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Dies Irae: The Place of Fear in Verdi's Requiem

October 23rd, 2005 | 3 min read

By Tex

Last evening the Canterbury Choral Society gave a laudable performance of Verdi’s Requiem at the Oklahoma City Convention Center. The weighty lyrics were expertly matched with a full-bodied performance of the soul-shaking music. Verdi was a king of operatic composition, demanding large, theatrical gestures of the orchestra and choir through the music in order to deal adequately with the various foundational themes he explored; his Requiem is no different.

Using the Latin text of the Catholic Mass for the Dead, Verdi explores the terror of the Day of the Lord and the coming judgement, as well as the hope of the saints through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ to attain everlasting rest. For those acquainted with the Requiem, it is the Dies Irae (Day of Wrath) that carries the performance. The double choir, huge bass drum, swirling strings, and trumpet call and response all combine to strike dread in the hearts of the listeners for, “Quantus tremor est futurus, quando judex est venturus, cuncta stricte discussurus” (“How great the trembling will be, when the Judge shall come, the rigourous investigator of all things”). The rest of the Requiem is driven by the terror of the coming Day–both the cries for mercy, praises of God, and prayers for eternal rest arise out of the terrible vision of the world dissolving into embers and ashes before a holy God. Verdi’s point is loud and clear; the future is sure, the Day is coming, and none shall escape from the just Judge.

Quid sum miser tunc dicturus? (What then am I, a poor wretch, going to say?). It is a this point, when the listener realizes that there is no escape from the Judge, that all humankind is justly condemned by God, then only one answer may suffice–Jesu pie, redemisti crucem passus (merciful Jesus, having suffered the Cross, you redeemed me). The terror of being justly judged and found wanting, drives the Christian to his knees in a heart rending prayer for mercy, “not because of who I am Lord, but because of who you are and what you have done, save me…for your sake, save me.” This same prayer, resting upon the work of Christ and not of men, is repeated in full force to close the Requiem. The chorus and soprano finish the prayer with a powerful fugue, moving and building around the cry “Libera me, Domine” (“Deliver me, Lord”) from death, from eternal punishment, from separation from the King of Glory. The final measures end in sober reflection, meditating on the Day when the world shall be judged with fire, leaving the listener to walk away knowing that the cry for deliverance must echo through his life even as it echoed throughout the Requiem.

While my Protestant theology was rightly offended by some of the theology present in this Mass for the Dead, I walked away realizing that the Requiem offers a valuable perspective often overlooked in evangelical circles. God is not merely my buddy and friend; He is the Lord God of Hosts whose heaven and earth are full of His glory. I think many Protestants are unable to understand the fearfulness of that coming day because we emphasize the sureness of salvation to the point that we forget how great that salvation is because of what it has saved us from–God’s wrath. His holiness is pure, His wrath is just, and I, the worst of sinners, can only fall on my face in fear before His certain coming. I may not rest upon my works, upon my attempts at holiness, for they will crumble just as surely as the mountains will fall at His coming. The blood of Jesus is my only hope, my only surety, and, in light of the coming judgement, is of insurpassable value to me.

The insights from the Requiem cannot stand alone, and when they do, they lead to heresy; there is more to the Christian life than fear of judgement, for we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens so that we might boldy approach the throne of grace. However, a theology that forgets the power of God cannot stand alone either. It is sometimes perfectly reasonable to fall to your face in fear in the presence of Goodness and Justice, simply becasue of the magnitude of Who Goodness and Justice is.