Dies Irae (Day of Wrath) as a Hymn of Mercy? Yes!

I am of the mind that one of the great treasures and masterpieces of the Church’s Gregorian Chant is the sequence hymn for funeral Masses, Dies Irae. It is almost never done at funeral today though it remains a fixture of the Extraordinary form Mass. I know it is a “heavy” hymn with a sobering message, but it sure is glorious. The gorgeous chant was one of the more beautiful and soaring melodies of Gregorian Chant and manycomposers such as Mozart and Verdi set the text to stirring musical compositions. With November, the month of All souls winding down and Advent before us, perhaps this hymn deserves a look.

Ah the Dies Irae! It’s syllables hammering away in trochaic dimeter: Dies irae dies illa solvet saeclum in favilla, teste David cum Sybila! (Day of wrath that day when the world dissolves to ashes, David bears witness to it along with the Sibyl!) Perhaps at times it is a bit heavy but at the same time no hymn more beautifully sets forth a basis for God’s mercy. The dark clouds of judgment part and give way to the bright beauty of the final line Pie Jesu Domine, dona eis requiem (Sweet Jesus Lord, give them [the dead] rest).

The hymn was not composed for funerals. Actually it was composed by Thomas of Celano in the 13th century as an Advent Hymn. Yes, that’s right an Advent hymn. Don’t forget that Advent isn’t just about getting ready for Christmas, it is about getting ready for the Second Coming of the Lord. And that is what this hymn is really about. At this time of year, as the the leaves fall and summer turns to winter, we are reminded of the passing of all things. The Gospels we read are those that remind us of death and the judgment to come.

Journey with me into the beauty and solemn majesty of this hymn. I will give you an inspiring English translation by W J Irons, one that preserves the meter and renders the Latin close enough. A few comments from me along the way but enjoy this largely lost masterpiece and mediation on the Last Judgment. (You can see the Latin Text along with English here: Dies Irae)

The hymn opens on the Day of Judgement warning that the day will reveal God’s wrath upon all injustice and unrepented sin. God’s wrath is his passion to set things right. And now it is time to put an end of wickedness and lies:

    • Day of wrath and doom impending,
    • Heaven and earth in ashes ending:
    • David’s words with Sibyl’s blending.

And all are struck with a holy fear! No one and no thing can treat of this moment lightly: all are summoned to holy fear. The bodies of the dead come forth from their tombs at the sound of the trumpet and will all of creation answer to jesus, the Judge and Lord of all:

    • Oh what fear man’s bosom rendeth
    • When from heaven the judge descendeth
    • On whose sentence all dependeth!
    • Wondrous sound the trumpet flingeth,
    • Through earth’s sepulchers it ringeth,
    • All before the throne it bringeth.
    • Death is struck and nature quaking,
    • All creation is awaking,
    • To its judge an answer making.
    • Lo the book exactly worded,
    • Wherein all hath been recorded,
    • Thence shall judgement be awarded.
    • When the Judge his seat attaineth,
    • And each hidden deed arraigneth:
    • Nothing unavenged remaineth.

Judgment shall be according to our deeds, whatever is in the Book (Rev 20:12; Romans 2:6)! Ah but also in God’s Word is the hope for mercy and so our hymn turns to ponder the need for mercy and appeals to God for that mercy:

    • What shall I frail man be pleading?
    • Who for me be interceding?
    • When the just are mercy needing?
    • King of majesty tremendous,
    • Who does free salvation send us,
    • Font of pity then befriend us.
    • Think kind Jesus, my salvation,
    • Caused thy wondrous incarnation:
    • Leave me not to reprobation.
    • Faint and weary thou hast sought me:
    • On the cross of suffering bought me:
    • Shall such grace be vainly brought me?
    • Righteous judge for sin’s pollution,
    • Grant thy gift of absolution,
    • Before the day of retribution.
    • Guilty now I pour my moaning:
    • All my shame and anguish owning:
    • Spare, O God my suppliant groaning.
    • Through the sinful Mary shriven,
    • Through the dying thief forgiven,
    • Thou to me a hope has given.

Yes there is a basis for hope! God is rich in mercy and, pondering the Day of Judgment is salutary since for now we can call on that mercy. And, in the end it is only grace and mercy that can see us through that day:

    • Worthless are my tears and sighing:
    • Yet good Lord in grace complying,
    • Rescue me from fire undying.
    • With thy sheep a place provide me,
    • From the goats afar divide me,
    • To thy right hand do thou guide me.
    • When the wicked are confounded,
    • Doomed to flames of woe unbounded:
    • Call me with thy saints surrounded.
    • Lo I kneel with heart-submission,
    • See like ashes my contrition:
    • Help me in my last condition.

And now comes the great summation: That Day is surely coming! Grant me O lord your grace to be ready:

    • Lo, that day of tears and mourning,
    • from the dust of earth returning.
    • Man for judgement must prepare him,
    • Spare O God, in mercy spare him.
    • Sweet Jesus Lord most blest,
    • Grant the dead eternal rest.

A masterpiece of beauty and truth if you ask me. Some years ago I memorized most of it. I sing it from time to time over in Church late at night, the hauntingly beautiful chant rings through the echoing arches of our Church. When I die sing it at my funeral! For I go to the Lord, the judge of all and only grace and mercy will see me through. Perhaps the plaintive calls of the choir below at my funeral will resonate to the very heavens as I am judged. And maybe the Lord will look at me and say,

    • I think they’re praying for you down there, asking mercy.”
    • “Yes, Lord, mercy.”
    • “They’re making a pretty good case.”
    • Yes Lord, mercy.
    • Then mercy it shall be


Dies Irae from elena mannocci on Vimeo.

22 Replies to “Dies Irae (Day of Wrath) as a Hymn of Mercy? Yes!”

  1. Beautiful. I have sung this with the Gregorian Chant Schola in Oxford, and my Grandmother asks for it every time we visit my Grandfather’s grave.

  2. One of the greatest. My favorite operatic version is Pavarotti and Sutherland’s rendition in Verdi’s Requiem.

    Any reason one couldn’t request it for the contemporary funeral mass? Where we would it be included?

    It seems to me that a plain chant version of this would be a wonderfullly solemn addition to today’s funeral mass.

      1. I have admired this hymn for a long time, though didn’t know it was an Advent hymn! (How cool is that?) I’d love it to be sung at my funeral mass someday. The problem around here seems to be that no cantors/choirs know it. If you want it sung you may have to request it well before you need it, and then be sure to die when it’s convenient for your prepped cantor or choir to sing it. 🙂

    1. Our retired pastor who liked to say the Latin Novus Ordo Mass noted that there is no sequence in it–so he had me (plain-chant soloist) sing the Dies Irae as a prelude before he entered… as soon as he entered the sanctuary, I would go straight into the “Requiem aeternum” introit, followed by the Kyrie. For a soloist this is the equivalent of running a marathon, for the Dies Irae is 4 1/2 minutes long if you don’t drag it (and you shouldn’t.) But I loved doing funerals–every time I sang one, another elderly person would find me afterward and ask if I would sing their funeral. . . Before I moved to another country, I taught all the Catholic children of our Parish for about 10 years to sing the Requiem Mass–a capella, and without needing a director– telling them that I wanted them to sing at my funeral, since I wouldn’t be able to ; -) i still hope they will !

  3. This obviously has nothing to do with the post, but can someone comment on what’s being broadcasted about the Pope’s most recent comments regarding condoms. I’m sure some is being taken out of context in the broadcasting.

  4. When i was in grade school, the 7th and 8th graders would go over to church to sing for funeral masses. We sang the Dies Irae, the same as the video above, in Latin! To this day, I am 64, I still remember the words – in Latin. We also sang In Paradesum, my absolutely favorite, as the casket was leaving the church. Such great beauty stays with me to this day. Hopefully, these will be sung at my funeral, but I have my doubts.

      1. Monsignor Pope – We sang the Faure In Paradisum at Father Walter Lawrence’s funeral along with his Cantique de Jean Racine, Op. 11. A far cry from Dr Jackson’s funeral which was pretty Gospel.

  5. I remember singing this back when I was in the all boys chior at St Cecilia Catholic School in Dallas Texas in the fourth and fifth grade around 1960 through 1962. I didn’t recall the title but the tune and lyrics left an impression. Can’t say the same for the stuff they sing today at mass.

  6. The text is in the form of a hymn: comparable stanzas with the same meter. Its insistent trochaic meter and the use of the same rhyme for each three successive lines both represent the inevitability of final judgment. But it is not strictly a hymn in its last six lines, in which the pattern of rhyming shifts from three successive verses with the same rhyme to only two. But these last six lines begin the point of refuge from the last judgement, the mercy of Jesus. Moreover, it lacks the closing doxology that is characteristic of the hymn

    Likewise, the melody is not that of a hymn, but a sequence. In a hymn, all stanzas are sung to the same melody. In a sequence, pairs of stanzas receive the same melody, and then there is a new melody for the next pair: aa bb cc dd ee, etc (often with the first and last stanza not paired: a bb cc dd ee . . . y.) The melody of the Dies irae is a variation on such a pattern, since it uses three different pairs of melody, and then repeats them twice, with third statement of this set of melodies being broken at its end, with the text “Lacrymosa . . .” from which point there is no further melodic repeat: aa bb cc aa bb cc aa bb c de fg hi. Thus the melody itself represents the breaking of the inevitability of the final judgement, which had been represented by more repeats than is usually found in the sequence and by the insistent single rhyme for three successive lines.

    I find the performance not entirely inappropriate: the expressive insistence of the three rhymes is broken in the performance by giving a long space between the second and third line of each stanza. Likewise certain notes are seemingly arbitrarily lengthened, something which also breaks some of the rhythmic inevitability of the piece.

    The settings of Mozart, but especially of Berlioz and Verdi, have emphasized the horror of the last judgment, and may have been responsible for the bad press the piece received before the council, while the chant melody perhaps better expresses the hopeful refuge in Jesus in the end.

  7. A sequence is sung before the gospel acclamation. The difficulty in utilizing it as conceived for the funeral Mass is that a non-Scriptural composition quite likely will overshadow the proclamation of the Word. And the more beautifully Dies Irae is rendered the more likely it will dominate. Why would we sing a sequence for a funeral, even for a noted parishioner, but not give the same solemnity and attention to Sundays or even major feasts like Christmas and Epiphany which have no sequences?

    My own sense is that it belongs in November, on the final ordinary time Sundays, and on the first Sunday of Advent.

  8. Msgr. Pope,

    Thank you for so beautifully stating a cause I have long championed. I am nearing the completion of a Requiem honoring St. Augustine of Canterbury using wonderfully troped 11th-century texts found at Dumferline Abbey for the ordinary . The Dies Irae was not among them being a somewhat later work. I used the hymn as it appears in the breviary. The text is interrupted at three points by the insertion of an “antiphon”:

    O tu Deus majestatis,
    alme candor Trinitas,
    nos coniunge cum beatis.

    O thou God of Majesty,
    nourishing briliance of the Trinity,
    join us with those blessed ones.

    It seems a lovely addition for the commemoration of the dead. I have no idea about the origins of the “antiphon” and my usually helpful Franciscan resources were clueless. If you know, would you drop me a quick email? It would be greatly appreciated.

  9. I am with you Monsignor, I would like Dies Irae sung at my funeral…My prayer for you is that many years pass before someone has to sing it for either of us…Ad multos annos Monsignor…

  10. I noticed something about this piece in the translation that I had not seen before and it struck me:

    Through the sinful Mary shriven,
    Through the dying thief forgiven,
    Thou to me a hope has given.

    While this was written long before the dogmatic definition of the Immaculate Conception, would it still be appropriate to sing this particular verse as it is? The Latin seems to be a little different “Qui Mariam absolivisti” but it still implies Mary having sinned and needing absolution. Any comments, Msgr.?

    1. The Marian reference is most probably to Mary of Bethany, a supposed prostitute and adultress. She has been confused with Mary Magdalen because of the unfortunate positioning of scripture. There is, I believe, no scriptural reference to anything other than Jesus casting out seven demons from Mary M. That’s not the same as repentance and forgiveness. It is possible that it is the Magdalen as the confusion was common in the middle ages and supported by a fiery homily of Gregory the Great.

  11. Word has it that the Dies Irae was summarily kicked out of the 1978 Episcopal Hymnal (USA) for being about the most unchristian hymn in the book. Pity that — just one of several things the Anglicans have turned up on the politically correct side, but not the theological side of issues. I was a doctor and a Scottish Hebridean silversmith made me a torc to wear. He thought I had saved his mother’s life, and he was impressed that I knew Ulster Gaelic, which is close enough to Scots Gaelic to understand each other. Besides my Benedictine scapular I often wear the torc to remind me of the statue “The Dying Gaul” in the Louvre. Guy is sitting there with a mortal wound but still alive. He is dressed only in a torc. It is meant to remind me that my death may be sudden, painful, alone and on a battlefield I did not choose. I miss the Dies Irae, although as a child we sang it only on Good Friday. Still, the music reverberates through half the movie sountracks that the film industry can produce.

  12. Loved this post, Monsignor. I love singing the Requiem Mass and the Dies Irae sequence. Much was lost when these beautiful chants were removed from the Ordinary Form of the Mass. I too hope that a Requiem Mass is sung for me.

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