You’ve Probably Never Heard of It, but Have Heard It: Dies Irae in Movies Throughout the Years

Ever heard of the term “di-es i-rae” (diːeɪz ˈɪərʌɪ,ˈɪəreɪ) before? I’m willing to bet that you’ve probably heard it without knowing. It’s a four-note succession, or a melody, used in countless different movies and artwork. If it were a person, it would probably be Meryl Streep just for being so iconic. 

According to Jones (2019), its first appearance was in Fritz Lang’s 1927 classic silent film, Metropolis. Over the years, you will hear it everywhere. In film scores ranging from The Shining, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, to Frozen 2. More recently I’ve found, in Enola Holmes.

The Orgins

Back in the days, Requiem Masses are chants, prayers or hymns that are sung in the church for the dead, as an offering for the rest of a soul (Lumen, n/d). The dies irae is just a section of all Requiem Masses, and it translates as ‘The Day of Wrath’ in Latin (Fergus, 2017). That particular part describes The Last Judgment, where it is decided whether the souls would be saved or burn in hell.

Didn’t expect it to take a dark turn huh…?

In the beginning they were just prayers or readings. Throughout time and civilization, it fuses with music, turning them into hymns and chants. Then, thousands of Requiems are composed, and they inspire other composers in turn. The four-note succession or melody that sets the words “Di-es i-rae” comes from a Gregorian chant back in the 13th century (Lazarova, 2018). ‘

Dies Irae in Movies Today

Therefore, interestingly enough, the use of the dies irae trendily associates with themes of death, danger, evil, and darkness. For example, in Star Wars: A New Hope, the four notes pop up when Luke discovers the death of Uncle Owen. In Lion King, it appears in the scene where Mufasa dies. Sweeney Todd is an iconic example that uses dies irae as a theme for killing. It appears almost in everyone’s theme, turning the notes upside down, backwards, or using it as it is. Except for Sweeney Todd’s daughter, Johanna’s theme, because only she does not relate to death or killing people. Pretty cool huh…

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street Reviews - Metacritic
(Source: Metacritic)

However, Frozen 2 has a unique use of the dies irae. If you’ve watched Frozen 2 and say that you didn’t hear the dies irae, you would probably be lying. Hidden in plain sight, it’s the four-note melody that calls out to Elsa in the first half of the movie, and in the famous number, Into the Unknown. At first, the four notes act as a voice that calls out to Elsa, probably referring to some kind of danger. Soon, when she sings Into the Unknown, she hesitates. Elsa pushes and pulls with the voice, sings back to it, and then harmonizes with it. At the same time, these interactions aligns with her lyrics, reflecting her fear, hesitation, then braveness (Krosecz, 2019).

Watch Elsa Sing Frozen 2's "Into the Unknown" Video | POPSUGAR Entertainment
(Source: Pop Sugar)

Recently, I found the dies irae in Netflix’s Enola Holmes in this scene right here.

A person looking at the camera

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(Source: YouTube)

Do check it out!

To conclude, the Dies irae is so iconic that it travels from the artworks of churches, paintings, movements, to this day’s pop culture. It’s still appearing everywhere and the list just keeps updating. In the beginning, one might not be able to spot the dies irae so easily and instantly. But after watching a number of videos of examples, the ears train to spot it in any piece of music. And like any other classic art piece, this four-note succession deserves to be continuously acknowledged and appreciated for its artistic role in art. 

Written by Nurul Iman.

Featured image by Gigazine.