I have a problem in that I love classical music but am completely ignorant about it. I have no idea how to play an instrument; I can’t read music, despite taking a Fundamentals of Music Theory class in college and acing it (I can’t remember notations and my concept of rhythm is dreadful). All my roommates at DePauw were in the music school. They covered about every area too - I lived with vocalists, with brass players, wind players, string players. I love music majors; they work hard at what they do and I find their dedication intoxicating and good for my own creative work. But they infected me with a love for music that is as frustrating as it is enlightening. Because despite how much I love it, and although I can talk somewhat intelligently about classical music (especially 20th century Soviet music, which is my weakness), I don’t have the knowledge that could turn me into an expert.
Which is a problem because I have an obsession that is just begging for me to turn it into a book project. Back in 2006, I heard Franz Liszt’s Totentanz for the first time and it officially turned me from a casual classical listener into a full-blown addict. It’s got to be one of the most fun pieces in all of music - big and weird, a Romantic-era piece that was using 20th-century soundscapes before its time. (Note: Since then, I’ve heard the piece played live multiple times, each with a different pianist. Some are better than others. At one of these concerts, the pianist actually messed up and improvised a bar or two to make up for it. My friends and I noticed, mister.) Although I didn’t know it at the time, the melody that got stuck in my head after hearing the piece was actually a well-worn theme, the Dies Irae. Totentanz was my first introduction to a handful of notes that have preoccupied me for six years now.
Originally a Gregorian chant used as part of the Requiem Mass, the Dies Irae (it’s apocalytpic, meaning the “Day of Wrath”) has become one of the most used themes in all of music. It’s easy to hear why. Just listen to how thick it is, how it gets stuck inside you. It’s dark but catchy, a rarity in classical music. Composers love the Dies Irae because it can be manipulated enough to feel original but also has that heavy, doom-ish quality that works like musical shorthand. Here be death, it says. Sometimes, it feels ironic, as when it shows up in little bursts at the end of Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (the piece is too long for one YouTube video, so I’ve only given you the last few minutes; seek out the rest and you won’t regret it). Sometimesm it’s more subtle, as in Saint-Saens’s Danse Macabre. Sometimes it is heavy-handed, as in the last movement of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. If you can listen to the tuba play theDies Iraetheme in the Berlioz and not feel chills run down your spine, you might not be human. The possibilities of theDies Irae are limitless.
Because music is a kind of mystery to me, I tend to cling to certain aspects of it. The permeance of the Dies Irae is the thing I cling to most. If it’s in a piece of music, I can always find it. My ear is trained for the damn thing. Pointing out why I love it is my way of saying, “See, see! I get it!” Lots of websites have documented the theme’s place in musical canon. But that being said, I still think a book is in order about the subject. I am serious when I say that I am stumped as to why no one has yet written a book that traces Western history and philosophy with the use of the Dies Irae. How is it that music from all the major time periods of the Western canon have used this theme over and over again? Why is it used humorously and straight-faced both? What attitudes toward death, to the end of days, does this mean to us?
I wish I were the person to write this Dies Irae book. I’m afraid my ineptness at musical form will forever keep me from pursuing it. But maybe someday I’ll win a grant and find a music historian to help me. In the meantime, I have a stack of books about the liturgical uses of Dies Irae and histories of requiem music sitting around the apartment. I’ve started a side project of sorts, a poetry mash-up using the language of requiems and television production to put a new spin on the old theme of loss. Maybe that’s the only way I can truly show my appreciation of the musical theme that has infected my worldview for the last half-decade. Death is the oldest trick in the book, but its musical connotation never decays.