Dies Irae

Dies Irae
Centre panel from Memling' triptych Last Judgment (c. 1467–1471)

Dies Irae (Day of Wrath) is a thirteenth century Latin hymn thought to be written by Thomas of Celano (1200 – c. 1265).[1] It is a medieval Latin poem characterized by its accentual stress and its rhymed lines. The metre is trochaic. The poem describes the day of judgment, the last trumpet summoning souls before the throne of God, where the saved will be delivered and the unsaved cast into eternal flames.

The hymn is best known from its use as a sequence in the Roman Catholic Requiem Mass. It was removed from the ordinary form of the Roman Rite Mass in the liturgical reform of 1969–1970, but was retained as a hymn of the Divine Office. It can still be heard when the 1962 form of the Mass is used. An English version of it is found in various missals used in the Anglican Communion.


Use in the Roman liturgy

Those familiar with musical settings of the Requiem Mass—such as those by Mozart or Verdi—will be aware of the important place Dies Iræ held in the liturgy.

It remained as the sequence for the Requiem Mass in the Roman Missal of 1962 (the last edition before the Second Vatican Council) and so is still heard in churches where the Tridentine Latin liturgy is celebrated.

The Dies Irae was retained only in part by the "Consilium for the Implementation of the Constitution on the Liturgy" – the Vatican body charged with drafting and implementing reforms to the Catholic Liturgy ordered by the Second Vatican Council. It is given as the hymn in the Liturgy of the Hours during last week before Advent for the Office of Readings, Lauds and Vespers (divided into three parts).[2]

Nevertheless the same body felt that the funeral rite was in need of reform and eliminated the sequence as such from the Masses for the Dead. A leading figure in the post-conciliar liturgical reforms, Archbishop Annibale Bugnini, explains the mind of the Cardinals and Bishops who were members of the Consilium:

They got rid of texts that smacked of a negative spirituality inherited from the Middle Ages. Thus they removed such familiar and even beloved texts as the Libera me, Domine, the Dies Iræ, and others that overemphasized judgment, fear, and despair. These they replaced with texts urging Christian hope and arguably giving more effective expression to faith in the resurrection.[3]

The text

The Latin text below is taken from the Requiem Mass in the 1962 Roman Missal. The first English version below, translated by William Josiah Irons in 1849,[4] replicates the rhyme and metre of the original. The second English version is a more formal equivalence.

01 Dies iræ! Dies illa
Solvet sæclum in favilla:
Teste David cum Sibylla!
Day of wrath! O day of mourning!
See fulfilled the prophets' warning,
Heaven and earth in ashes burning!
The day of wrath, that day
Will dissolve the world in ashes
As foretold by David and the sibyl!
02 Quantus tremor est futurus,
Quando iudex est venturus,
Cuncta stricte discussurus!
Oh, what fear man's bosom rendeth,
when from heaven the Judge descendeth,
on whose sentence all dependeth.
How much tremor there will be,
when the judge will come,
investigating everything strictly!
03 Tuba mirum spargens sonum
Per sepulchra regionum,
Coget omnes ante thronum.
Wondrous sound the trumpet flingeth;
through earth's sepulchers it ringeth;
all before the throne it bringeth.
The trumpet, scattering a wondrous sound
through the sepulchres of the regions,
will summon all before the throne.
04 Mors stupebit, et natura,
Cum resurget creatura,
Iudicanti responsura.
Death is struck, and nature quaking,
all creation is awaking,
to its Judge an answer making.
Death and nature will marvel,
when the creature arises,
to respond to the Judge.
05 Liber scriptus proferetur,
In quo totum continetur,
Unde mundus iudicetur.
Lo! the book, exactly worded,
wherein all hath been recorded:
thence shall judgment be awarded.
The written book will be brought forth,
in which all is contained,
from which the world shall be judged.
06 Iudex ergo cum sedebit,
Quidquid latet, apparebit:
Nil inultum remanebit.
When the Judge his seat attaineth,
and each hidden deed arraigneth,
nothing unavenged remaineth.
When therefore the judge will sit,
whatever hides will appear:
nothing will remain unpunished.
07 Quid sum miser tunc dicturus?
Quem patronum rogaturus,
Cum vix iustus sit securus?
What shall I, frail man, be pleading?
Who for me be interceding,
when the just are mercy needing?
What am I, miserable, then to say?
Which patron to ask,
when [even] the just may [only] hardly be sure?
08 Rex tremendæ maiestatis,
Qui salvandos salvas gratis,
Salva me, fons pietatis.
King of Majesty tremendous,
who dost free salvation send us,
Fount of pity, then befriend us!
King of tremendous majesty,
who freely savest those that have to be saved,
save me, source of mercy.
09 Recordare, Iesu pie,
Quod sum causa tuæ viæ:
Ne me perdas illa die.
Think, good Jesus, my salvation
cost thy wondrous Incarnation;
leave me not to reprobation!
Remember, merciful Jesus,
that I am the cause of thy way:
lest thou lose me in that day.
10 Quærens me, sedisti lassus:
Redemisti Crucem passus:
Tantus labor non sit cassus.
Faint and weary, thou hast sought me,
on the cross of suffering bought me.
shall such grace be vainly brought me?
Seeking me, thou sat tired:
thou redeemed [me] having suffered the Cross:
let not so much hardship be lost.
11 Iuste iudex ultionis,
Donum fac remissionis
Ante diem rationis.
Righteous Judge! for sin's pollution
grant thy gift of absolution,
ere the day of retribution.
Just judge of revenge,
give the gift of remission
before the day of reckoning.
12 Ingemisco, tamquam reus:
Culpa rubet vultus meus:
Supplicanti parce, Deus.
Guilty, now I pour my moaning,
all my shame with anguish owning;
spare, O God, thy suppliant groaning!
I sigh, like the guilty one:
my face reddens in guilt:
Spare the supplicating one, God.
13 Qui Mariam absolvisti,
Et latronem exaudisti,
Mihi quoque spem dedisti.
Thou the sinful woman savedst;
thou the dying thief forgavest;
and to me a hope vouchsafest.
Thou who absolved Mary,
and heardest the robber,
gavest hope to me, too.
14 Preces meæ non sunt dignæ:
Sed tu bonus fac benigne,
Ne perenni cremer igne.
Worthless are my prayers and sighing,
yet, good Lord, in grace complying,
rescue me from fires undying!
My prayers are not worthy:
however, thou, Good [Lord], do good,
lest I am burned up by eternal fire.
15 Inter oves locum præsta,
Et ab hædis me sequestra,
Statuens in parte dextra.
With thy favored sheep O place me;
nor among the goats abase me;
but to thy right hand upraise me.
Grant me a place among the sheep,
and take me out from among the goats,
setting me on the right side.
16 Confutatis maledictis,
Flammis acribus addictis:
Voca me cum benedictis.
While the wicked are confounded,
doomed to flames of woe unbounded
call me with thy saints surrounded.
Once the cursed have been rebuked,
sentenced to acrid flames:
Call thou me with the blessed.
17 Oro supplex et acclinis,
Cor contritum quasi cinis:
Gere curam mei finis.
Low I kneel, with heart submission,
see, like ashes, my contrition;
help me in my last condition.
I meekly and humbly pray,
[my] heart is as crushed as the ashes:
perform the healing of mine end.
18 Lacrimosa dies illa,
qua resurget ex favilla
Judicandus homo reus.
Huic ergo parce, Deus:
Ah! that day of tears and mourning!
From the dust of earth returning
man for judgment must prepare him;
Spare, O God, in mercy spare him!
Tearful will be that day,
on which from the ash arises
the guilty man who is to be judged.
Spare him therefore, God.
19 Pie Iesu Domine,
dona eis requiem. Amen.
Lord, all pitying, Jesus blest,
grant them thine eternal rest. Amen.
Merciful Lord Jesus,
grant them rest. Amen.

Because the last two stanzas differ markedly in structure from the preceding stanzas, some scholars consider them to be an addition made in order to suit the great poem for liturgical use. The penultimate stanza Lacrimosa discards the consistent scheme of rhyming triplets in favor of a pair of rhyming couplets. The last stanza Pie Jesu abandons rhyme for assonance, and, moreover, its lines are catalectic.

In 1970, the Dies Iræ was removed from the Missal and since 1971 has been proposed ad libitum as a hymn for the Liturgy of the Hours at the Office of Readings, Lauds and Vespers. For this purpose stanza 19 was deleted and the poem divided into three sections: 1–6 (for the Office of Readings), 7–12 (for Lauds) and 13–18 (for Vespers). In addition Qui Mariam absolvisti in stanza 13 was replaced by Peccatricem qui solvisti so that that line would now mean, "You who freed/absolved the sinful woman". In addition a doxology is given after stanzas 6, 12 and 18:[2]

O tu, Deus majestatis,
alme candor Trinitatis
nos coniunge cum beatis. Amen.
O God of majesty
nourishing light of the Trinity
join us with the blessed. Amen.
O thou, God of majesty,
gracious splendour of the Trinity
conjoin us with the blessed. Amen.

Inspiration and other translations

A major inspiration of the hymn seems to have come from the Vulgate translation of Zephaniah 1:15–16:

Dies iræ, dies illa, dies tribulationis et angustiæ, dies calamitatis et miseriæ, dies tenebrarum et caliginis, dies nebulæ et turbinis, dies tubæ et clangoris super civitates munitas et super angulos excelsos.
That day is a day of wrath, a day of tribulation and distress, a day of calamity and misery, a day of darkness and obscurity, a day of clouds and whirlwinds, a day of the trumpet and alarm against the fenced cities, and against the high bulwarks. (Douay–Rheims Bible)

Other images come from Revelation 20:11–15 (the book from which the world will be judged), Matthew 25:31–46 (sheep and goats, right hand, contrast between the blessed and the accursed doomed to flames), 1 Thessalonians 4:16 (trumpet), 2 Peter 3:7 (heaven and earth burnt by fire), Luke 21:26–27 ("men fainting with fear ... they will see the Son of Man coming"), etc.

From the Jewish liturgy, the prayer Unetanneh Tokef also appears to have been a source: "We shall ascribe holiness to this day, For it is awesome and terrible"; "the great trumpet is sounded", etc.

A number of English translations of the poem have been written and proposed for liturgical use. A very loose Protestant version was made by John Newton; it opens:

Day of judgment! Day of wonders!
Hark! the trumpet's awful sound,
Louder than a thousand thunders,
Shakes the vast creation round!
How the summons wilt the sinner's heart confound!

Jan Kasprowicz, a Polish poet, wrote a hymn entitled Dies irae which describes the Judgment day. The first six lines (two stanzas) follow the original hymn's metre and rhyme structure, and the first stanza translates to "The trumpet will cast a wondrous sound".

The American writer Ambrose Bierce published a satiric version of the poem in his 1903 book Shapes of Clay, preserving the original metre but using humorous and sardonic language; for example, the second verse is rendered:

Ah! what terror shall be shaping
When the Judge the truth's undraping –
Cats from every bag escaping!

Rev. Bernard Callan (1750–1804), an Irish priest and poet, translated it into Gaelic around 1800. His version is included in the Gaelic prayer book, The Spiritual Rose.[5]

Manuscript sources

The oldest text of the sequence is found, with slight verbal variations, in a 13th century manuscript in the Biblioteca Nazionale at Naples. It is a Franciscan calendar missal that must date between 1253–1255 for it does not contain the name of Clare of Assisi, who was canonized in 1255, and whose name would have been inserted if the manuscript were of later date.

Musical settings

In four-line neumatic notation, the Gregorian chant of the sequence begins:

The Dies Irae melody in four-line neumatic chant notation.

In 5-line staff notation, the same appears:

The Dies Irae melody in treble clef.

The words have often been set to music as part of the Requiem service, originally as a sombre plainchant. It also formed part of the traditional Catholic liturgy of All Souls' Day. Music for the Requiem Mass has been composed by many composers, including Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as well as Hector Berlioz, Giuseppe Verdi, and Igor Stravinsky.

The traditional Gregorian melody has also been used as a musical quotation in a number of other classical compositions, notable among them:

Literary references

  • Walter Scott used the first two stanzas in the sixth canto of his narrative poem "The Lay of the Last Minstrel" (1805).
  • Johann Wolfgang von Goethe used the first, the sixth and the seventh stanza of the hymn in the scene "Cathedral" in the first part of his drama Faust (1808).
  • Oscar Wilde composed a Sonnet on Hearing the Dies Irae Sung in the Sistine Chapel, contrasting the "terrors of red flame and thundering" depicted in the hymn with images of "life and love".
  • In Gaston Leroux's 1910 novel The Phantom of the Opera, Erik (the Phantom) has the chant displayed on the wall of his funereal bedroom.[12]
  • The character Michael in Iris Murdoch's novel "The Bell" (1958) cites a stanza of the chant.
  • Thomas Pynchon's 1963 novel V. includes direct references to Dies Irae in chapter 9: "Somewhere in the house (though he may have dreamed that too) a chorus had begun singing a Dies Irae in plainsong."
  • In Umberto Eco's 1980 novel The Name of the Rose, Adso has a dream or vision based on the Coena Cypriani while the monks around him chant the Dies Irae.


  1. ^  "Dies Iræ". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913. 
  2. ^ a b Liturgia Horarum IV, (Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2000), p. 489.
  3. ^ Annibale Bugnini, The Reform of the Liturgy : 1948–1975, (The Liturgical Press, 1990), Chap. 46.II.1, p. 773.
  4. ^ This translation appears in the English Missal and also The Hymnal 1940 of the Episcopal Church in the USA.
  5. ^ F 2.22: The Spiritual Rose ed. Malachy McKenna at School of Celtic Studies - Scoil an Léinn Cheiltigh Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies Institiúid Ard-Léinn Bhaile Átha Cliath website
  6. ^ Simmons, Walter. Voices in the Wilderness: Six American Neo-romantic Composers. Scarecrow Press, 2004. ISBN 0810848848
  7. ^ About this Recording - 8.559635 - DAUGHERTY, M.: Metropolis Symphony / Deus ex Machina (T. Wilson, Nashville Symphony, Guerrero)
  8. ^ Grantham, Donald. "Donald Grantham." Composers on Composing for Band. Ed. Mark Camphouse. Vol. 2. Chicago: GIA Publications, 2004. 100-01. Print. ISBN 1579993850
  9. ^ Zadan, Craig (1989). Sondheim & Co. 2nd edition. Perennial Library. pp. 248. ISBN 0-06-091400-9. 
  10. ^ "Tchaikovsky: Manfred Symphony", review by Arthur Lintgen, Fanfare
  11. ^ Leonard, James. Tchaikovsky: Suite No. 3; Stravinsky: Divertimento at Allmusic. Retrieved 15 October 2011.
  12. ^ Leroux, Gaston. "The Phantom of the Opera". Barnes & Noble, Inc., 1985, p. 139

External links

  • Dies Iræ, Franciscan Archive. Includes two Latin versions and a literal English translation.

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