To the heart-pounding pulse of ‘Dies Irae’ – that terrifying day of reckoning, when thundering trumpets summon the buried dead – a horde of Klu Klux Klansmen surges out of the Stygian dark, their baleful hoods lit by burning torches. Timpanies crash, brass cascades, while a stentorian chorus gallops headlong towards its fearful promise of doom.
A ‘day of anger’ indeed, even in the middle of the night! Or the comfort of the cinema.
What follows, however, is one of the more slapstick scenes of Quentin Tarantino’s latest movie, Django Unchained. The incompetent posse of hooded hoons completely bungles the vengeance they’ve got planned for rebellious slave Django (Jamie Foxx) and his bounty-hunting liberator (Christoph Waltz). Amid lashings of classic Tarantino violence – slightly moderated by a goriness that’s more theatrical than anatomical – our heroes escape the wrath of their demonic-looking but ineffectual attackers.
So for once the heart-racing drama of the chorus ‘Dies Irae’ from Verdi’s towering Messa da Requiem gets an ironic denouement, after being appropriated yet again for the cinema.
For ‘Dies Irae’ from Verdi’s Requiem is one of those pieces of the classical repertoire that are known to far, far more people than know what it is that they actually know, if you know what I mean. It joins ‘O Fortuna’ from Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, or the bluesy opening bars of Rhapsody in Blue, or Delibe’s lovely flower duet ‘Sous le dôme épais’ from the opera Lakme, which have become the signature of any number of movies and even – to the annoyance of some purists – of television advertisements.
In the case of Verdi’s ‘Dies Irae’, some of these appropriations have been in movies that have gained their own cult status, while their darker subjects have kept them from becoming household names.
The Japanese action thriller Battle Royale released in 2000 used the chorus in the overture to the film’s violent tale of high school students battling each other to the death. In the same year François Ozon’s Gouttes d’eau sur pierres brûlantes (Water Drops on Burning Rocks) came out, based on a German play by Rainer Werner Fassbinder. As its conflicted and ultimately tragic cross-gender love-affairs unfolded, ‘Dies Irae’ joined its other classical selections, including Handel’s Zadog the Priest, to set some less-than-subtle scenes.
But whatever you might think of a such movie, or its director’s motivations, cinematic quotations of classical music have inspired countless viewers to ask, ‘Wow! What was that amazing number?’ And, on finding it, to seek out and learn to love and appreciate the wider work from which it was lifted.
How many of a certain generation might never have come to relish Richard Strauss’s majestic tone poem Also Sprach Zarathustra had they never hear d its pregnant opening bars in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey?
The astounding, terrified cry of the chorus ‘Dies Irae’ recurs repeatedly throughout Guiseppi Verdi’s Requiem, but that’s only a part of this gloriously operatic work that was first performed in 1874. It brings together soprano, mezzo, tenor and baritone soloists with powerful choirs to theatrically explore the hopes and fears of humanity, from hushed prayers to stunning harmonies. These vocal forces are coming soon in their hundreds, under the baton of Christopher Bowen OAM, as he marshals the Sydney University Graduate Choir and a phalanx of additional guest choristers in Sydney’s Town Hall at 3.00 pm on Sunday 28 May.
Invite any of your friends who may have glimpsed it recently in Tarantino’s Django Unchained, but who may never have heard Verdi’s Requiem in all its drama and beauty!