Dies Irae

Series: Window on the World

by Phil Ryken June 2, 2002

This week our own Stuart Neill is singing with the Philadelphia Orchestra as they perform Verdi's Requiem. I've been looking forward to the performance since last year, when the orchestra's 2001-2002 schedule was first announced.

I've also been getting ready. A few months ago I purchased a recording of the work that Eugene Ormandy made back in the 1960's. While I'm not especially knowledgeable about music, I receive it as a gift from God and try to enjoy it as intelligently as I can. For me that generally means listening to a musical work dozens of times before it begins to become familiar.

I also try to think about music from the biblical point of view. In the case of Verdi's Requiem, that's easy to do because it deals with a topic that interests every Christian, and indeed ought to interest everyone: the sinner's destiny on the Day of Judgment.

Perhaps the dominant text in Verdi's Requiem is the “Dies irae,” or “Day of Wrath.” This text is reprised throughout the Requiem, including at the very end. Each time it is sung, the “Dies irae” bursts into the performance with the loud booming of drums, the shuddering of strings, and the almost frantic singing of the choir.

When translated from Latin into English, the text for the “Dies irae” reads something like this:

Day of wrath and doom impending,

David's word with Sibyl's blending!

Heaven and earth in ashes ending!

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 sepulchres it ringeth,

all before the throne it bringeth.

Death is struck and nature quaking,

all creation is awaking,

to its Judge an answer making.

The text goes on to describe how God will sit on his throne, consult his books, and render judgment on everything that everyone has ever done: nothing will remain unpunished (“Nil inultum remanebit”).

What the composer tried to convey was a dramatic sense of doom at the approach of God's wrath. According to one contemporary account, “Verdi, who… leaves nothing to chance, took care to make himself acquainted… with all the Requiems written by the great masters. He… came to the conclusion that the Dies Irae had never been musically treated in the exact spirit of the Latin text” [quoted in David Rosen, Verdi: Requiem, Cambridge University Press, 1995, p. 8].

What is “the exact spirit of the Latin text”? It is clear from Verdi's music that he believed the Day of Wrath to be a day of terror. Like any requiem, his work includes many prayers for mercy. The vast chorus appeals for Christ to grant eternal life to the souls of the dead. At times, however, there is something almost desperate about these prayers—a pleading quality that seems to betray a lack of full confidence that they will be answered.

The soloists also pray—terrified sinners begging for mercy. Their prayers are unsettled, urgent, intense. At times they stammer and repeat their lines, almost weeping:

What shall I, frail man, be pleading?

Who for me be interceding?

when the just are mercy needing?

Worthless are my prayers and sighing,

yet, good Lord, in grace complying,

rescue me from fires undying.

I quake with fear and I tremble, awaiting the day of account and the wrath to come. That day, the day of anger, of calamity, of misery, that great day and most bitter.

As one listens to Verdi's Requiem, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that its composer was not certain he would be able to stand before God on the Day of Judgment. He seems to have believed that sinners must stand before God on their own merits, and he wasn't sure whether he would survive. So the work ends, not with triumph, but with doubt inclining to despair. One critic writes: “The conclusion of it all is enigmatic… . Does he really believe that the prayer will be answered, or does he leave it all as a kind of question mark projected upon the remote, indifferent sky?” [Ernest Newman, quoted in Rosen, p. 74].

If Verdi's Requiem betrays an underlying anxiety about the final judgment, then the work stands in marked contrast to the attitude the Christian should take towards the Day of Wrath. The Bible presents that day as a time of judgment for every sinner who is outside of Christ. For those who reject the good news of the cross and the empty tomb, there is “only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God” (Heb. 10:27).

However, the Bible also insists that true believers can have full confidence that they will be saved: “For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess. 5:9). The reason for this confidence is that believers do not stand before God on their own merits, but on the merits of Jesus Christ. It was for this reason that the apostle Paul could say, “Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing” (2 Tim. 4:8). Similarly, the apostle John could say that if we live in God, then “we will have confidence on the day of judgment” (1 John 4:17).

Do you have confidence to face God on the Day of Judgment? Are you ready for “Dies irae,” the day of wrath? The only way to be ready is to put your trust in Jesus Christ. The time for doing that is not on the Day of Judgment, when it will be too late, but right now, while there is still time.

[I am grateful to Stuart Neill for his improvements to this essay. Latin translations come from the guide to Giuseppe Verdi, Messa da Requiem, Sony Essential Classics (compact disc)]

© 2019 Tenth Presbyterian Church.

Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in its entirety or in unaltered excerpts, as long as you do not charge a fee. For Internet posting, please use only unaltered excerpts (not the content in its entirety) and provide a hyperlink to this page. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Tenth Presbyterian Church.

Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By Phil Ryken. ©2019 Tenth Presbyterian Church. Website: tenth.org