A Requiem Mass at St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City.
A Requiem Mass at St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City.

The Catholic Church has inspired, and commissioned, extraordinary music to accompany and enhance its significant religious rituals. The Mass, the service celebrated year-round with specific versions for major feast days and observances, provides a liturgical framework for symphonic and sung compositions. Of the joyful and solemn occasions marked by Catholics, the music for the funeral Mass, the Requiem, is among the most stirring and memorable.

Music for the Mass for the Dead

A Requiem is the Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead. The name comes from the Latin, which was once the standard language for all Catholic Masses, and begins in a funeral Mass with "Requiem aeternam dona eis Domine" -- "Grant unto them eternal rest, Lord." Early Masses for the Dead were musically accompanied by a capella Gregorian chant, a type of plainsong sung by male choirs without instrumental music. But, as the Church clarified and defined the Requiem in the fifteenth century, musical compositions became more elaborate. Polyphonic, or multi-part, harmonizing music was introduced. The famous Requiems we know today were composed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; contemporary composers, such as Andrew Lloyd Webber and Carl Rütti, have produced more current versions of the classic form.

Sung Parts of the Requiem

Requiem music in classical composition closely followed the liturgy for the Mass and set parts of it to music. A Requiem would typically score the Introit -- the Requiem aeternam; the Kyrie -- which might be sung in the call-and-response style with the choir, co-celebrants or congregation; a Dies irae -- a dramatic expression of the severity of Judgment Day; a Lacrimosa -- a lamentation in the Dies irae; a Sanctus; a Benedictus; and an Agnus Dei. For funeral Masses, the words of the Agnus dei are changed from "Forgive us our sins" and "Grant us peace" to "Grant them peace" and "Grant them eternal peace." Some Requiem composers included the Lux aeternam sung at the time of the Eucharist in the Mass when the priest transforms the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. Lux aeternam means "everlasting light" and refers to the blessings of heaven.

Celebrated Requiems

A number of celebrated compositions are in the form of the Requiem for the Catholic funeral Mass. Mozart died before he could complete his Requiem, considered one of the finest compositions for an ecclesiastical funeral service. His original work only included parts of the opening Requiem aeternam, the vocals for the Kyrie, Sequence and Offertory, part of the Lacrimosa and possibly a closing Amen fugue. Despite the fact that the missing orchestration and entire sections had to be finished by an assistant, the Requiem in D minor reflects Mozart's genius. Giuseppe Verdi's Requiem, written to commemorate the death of a beloved poet and novelist, is a stirring work that features a terrifying Dies irae -- Day of Wrath, or judgment day -- and a lyrical Lux aeternam with flutes to evoke the idea of eternal light. Verdi included operatic solos for four voices and called for trumpets stationed around the church or concert hall to play a fanfare welcoming the departed soul to eternal life.

Guidelines for Requiem Music

Popular music, no matter how beloved by the deceased or favored by the family, is not permitted during a Catholic funeral or memorial Mass. The use of music in a funeral or memorial is meant to console the mourners and to remind them of the Catholic beliefs in life everlasting and the resurrection of the dead on the day of judgment. Requiem music celebrates Christ's rising from the dead and ascension into heaven and holds out the promise of a similar joyful reunion with God for the departed soul. The choice of liturgical music underscores the solemnity of the occasion and the sacred nature of the rite of passage from this life to the next.

Taped music is not permitted during a funeral Mass because it lacks the resonance of the human voice and instrumental music produced by musicians and members of the congregation. Participation in the music is an act similar to a prayer and an homage to the deceased.