Peter Dutton introduces five Requiems to which you ought to listen


When I was a treble in Magdalen college choir, my favourite service of the year was the All Souls’ Day Requiem. Many of my fellow choristers considered it ‘depressing’, or ‘boring’, but I always found it deeply moving. As the only one of my contemporaries to have a dead parent, it gave me great comfort to put my father’s name on the Departed list, and, to be honest, it was pretty cool hearing Gerald Arthur Dutton read out along with S. Thomas More, Henry Tudor, and Clive Staples Lewis. However, the real draw for me was the music. We tended to alternate the Mozart, Fauré and Duruflé Requiems. The Mozart was probably too lengthy for modern liturgical use, and of course much of it is not by Mozart, but, for an eleven-year-old boy, there were few things as exciting as that Kyrie. The Fauré was simply a succession of lovely tunes: when I entered a phase of musical snobbery in my twenties, I professed to despise it, but I came back to it in due course, and when it was sung at the Tridentine Requiem at S. Silas, I discovered that Fauré had got all his timings absolutely correct for the rite he was actually composing for: it fitted it like a glove. The Duruflé was the one that really got me in the guts: a work simultaneously ancient and modern (it’s based around the plainchant Missa Pro Defunctis), but always sublime. I hope Paradise sounds like the climax of the Sanctus!

Those works are all fairly familiar, so I thought it would be interesting to write about five lesser known Requiems from various musical periods that really deserve a wider audience. In this list, I have restricted myself to Requiems that could realistically be performed liturgically. By this I mean, firstly, that they can’t be too long: about 40 minutes would need to be the maximum. Secondly, they need to have the correct (Latin and Greek) words. Thirdly, they need to be scored for feasible orchestral and choral forces (Berlioz take note!). All these Requiems can be found on Youtube or Spotify: happy listening! 


  1. Messe de Requiem – Camille Saint-Saëns

Saint- Saëns wrote his Requiem in 1877 in memory of his friend and patron Albert Libon, and it was first performed in Saint Sulpice later that year. It originally had a Berlioz-esque scoring, but he later wrote a reduced version featuring a much smaller orchestra. It is a gloriously colourful painting of the words, with opulent orchestral parts and rather operatic melodies. If this makes it sound ‘over the top’, it is actually very short, and not a beat is wasted.

  1. Missa pro Defunctis – Eustache Du Caurroy

Du Caurroy was one of the greatest exponents of Musique Mesureé, a late Renaissance way of composing that emphasised a homophonic texture. He was an organist at the Chapelle Royale, and wrote his Missa pro Defunctis for the funeral of Henri IV in 1610. It was subsequently performed at all royal funerals until the Revolution. Perhaps fittingly for the funeral of a man who spent much of his life as protestant, it is a deceptively simple setting that never obscures the words. However, beneath that somewhat plain edifice lie huge amounts of harmonic invention, producing many spine-tingling moments. 


  1. Messe de Requiem – Alfred Desenclos

Desenclos was probably the last French composer to self-identify as a ‘Romantic’. He balanced that approach with a rigorous knowledge of technique, as befits someone who won the Fugue prize at the Conservatoire de Paris in 1932. His Requiem was written in 1963 (as Vatican II began the seismic shift in worship patterns), and is a work of great ethereal beauty. Many of the melodies sound like plainchant but are in fact wholly original. Although one will not leave humming tunes, it is a very powerful piece in the correct liturgical context. 


  1. Requiem in C minor ‘Pro defuncto Archiepiscopo Sigismondo’ – Michael Haydn

Michael Haydn was, during his life time, almost as highly regarded as his elder brother Joseph. In fact, Joseph always felt that Michael Haydn’s devotional works were superior to his own. He wrote his Requiem in 1771 in memory of his former patron, although it seems likely that the death in the same year of his only daughter was the more decisive instigator. It was a work much admired by Mozart, who based his own Requiem on it both in terms of structure and compositional techniques used. It is a work of austere grandeur and economic precision, and the movements are perfectly timed for liturgical performance (in the Usus Antiquior).


  1. Officium defunctorum a 6 – Tomás Luis de Victoria

Victoria was the greatest Spanish composer in the 16th Century and, along with Palestrina (who he knew well), the defining musical influence on the Counter-Reformation. His Officium Defunctorum was written for the funeral of the Dowager Empress Maria in 1603. In it, he sets not only the usual Requiem Mass, but also two extra-liturgical motets and music for the Absolution at the end of Mass. As six-part polyphonic music it has rarely been bettered (and never in the context of the Requiem). If it is less sensual that Du Caurroy’s setting (let us not forget that Victoria was a priest), then it has a pellucid beauty that is difficult to put into words. 


Peter Dutton is Director of Music at St Silas Kentish Town.