from exuberance to sadness.
- Antonio Salieri (1750-1825), Requiem in C Minor. Quite solemn, with beautiful choral elements. Besides having a very devout feel, this Requiem has another fine attribute — it’s short.
Requiem Recommendations – Updates:
- Tomas Luis Victoria (1548-1611), Officium defunctorum. Gregorian music but with stronger melodies. Excellent blending of choir and soloists. An air of sadness throughout. Slow tempo throughout.
- Josef Anton Bruckner (1824-1896), Requiem in D Minor, WAB 39. 37-minute run time. Brisk tempo, melodic and intense throughout. V. Quam Olim was particularly moving.
- Zelenka, Requiem in C Minor, ZWV 45. Written to commemorate the death of Kaiser Joseph 1. Perhaps not as consistently strong as some of his other works, it still has many moments of great beauty and spiritual depth. It’s about 45 minutes long. If you like Zelenka, try Miserere in C Minor, ZWV 50; Missa Sanctissimae Trinitatis in A Minor, ZWV 17; Missa Sancti Josephi, ZMV 14.
- Cimarosa, Domenico (1749-1801), Requiem in G Minor. From Naples (Italy, not Florida), Cimirosa was known mainly for operas, and passages of his Requiem feature excellent, operatic solos. It is a very gentle piece, about an hour long.
- Gossec, Francois-Joseph (1734-1829), Grande Messe Des Morts. Dramatic, melodic, powerful, passionate. Innovative for its time in the depth and diversity of orchestration. This Mass influenced Mozart, and I think it does sound a lot like Mozart. Confutatis, Allegro Molto, is insanely good, the allegro to beat all allegros.
- Verdi, Giusseppe, (1813-1901), Messa da requiem. Dedicated in memory of Alessandro Manzoni. Powerful, dramatic, but not overly operatic in tone. More of a performance piece than liturgical music, it is nevertheless beautiful and inspiring.
- Bach, Johann Christian (1735-1782). Messa de’ morti. JC Bach was the youngest of JS Bach’s sons, convert to Catholicism, and a strong influence on Mozart. His requiem is outstanding, restrained in tone but definitely belonging to the Classical style.
- Durante, Franceso (1684-1755). Requiem Mass in C Minor. Baroque at its best. Highly mournful, yet controlled and structured with elegance.
- Kerll, Johann Kaspar (1627-1693). Missa pro defunctis. Early Baroque; steady, solemn, with some unusual vocal elements.
- Fux, Johann Joseph (1660-1741). Requiem in C Minor, “Kaiserrequiem.” Composed in 1720. Fux was famed for his Gradus ad Parnassum, a book of instruction on counterpoint that was studied by basically every classical composer that followed him.