On November second every year, we celebrate the Feast of All Souls’ Day. It is a day when we are meant to remember and pray fervently for the souls of those who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith, especially our loved ones. While it isn’t a holy day of obligation, it is a beautiful opportunity to go to Mass if you are able.
At Mass on All Souls’ Day, there’s a chance you might hear special music that you’re not used to hearing every Sunday. The reason for this is that there is a long and storied tradition of praying for the repose of souls in our music. This dates back to the very beginnings of Gregorian chant hundreds and hundreds of years ago. The sheer volume of work dedicated to this subject shows us the importance of the day and the importance of praying for our dead and remembering them always.
Going back all the way to the beginning, we look to the simple chants sung at requiem Masses (Masses for the dead) that have implanted themselves in the musical tradition of All Souls’ Day. For instance, you might be familiar with the beautiful chant “In Paradisum,” the text of which is sung at every funeral, in which we ask for eternal rest in paradise for the deceased, entrusting them to the angels to take them to the bosom of Abraham. There are many different versions of this chant, from very modern to traditional and choral. The same goes for the other requiem texts, the “Dies Irae” being another.
Moving forward in history, we see some of the greatest composers creating masterworks called “requiems.” In these, the special prayers for Masses for the dead mentioned above as well as the prayers that are sung at ordinary Masses (like the “Kyrie”) are set to music. Usually they were written for choir as well as orchestra or organ, some requiring hundreds of musicians. Some of the most famous requiems are Mozart’s, Verdi’s, and Fauré’s. You may hear selections of these at All Souls’ Day Masses, or at special concerts dedicated to the feast, or during the season of Lent. Listening to recordings of them is also a wonderful supplement to your prayers during this time.
One of the most famous pieces of music within the tradition of All Souls’ Day is the “Pie Jesu.” Again originating from the prayers of the Mass for the Dead, the text reads, “Pious Lord Jesus, give them rest. Pious Lord Jesus, give them everlasting rest.” This prayer has become one of the most frequent inspirations for performances and composers, as the prayer itself is so simple and beautiful. There are so many beautiful versions, including one—among the most popular—composed by Andrew Lloyd Weber, the composer of The Phantom of the Opera.
Whatever your taste in sacred music, there is much to be gleaned from the vast stores of music history with regard to All Souls’ Day. For a thousand years, composers have taken to the page to help us better pray for our deceased loved ones. This year, why not find a requiem that you haven’t heard before, or listen to Andrew Lloyd Weber’s “Pie Jesu”? Ask God to help you to pray for the souls of your loved ones through this music as millions of people have done before you and will continue to do as long as music lives.
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