The Fascinating History of a Latin Death Hymn You’ve Heard Many Times Without Knowing It

Slate's Culture Blog
May 8 2014 5:41 PM

The Fascinating History of a Latin Death Hymn You’ve Heard Many Times Without Knowing It

There’s a musical piece you’ve likely heard many times before—but unless you have a particularly trained ear and are also hip to the catalog of Medieval Latin hymns, you probably haven’t noticed it. It’s a musical pattern from “Dies Irae,” a haunting chant for the dead, and CBC Radio host Tom Allen has put together an impressive video history of the work.

Looping effortlessly through the halls of the Bishop Strachan School in Toronto in a single six-minute take, Allen guides us through the song’s various appearances in Western music from the 19th century to the present. He’s aided by both live musicians and clips from several movies that have incorporated the composition into their film scores, including The Exorcist and It’s a Wonderful Life. (It should be noted that the latter was released in 1946, not 1942 as Allen says in the video.)

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It’s an interesting history lesson, and perhaps the next time you’re watching a big budget movie with a dramatic death scene, you’ll be able to pick out the traces of “Dies Irae” as well as Allen can.

(Via A.V. Club.)

Aisha Harris is a Slate staff writer.

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