Although Dies Irae was written in response to a commission to commemorate the centenary of The Somme, it generally avoids too narrow a reference to the events of that battle, and deals with the universality of emotions surrounding war and conflict. It follows a kind of narrative journey following a soldier along the path of enthusiasm, recruitment, farewell, fear and foreboding and battle and then the loss and bereavement of those left behind.
The first movement, Memorial sets the mood for the work and introduces some of the musical themes. After a short series of dissonant chords the strings settle into a mood of tender, respectful sadness such as might be felt wandering around a military graveyard. Shortly the upper voice choir joins in, singing the opening words of the requiem mass to a gently rising and falling melody. The baritone then sings the words of Edward Thomas’ poem In Memoriam (Easter 1915), joined later by the SATB chorus and upper voices continuing to intone the requiem text. An important little musical motif, in falling triplets, is introduced. This motif, which returns at several key moments in the work, represents a type of pastoral innocence destroyed by the brutality of war.
Exhortation evokes a recruitment rally. It begins with a gently insistent march tune, played on the strings and accompanied by whistling from the lower voices. We hear the soprano solo for the first time, singing William Noel Hodgson’s England, to her Sons accompanied by the SATB chorus. The march tune makes two reappearances, the final time accompanied by whistling and marching sounds from the lower voices.
Valediction is an arrangement of the folksong Ten thousand mile, as the baritone and soprano bid take a tearful farewell as he heads off to war.
March evokes the youthful spirit of the army training camp. The upper voices sing two well-known playground songs popular in Britain at the start of the 20th century, The Grand Old Duke of York and The Dusty Bluebells, in counterpoint. The mood of playful, if ironic, innocence is broken by the lower voices singing the opening words of the mediaeval antiphon Media vita in morte sumus - In the midst of life we are in death.
The fifth movement, Invocation is a setting for baritone and lower voices of another poem by William Noel Hodgson, quite different in mood from the first. In his poem Before Action we hear the words of a soldier seeking the courage and strength to fight and, likely, to die.
Hymn evokes a religious service on the eve of battle. It uses words by Martin Luther, interweaved with original text, and builds to a climax in which, for the first time, both soloists and all three choirs sing together.
In Foreboding the baritone soloist, accompanied by the lower voices, sings the first part of the poem I have a rendezvous with death by Alan Seeger, an American poet who was killed in action in July 1916.
Arrival, set as an accompanied recitative for baritone, uses a description of hell in Milton’s Paradise Lost to evoke the sense of a soldier seeing no-man’s-land for the first time. The chorus respond by singing a line from Shakespeare’s Richard II, slightly modified: “And thus they ope’d the purple testament of bleeding war.”
Covenant represents the final calm before the storm. The words of Psalm 91 are invoked to bring hope and comfort to those about to pass through the ordeal of battle.
The Battle itself is represented by the most dissonant and rhythmically intense music in the piece, as lower voices sing the words of the Dies Irae below the SATB chorus who use another piece from Paradise Lost describing the battle in Hell. The insistent pedal G which extends throughout the movement intensifies the sense of menace.
The movement proceeds without a break into Consolation as if the battle is perhaps still going on but somehow unheard. The soprano and chorus sing a line from Matthew - “He that shall endure to the end shall be saved” which was quoted in Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah and which the soldier poet and author Robert Graves used to repeat as a charm at moments of stress. The charm is interrupted by a line from the poem Before The Battle by Graves’ friend Siegfried Sassoon - “Oh river of stars and shadows lead me through the night”. The sound of battle returns, but very briefly.
Following the battle attention switches to those left behind: sweethearts, parents and comrades. In Longing the upper voice choir sings an arrangement of the poignant folk song My bonny lies over the ocean.
Petition is a setting of Kipling’s heart-rending poem “My boy Jack” for soprano and SATB chorus.
In Elegy the lower voices sing a setting of Shakespeare’s famous words from Cymbeline - Fear no more the heat o’ the sun.
Finally, Threnody (a term denoting a song of mourning and memorial) uses the words of Rupert Brooke, from his poem The Dead, alongside a return of the requiem theme. The piece ends gently, with all voices singing to honour those who have sacrificed themselves.