The Dies Irae Sequence

One of the most revered and beloved of chant sequences is the Dies Irae, which is sung on All Souls Day and for Requiem Masses in general. This revered bit of liturgical poetry has come to us in various English translations. Here are a few examples of just first two opening stanzas.

Day of wrath, that day
Will solve the centuries in ashes
With witness David and the sibyl!

How much tremor there will be,
when the judge will come,
investigating everything strictly!

* * *

Day of wrath, day that
will dissolve the world into burning coals,
as David bore witness with the Sibyl.

How great a tremor is to be,
when the judge is to come
briskly shattering every (grave).

A more poetically paraphrased variant by William Josiah Irons sees the first two stanzas as follows:

Day of wrath! O day of mourning!
See fulfilled the prophets' warning,
Heaven and earth in ashes burning!

Oh, what fear man's bosom rendeth,
when from heaven the Judge descendeth,
on whose sentence all dependeth.

Finally, one other variant:

That day of wrath, that dreadful day
When heaven and earth shall pass away,
Both David and the Sibyl say.

What terror then shall us befall,
When lo, the Judge's steps appall,
About to sift the deeds of all.

This latter translation was pulled from a work which some of our readers may not be familiar with. The Rev. Dr. Nicholas Gihr, who is best known to most for his book, The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, also wrote a work on the Dies Irae, accordingly titled. In that work Gihr provides a history and interpretation of the various stanzas of the Dies Irae sequence. The aforementioned translation, Gihr notes, is found within Dom Matthew Britt's work, The Hymns of the Breviary and Missal, which points us to another source for considerations of this revered bit of liturgical poetry.

About these numerous translations Britt notes:
The exquisite beauty of the Latin original has continually lured translators to attempt to reproduce this noble hymn in the vernacular. The great number of translations is an eloquent witness of this fact. It is freely acknowledged that no adequate translation has yet appeared. (p. 205)
In that same study, Britt gives us Sir Walter Scott's "greatly admired condensed rendering of the Dies Irae which is found in his Lay of the Last Minstrel."

That Day of wrath, that dreadful day,
When heaven and earth shall pass away,
What power shall be the sinners stay?
How shall he meet that dreadful day?

When, shrivelling like a parched scroll,
The flaming heavens together roll;
When louder yet, and yet more dread,
Swells the high trump that wakes the dead:

O, on that day, that wrathful day,
When man to judgement wakes from clay,
Be Thou the trembling sinner's stay,
Though heaven and earth shall pass away!
Britt notes that one of the various sources of inspiration for this sequence is thought to be Zephaniah (Sophonias) 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."

Here are a few sung versions for your enjoyment, beginning with the original Gregorian chant, followed by orchestral versions by Mozart and Verdi:

And if you want to see it set within its proper liturgical context, here it was sung at the Toronto Oratory for All Souls Day.

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