“Dies Irae” is a Latin hymn and a particularly renowned melody of plainchant. Based in Christianity, the “Dies Irae,” or “Day of Wrath” is a rumination of the day of judgement. The first stanza of this Medieval Latin poem has be translated as:
“That day of wrath, that dreadful day,
shall heaven and earth in ashes lay,
as David and the Sybil say.”
While ominous in nature for devout Christians, the plainchant form has been utilized for artistic purposes. Originally, this plainchant was specifically used in the Roman Catholic Requiem Mass: specifically for the Funeral Mass. Since then, however, the “Dies Irae” plainchant has been largely used in secular settings rather than sacred settings. While the origin of this chant dates back to the 13th century, musical composers have incorporated the “Dies Irae” theme into their musical compositions throughout centuries and still do so today in the 21st century.
Notable musical compositions that have incorporated the “Dies Irae” theme usually are depicting a scene with looming presence or occurrence of death. For example, Hector Berlioz utilized the “Dies Irae” theme in his musical composition Symphonie Fantastique. This symphonic work was written in 1830 and depicts a young man who experiences a nightmare in which he kills his beloved in a fit of rage. He is sentenced to death and the “Dies Irae” theme appears when the young man is in Hell. In addition, Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, also known as the Resurrection Symphony, also incorporates the “Dies Irae” plainchant. The plainchant theme first appears in the first movement, which originally had a narrative: depicting a funeral march pondering life after death.
As the “Dires Irae” plainchant continued to be used in traditional classical compositions, film composers in the 20th century continued the tradition in film soundtracks. One of the most well-known uses of the “Dires Irae” plainchant theme in film music history is the 1977 Star Wars soundtrack: with scenes depicting death. The theme was additionally used in death scenes concerning character deaths in the 1947 film It’s a Wonderful Life and the 1994 Disney film The Lion King.