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Deathly Dies Irae

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"Dies irae, dies illa" from the original Gregorian chant, with three variations from animation, theatre, and film

"This Easter egg of a melody has been used by multiple composers over the years as a musical shorthand, or word, for death, doom and gloom, the creeps."
David W. Collins, The Soundtrack Show, "Doom and Gloom: Music has a word for 'Death'"
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When composers want to create the impression of impending death and doom in their score, they often quote or reference the first four to eight notes of Dies Irae, Dies Illa (the Gregorian chant, not the Mozart or Verdi versions). This Standard Snippet has been used across decades of scores ranging from Silent Movie soundtracks to modern media medleys, and in centuries of Classical Music compositions.

The four note phrase "dies irae" starts on one note (usually F), then half-step down, half-step up to the first note, one-and-a-half-steps down. The descending notes and minor key create a somber, ominous feel. It can be instrumental or vocal, with or without the Ominous Latin Chanting, but it always sounds like something isn't right.

Dies Irae, Dies Illa quotes and references can create a sad, gloomy, or dark atmosphere. Overt, bombastic quotes may signal that characters are in a life-or-death situation or reveal that someone has met their end. Subtle references may shift the key, change the timing, play it backwards, or bury the notes underneath a happy-seeming bright melody to hint at unseen danger. The four notes of "dies irae" are most frequently quoted, and are sometimes followed by "dies illa" to create an eight note quote. The use of Dies Irae, Dies Illa in the requiem mass for funerals gave it a lasting association with death, further cemented by repeated quotes throughout the centuries.

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The Latin phrase "dies irae, dies illa" means "day of wrath and doom impending" in the Vatican-approved adaptation. literal  The original Dies Irae, Dies Illa is a Gregorian chant about the Last Judgment set to the words of a 13th century Latin sequence. Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique version brought it to the forefront of musical thought and is what most later references are based on.

This trope is about using or deliberately referencing a specific melody which originated as a Gregorian chant. It is not about other works with "dies irae" in their titles or derived from the same Latin text sequence. This trope does not include Mozart and Verdi's compositions with the same name and text because they do not use the original melody. Similar tunes need evidence that the composers were intentionally inspired by the original Dies Irae, Dies Illa.

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Subtrope of Standard Snippet and Mood Motif; may be used as a Leitmotif. Compare "Pachelbel's Canon" Progression and Also sprach Zarathustra.

The Latin "dies" is two syllables and not to be confused with the single syllable English "dies," even though its use here is deadly. Also not to be confused with the Visual Novel Dies Irae.


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Examples

    Anime 
  • "Secrets of the Shizuma Drive" from the soundtrack of the Giant Robo: The Day the Earth Stood Still OVA series is a completely new arrangement of Dies Irae by Masamichi Amano, but it quotes the original Gregorian chant right at the end (time 2:07).

    Film - Animated 
  • The Lion King: Score by Hans Zimmer. After Scar orders the hyenas to kill Simba, Simba tries to flee for his life, but immediately runs into a dead end. The brass section blasts the four notes of "dies irae" to indicate Simba is facing possible death.
  • The Nightmare Before Christmas: Dies Irae, Dies Illa is quoted and referenced throughout Danny Elfman's score, given that most of the inhabitants of Halloween Town are, well, dead and undead.
    Erik Hare: The "Day of Wrath" was never more fun and uplifting!
    • When Oogie Boogie realizes Sally used her "sexy" detached leg to distract him while freeing the kidnapped Santa Claus, Oogie Boogie's wrath is highlighted by the bombastic four note "dies irae."
    • "Jack's Lament" adapts the tune into a waltz as Jack sings about no longer taking pleasure in Halloween hijinks. With italics for the variations on dies irae:
      Oh, some-where deep
      in-side of these bones
      an emp-ti-ness
      be-gan to grow
    • "Sally's Song" inverts the reference to rise instead of fall as she despairs in song over her unspoken love for Jack.
    • "Making Christmas," uses the Dies Irae melody to signal impending doom as the residents sing as they prepare to unleash a nightmarish version of Christmas.
    • "Jack and Sally's Song," the Final Love Duet between Jack and Sally, has a six-note variation:
      As a-ny-one could see
      We're sim-ply meant to be
    • What makes the use of this trope even better in this particular film is that the four-note version of this motif is also the main motif of the Ukrainian Bell Carol: the perfect motivic choice for a movie that is equally Halloween- and Christmas-themed.
  • Wreck-It Ralph: Scored by Henry Jackman. As Ralph reaches the top of the tower in the game "Hero's Duty" to receive the Medal of Heroes, a triumphant fanfare begins playing with dies irae repeating underneath it, a reminder that Ralph is still surrounded by the eggs of vicious Cybugs, one of which he's about to step on...
  • In The Princess and the Frog, the Villain Song ("Friends on the Other Side") gradually resolves into a jazzy version of dies irae as Dr. Facilier casts his spell and the visuals get increasingly psychedelic.

    Film - Live Action 
  • 10 Cloverfield Lane: Composer Bear McCreary opens the horror movie with an understated chunk of "dies irae," creating a deathly mood.
  • Close Encounters of the Third Kind: In John Williams's score, "Dies irae" sounds when bright lights are seen clearly approaching the encampment to give the scene an eerie tension as people start screaming.
  • Crimson Peak: A soft echoing use of Dies Irae, Dies Illa, which was originally a funeral requiem, plays in Fernando Velazquez's score beneath Edith discussing her mother's funeral.
  • Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets: John Williams. Heard as Harry and Ron are desperately trying to escape the Forbidden Forest while Aragog's spider children are closing in on them.
  • Home Alone: John Williams. As Kevin and his brother are watching Old Man Marley, who they think killed his family years ago, he looks up at them, and dies irae plays as they duck into hiding.
  • It's a Wonderful Life: Score by Dimitri Tiomkin. A quiet instrumental "dies irae" plays as George goes to the snowy bridge, preparing to throw himself off of it.
  • Jaws: The iconic Threatening Shark motif by John Williams sometimes gains an additional note to become "dies irae," prominently heard in "The Pier Incident, usually when the shark is closing in on its intended victims. Death is coming.
  • Jurassic Park: Score by John Williams. The cue "High Wire Stunts" has a repeated dies irae as Grant and the kids are scrambling over the perimeter fence just as Ellie starts powering them back up, nearly killing Tim as the power surge catches him still on the fence. And then Ellie finds herself confronting a Velociraptor.
  • The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit: All scores by Howard Shore.
    • The Fellowship of the Ring:
      • "Dies irae" appears in the score as Bilbo's ring tempts him one last time before he leaves the Shire. It weighs heavily on him as he slowly tips his hand to let it fall to the floor, right after it has been made clear that there is something dangerous about it and it is likely the One Ring.
      • Heard again as the Ringwraiths corner the hobbits at Weathertop.
      • Also reoccurs as part of the motif for the forces of Isengard.
    • The Return of the King: Heard as Gollum is leading Sam and Frodo up the cliffs near Minas Morgul and the armies of Mordor begin marching forth against Gondor.
    • An Unexpected Journey: A statement is heard during Balin's telling of the failed attempt to retake Moria, right as Azog the Defiler takes the head of Thrór. It's heard again as the company is before the Great Goblin and he mentions there's someone who would greatly desire Thorin's head.
  • Marvel Cinematic Universe:
    • Iron Man 3: Score: Brian Tyler.
      • Dies Irae is heard as Happy Hogan is spying on one of the Manchurian's agents making a drop at the Chinese Theatre, right before there's a massive explosion that nearly kills him there.
      • It appears again as Tony and Hardy are examining the site of the first EXTREMIS explosion, looking at the body shadows left on the walls.
    • Avengers: Infinity War: Score: Alan Silvestri. As Thor is explaining to the Guardians of the Galaxy how many Stones Thanos has and where he needs to go for the rest of them. As he mentions the Soul Stone, dies irae plays as the camera cuts to Gamora, foreshadowing her death, sacrificed by Thanos to gain the Stone.
  • Metropolis: Gottfried Huppertz's original score for the Silent Movie included a daunting rendition of Dies Irae to accompany the master of Metropolis's order to have his son followed and reported on.
  • In Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Hans Zimmer uses the notes "dies irae" during the scene where the Spaniards arrive to the fountain of youth, shooting the British officer holding up the Union Jack dead.
  • Psycho: Score by Bernard Herrmann. A repeating, backwards variation on dies irae plays as Marion is looking around her room in the Bates Motel, exploring the place where she will meet her end.
  • William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet uses a variation of the melody in its opening theme, "O Verona". An early draft also used the actual "Dies irae" lyrics.
  • The Screaming Skull uses it as a Leitmotif for the villain.
  • For the opening theme of The Shining, Stanley Kubrick hired Wendy Carlos to electronicize Hector Berlioz's "Dies irae" to set the grim mood of the film and foreshadow the doom to come.
  • Star Wars: Composer John Williams references Dies Irae, Dies Illa throughout his scores for the trilogy films, and non-trilogy film composers reference it as well.
  • Superman: The Movie: (John Williams) A backwards dies irae begins playing as Jor-El walks out of the Council after they reject his findings on Krypton's fate, thus dooming their people and their planet to destruction and death.
  • The Car: Dies irae is used as the opening credits theme for the film as well as the Leitmotif of the titular Sinister Car.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Game of Thrones: Score by Ramin Djawadi. In the season 5 episode The Wars to Come, the "dies irae" plays beneath and foreshadows the result of Stannis's warning to Jon that if he can't convince Mance to bend knee to Stannis, he will have Mance burnt to death.

    Music 
  • In the intro of Bronski Beat's "Smalltown Boy", Jimmy Somerville sings a falsetto rendition of the first four notes.
  • "Dead Elvis", a composition for solo bassoon (usually dressed as an Elvis Impersonator) and chamber ensemble, contains nods to "Dies Irae" as well as the King's hit "It's Now or Never".
  • Guru Josh's Signature Song "Infinity" uses a variation of this melody for its main riff.

    Theatre 
  • Stephen Sondheim quotes the melody in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street in the opening number "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd" in the section "Swing your razor wide, Sweeney, hold it to the skies." It remains prevalent throughout the rest of the play. In fact, the only character with a leitmotif that does not contain a reference to the Dies Irae is Anthony Hope, because he is the only character with a leitmotif who neither kills nor is killed, or both, by the end.
  • At the beginning of RENT's "La Vie Boheme," Mark's friends chant "Dies Irae" in the background while he stages a symbolic funeral for Bohemia as a response to Benny calling their culture dead.

    Video Games 
  • Dante's Inferno: The opening by Garry Schyman references dies irae, complete with Ominous Latin Chanting, perfect for setting the mood for a journey through Hell.
  • Final Fantasy IX: Can be heard in the music for Ipsen's castle, one of the deadlier dungeons in the game. The track is made even creepier by squeaky, octave-jumping woodwinds playing a variation of one of the game's major leitmotifs.
  • Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis uses "dies irae" in a couple places deep in Atlantis. It's first heard in an Atlantean tomb containing hideously deformed skeletons, and later when arriving to the godhood machine, hinting that it's actually a machine of death.
  • Onimusha 3 Demons Siege, Guildenstern's Leitmotif and boss music is the Dies Irae, a bombastic and eerie latin chanting that underlines his status as bringer of death and doom, having used the Time Folder machine to allow the Genma to simultaneously wage war in both 2002 Paris and ancient Japan.
  • Persona: Heard in the vocals of The Poem For Everyone's Souls, the theme for the Velvet Room, a place where the personas are created and changed, which draws inspiration from Edgar Allen Poe's The Masque of the Red Death. Though the appearance and mechanics of the room change over the course of the series, death and doom are always somehow connected to it.
  • Zombies Ate My Neighbors: Prominently heard in the soundtrack for this game about zombies.

    Webcomics 
  • Actually forms an in-universe plot point in a Pibgorn storyline. The music forms the opening text of the novel The Borgia Cantus. When Pibgorn finally reads the book and sings the first two lines aloud, the vast numbers of demons Drusilla had trapped inside the book escape, threatening to cause The End of the World as We Know It.

    Western Animation 
  • Family Guy: In the episode "It Takes a Village Idiot, and I Married One", after Stewie plays a poorly-written song Peter made on the piano and everyone laughed at it, an elderly Peter announces that it was God laughing, not Stewie. He dies of a heart attack as Dies Irae plays.


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