The “Dies Irae”, or “Day of Wrath” in Latin, was written in the fourteenth century. Originally emerging as a poem penned by Thomas of Celano, the work was later put to music and incorporated into the Mass of the Dead. It speaks of the end times and the final judgment. Later revitalized by Mozart, with each new chorus, the Dies Irae warns of the countless sinners that will be cast into hell. Describing the rise of Jesus Christ to His throne in Heaven, the chorus cries,”When the Judge his seat attaineth, And each hidden deed arraigneth, Nothing unavenged remaineth.”
Unlike other pieces of liturgical music, the Dies Irae has become deeply embedded in our modern culture. We now associate this foreboding melody with the chill that goes down our spine when a noise is heard in the dark. It can be guaranteed that we have all heard this hymn in some variation. This is strangely thanks to Hollywood. The cheery tune has long been associated with impending doom, not only in religious circles but in the world of cinema as well.
Composers like John Williams have used this piece of Gregorian chant to increase the dramatic tension in their movies for decades. Whether you’re tearing up over the tragic death of Mufasa in The Lion King for the eighteenth time or revisiting Luke Skywalker’s epic journey across the galaxy in Star Wars, we have become accustomed to hearing the tormented notes of the Dies Irae woven throughout the soundtracks of our generation’s most outstanding films.
Ultimately, the Dies Irae can be considered a warning. To be more precise, it’s a final plea with mankind to learn from their mistakes or else be cast into the fires of hell. Not only meant to scare us, Thomas of Celano’s words are an exploration of the prophesies spoken of in the Apocalypse. His poignant words perfectly encapsulate the horror and dread said to accompany the end of the world. “Ere the day of retribution.”