Beyond the Grave: The “Dies Irae” in Video Game Music
For those familiar with modern media, there are a number of short musical phrases that immediately trigger a particular emotional response. Think, for example, of the two-note theme that denotes the shark in Jaws, and see if you become just a little more tense or nervous. So too with the stabbing shriek of the violins from Psycho, or even the whirling four-note theme from The Twilight Zone. In each of these cases, the musical theme is short, memorable, and unalterably linked to one specific feeling: fear.
The first few notes of the “Dies Irae” chant, perhaps as recognizable as any of the other themes I mentioned already, are often used to provoke that same emotion.
Often, but not always. The “Dies Irae” has been associated with death since its creation in the thirteenth century, due to its use in the Requiem Mass for the dead until the Second Vatican Council (1962–65). Its text describes the Last Judgment, when all humanity will be sent to heaven or hell. But from the Renaissance to today, the “Dies Irae” has also come to symbolize everything from the medieval church and Catholic ritual to the sinister, superstitious, or supernatural, even violence and battle—and any combination of the above.
Because of its unique history not only within its original liturgical context but also within later musical genres, this chant has become largely divorced from its original purposes, at least in modern popular imagination. Instead, it now holds a multiplicity of meanings; composers manipulate these meanings by utilizing this chant in a new setting, and thus in turn continue to reinforce those meanings within modern media. Since its use within the Mass, concert music, and films has already been well documented, this blog post explores its presence in an as yet unexamined medium: video games.Chant—monophonic music of the Western Christian tradition—is the largest surviving body of music from the medieval period. Although chant was not written down until the ninth century, it has been continuously sung for over two thousand years. Before the Reformation, chant permeated the musical landscape of Western Europe. But as John Haines points out, chant’s meanings changed in the sixteenth century; to Protestants, chant was a sign of superstitious, even sinister, ritual, whereas to Catholics it was a flawed but holy tradition (112). Chant became ever more confined to the Catholic liturgy; although composers continued to use chant in new compositions, by the late nineteenth century the only chant guaranteed to be recognized by a secular audience was the “Dies Irae.”
Beginning in the late eighteenth century, the text was set in Requiems for the secular stage by composers such as Mozart, Verdi, and Britten. But due to both its evocative text and its memorable melody (often just the first sixteen, eight, or even four notes), the “Dies Irae” chant soon was incorporated into secular instrumental works, where it signified the past, the supernatural, the oppressive, the demonic, and death. No work is more responsible for this than Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, where the chant symbolizes the composer’s own death and the depravity of the demons and witches who dance at his funeral.
The history of this chant, together with its use in film, has been explored by scholars such as Linda Schubert and John Haines. Because the “Dies Irae” was already a well-known symbol of the aforementioned characteristics, and because early silent film musicians borrowed musical ideas from previously composed works, the chant segued quickly into early film, where its symbolic possibilities were reinforced. Thus, even in newly composed soundtracks, composers utilized this chant as an aural shortcut to a host of emotional and psychological reactions, especially (as James Deaville and others discuss) within horror films. It appears in scenes depicting inner anguish, fear, the occult, evil, and imminent death in films from It’s a Wonderful Life, The Seventh Seal, and The Shining to Disney’s The Lion King and Star Wars, in musicals like Sweeney Todd, and in literary works such as Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera, but it also symbolizes power and even heroism, such as in this Nike shoe commercial.
The “Dies Irae” appears analogously in video game soundtracks, where it communicates the same symbolic meanings that it does in film scores and concert music. Its recognizability also lends itself to parody, as it did in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Yet, unlike in film music, the evolution of its use in game music speaks also to the evolution of game music technology.
In the earlier years of video games, technology could not create continuous soundtracks. The first such was in Space Invaders (1978), although it consisted only of four descending notes looped indefinitely. Additionally, while voice synthesis was used in game soundtracks as early as 1982, reproduction of musical voices was limited even into the 1990s. William Gibbons describes how early systems had a limited number of channels (40); as a result, Baroque-style counterpoint worked well texturally, and reproducing music from earlier composers such as Bach was not only permissible by copyright but also demonstrated the capabilities of their systems (201–204). As such, earlier games were less interested in a monophonic chant, although several (such as Fatal Fury) did use Mozart’s setting of the “Dies Irae.”
The “Dies Irae” chant is first used in game music in the late 1980s and early 1990s, by which point most systems had five or more channels, allowing for improved timbres and sound synthesis. The opening theme song to F-19 Stealth Fighter (1988–92, DOS/PC/Amiga/Atari) subtly references the first phrase of the chant. Composer Ken Lagace sets the first eight pitches evenly in the lower voice before moving them to a higher, rhythmicized register. The chant is accompanied by a consistent percussive element and several higher, chordal voices, which splinter off into fast arpeggios before restating the opening. There is as yet no action, nor is the plot either spiritual or supernatural, so the chant here actually works in a somewhat anomalous way. It heightens the player’s tension through its aural connotations of fear and death, thus setting the stage for the battles still to come in the game itself.
Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis (1992, PC) is another early instance of the “Dies Irae,” which appears at the end, when Indiana and his companion Sophia confront the malevolent Doctor. The chant again increases tension but also indicates the presence of evil. Musically, the first two phrases of the chant appear in long, low tones, accompanied by several high, sustained, dissonant pitches. New voices enter, reminiscent of the opening phrase, before the chant returns in full in all registers. The system’s capability for thicker textures allowed the composers to stack the monophonic “Dies Irae” against itself, further emphasizing the threat of imminent danger in this final encounter.
The last of the early case studies is Zombies Ate My Neighbors (1993, SNES/Genesis). These systems featured multiple channels capable of emulating a variety of acoustical settings. The game is a parody of 1950s horror films; the protagonists race through standard horror settings such as malls and castles to rescue their neighbors from demonic babies, vampires, zombies, and other stock creatures. The soundtrack also mimics the musical tropes in such films: chant itself, especially the “Dies Irae,” but also timbres such as tremolo, stingers, extreme ranges, and dissonance. The track “Curse of the Tongue,” which plays upon encountering the final boss, Dr. Tongue’s Giant Head, emulates a Gothic pipe organ. The low organ drone sustains underneath the first sixteen notes of the chant, which sound in a shrieking, vibrato-heavy register. The voices then move in parallel fifths as in medieval polyphony. The “Dies Irae” here brings to mind an entire film genre while also overtly characterizing the final battle against the otherworldly, sinister, evil Head. In this case, the chant works literally to signify the current battle and threat of death, but also parodically to indicate the absurdity of the situation.
The development of video game audio technology allowed first for voice emulation, then voice reproduction. Vocal samples were used as early as the 1980s, but were often confined to theme songs. Yet even after voices were reproduced within soundtracks, it is the “Dies Irae” melody alone that is most frequently sampled, strikingly paralleling its earlier use in film and concert music. When the “Dies Irae” text is used, it is set to newly composed music or borrowed from the Mozart or Verdi Requiems. Moreover, as in earlier media, all that is needed as an aural mnemonic is the first phrase, even just the first four notes, of the chant melody.
For example, two games released for PC in 1999—Heroes of Might & Magic III and Gabriel Knight 3: Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned—both use just the first portion of the “Dies Irae.” In “Burying the Manuscript” from Gabriel Knight, pizzicato violins first allude to the first four or five notes of the chant (1:25); the full first phrase is then presented in parallel motion in the brass. The remainder of this theme alludes to the first few notes, making the “Dies Irae” a constant presence here and underscoring the secrecy, even the occult nature, of the manuscript in this scene.
Heroes III uses even less melodic material. In the Necropolis, composer Paul Romero uses the first four notes of the “Dies Irae” to underpin the entire theme. The bass plays the first four notes in a low register before seguing into newly composed material, but the contour of that phrase returns throughout the theme. The full chant phrases do not appear until the very end. The chant hints constantly at the overwhelming metaphor of death in this area, as well as to the presence of supernatural creatures such as vampires, zombies, and wraiths.
Unusual for many reasons, then, is the last case study: the game Dante’s Inferno (2010, PS3/Xbox360). It is the sole example here to use voices, but the text appears to be newly composed. As John Haines noted, the presence of Latin or pseudo-Latin is in and of itself a trope of the diabolical or demonic, which adds further nuance to this scene (129). The familiar melody is presented by a choir of mixed voices, accompanied by a roar of low brass, ambient noise, and a descant voice singing on open vowels, all signifiers of horror or the medieval. Moreover, the “Dies Irae” is not reserved for a final battle, as in previous examples, nor does it characterize supernatural creatures. Rather, it is the first theme heard in the game, reinforcing not only the medieval setting and the constant presence of death but also the ultimate trajectory of Dante, and the gamer, into Hell.
While the “Dies Irae” has been well studied as an aural signifier within film and concert music, its use in video games has, before now, been largely ignored. As in earlier musical genres, this chant brings to games a host of culturally accepted, musically mediated meanings that allow composers to immediately flesh out a character or scene. In so doing, game composers acknowledge that sound is not just sound, but rather it is (to borrow a phrase from Elizabeth Randell Upton) “a complex interaction of experiences and expectations on the part of the audience.” These experiences are continuously shaped by new compositions, scores, and soundtracks, which in turn continuously shape the audience’s expectations for future works.
As such, game soundtracks, along with other kinds of media, continue to transform the “Dies Irae” out of its original context and into an ever-growing set of pop culture symbols. The chant now signifies everything from the medieval to the present day, from judgment, battle, and death to demons, witches, and the occult. Within games in particular, though, it acts as a “memento mori,” a reminder of the mortality that game characters, and thus game players, seek to avoid through play. As such, it may instill fear in a player, but also suspicion, alertness, tension, even excitement, spurring the player to react in whichever manner suits the individual game.
The iconic status of the opening phrases of the “Dies Irae” chant marks it as a particularly useful polyvalent symbol for composers. Yet the utilization of this well-known trope is not without its problems. As I discuss in a forthcoming article, this chant, and indeed all plainchant, originates in a particular sacred, liturgical tradition. When a chant such as “Dies Irae” is used as a signifier of a general sense of spirituality, or of the medieval, or even of horror, then by default those characteristics are reified, if subtly, as Christian. Moreover, linking a chant such as the “Dies Irae” to the supernatural or the occult serves to perpetuate early modern stereotypes of Catholicism as nothing more than superstitious magic; see, for example, the purported origins of the phrase “hocus pocus.” Such anachronistic uses further obfuscate chant’s continuous role within Catholic (and other) liturgy; it is both a historic and a very modern practice.
Given that the “Dies Irae” is certainly not the only musical means to the aforementioned symbolic ends, perhaps these concerns are not pressing. Still, as Anita Sarkeesian points out, we can enjoy modern media while simultaneously critiquing facets that are problematic. There is no clear-cut way, at this point, to overturn hundreds of years of accumulated symbolic meaning for a musical icon such as the “Dies Irae,” but it behooves us as participants in auditory culture to become better aware of the multiple, and occasionally challenging, meanings within what we hear.
[Other games that also use the “Dies Irae” chant include Gauntlet Legends (1999, N64/PS/Dreamcast), Final Fantasy IX (2000, PS), EverQuest II (2004, MMORPG), Heroes of Might and Magic V (2006, PC), Sam & Max: Season 2 (2007–8, Wii/PC/PS3/Xbox 360), Ace Combat: Assault Horizon (2011, PS3/Xbox 360), and Diablo 3 (2012–4, PC/PS3/Xbox/PS4). My thanks go to VGMdb and Overclocked Remix for bringing several of these games to my attention, and to Ryan Thompson and Dana Plank for comments.]
Featured Image: A mashup of the first lines of the Dies Irae and the Zombies Ate My Neighbors title screen. Remixed for purposes of critique.
Dr. Karen Cook specializes in medieval and Renaissance music theory, history, and performance. She is currently working on a monograph on the development of rhythmic notation in the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. She also maintains active research interests in popular and contemporary music, especially with regard to music and identity in television, film, and video games. She frequently links her areas of specialization together through a focus on medievalism, writ broadly, in contemporary culture. As such, some of her recent and forthcoming publications include articles on fourteenth-century theoretical treatises, biographies of lesser-known late medieval theorists, and the use of plainchant in video games, a book chapter on medievalist music in Harry Potter video games, and a forthcoming co-authored Oxford Bibliography on medievalism and music.
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St Erkenwald: The Spectacle of Noise
Here is a distilled introduction to the latest installment of Medieval Sound, Aural Ecology, by series co-editors Dorothy Kim and Christopher Roman. To read their previous introduction, click here. To read the first run of the series in 2016, click here. To read the full introduction to “Aural Ecology” and to read last week’s post by Thomas Blake, click here.
What is considered music, noise, or harmony is historically and culturally contingent. [. . .] The essays in “Aural Ecologies” address the issue of unharmonious sounds, sounds that often mark dissonant critical identities—related to race, religion, material—that reverberate across different soundscapes/landscapes. In this way, this group of essays begins to open up the stakes of Medieval Sound in relation to what contemporary sound studies has begun to address in relation to cultural studies, architectural and environmental soundscapes, and the marking of race through the vibrations of the body. —Dorothy Kim and Christopher Roman
We don’t always listen to medieval poetry in the same way that we listen to contemporary verse, despite its many sonic features. This article addresses the central role of sound in a Middle English alliterative poem, St Erkenwald, which recounts a meruayle (158) that takes place in St Paul’s cathedral. Through listening to the aural texture of the poem, to the voices in the text listeners/ readers can interact with events as they unfurl.
Indeed John Scattergood has been argued that this work is a “conversation poem, a poem of transformations” (181), wherein things, legends are re-invented. Its central concerns are with the nature of salvation and history, how the past confronts the present and is obscured through the mists of time, with lay folk requiring the mediation of the clergy in order to comprehend its significance. The pagan judge’s discourse can be seen as representing living history, revealing what artifacts, writing, documents cannot. The poem’s highlighting of the limitations of memory, written records and commemoration, creates an enigma as P. Vance Smith phrases it, with the dead body left to recount its own place in the scheme of events (59-60, 74). It is through dialogue and sound, the poem’s sonorous fabric that the events are finally resolved, and their potential meaning extracted.
St Erkenwald opens with an account of the physical, historical and religious setting of the tale, which evolves into a description of the re-building of the cathedral. The mery (39) stone masons, whilst engaged in their work, uncover a splendid tomb, lavishly decorated. The description of the digging and carving of stone conveys jarring, bustling activity. News of the tomb with its indecipherable text spreads rapidly (58-62).
Voice File: lines 58-100
Click here to view transcript of Lines 58-100
Apart from the explicit references to noise, the verbs are evocative of clamour and urgency. Far from proceeding calmly and in an orderly fashion to the tomb, the people highid, boghit, lepen and ronnen. A powerful sense of speed and movement is evoked, heightened by the numbers of people involved. Something extremely unusual has happened and everyone desires to see it. The event develops into a spectacle of noise, a lively social occasion, as layers of details and elements are accumulated.
Noise does not signify in itself, it has meaning only in relation to other modes of signification. Michelle R. Warren, in her analysis of “The Noise of Roland”, argues that from the “combined perspectives of acoustics, information theory, and philology” it is possible to view noise and signals or messages as interdependent and that what distinguishes something as meaningful, a signal or message, or disruptive, is “intent” (283). This is particularly evident in literature, which can be viewed as the “noise of culture,” a disturbance in the dissemination of information and thus literary texts can be viewed as “various forms of mixed signals” (304). Sound, like time and space helps to delineate boundaries between the self and other and in order for identity to be established the noisy other must be silenced.
However, there is no hint of violence, unease or alterity in all of this haste in the cathedral to see the wonder with which the pilgrims have been presented. The opening of the tomb is carefully and courteously organized by the mayor and the sacristan and skillfully enacted by the workmen. The body unearthed is as fresh as he is “sounde sodanly were slippid opon slepe”(92). There is a child-like innocence, an enthusiasm for the marvelous, the new. Even the mayor, civic and religious leaders are anxious to investigate the find. Each person questions what lies before him and endeavours to make sense of it.
To this end, they search for records and memories of this seemingly important individual (96-100). The discussion works from the materiality of the body outwards in an attempt to unravel the underlying meaning. This referral to documentation to find a rationale for what is happening proves ineffectual. The questioning of texts and modes of recording draws in the receivers of St. Erkenwald, who possess a similar level of knowledge of the events, witnessing them unfurl, just as the folk in the poem, uniting both the internal and external audiences.
News reaches Bishop Erkenwald of these happenings whilst he is visiting an abbey in Essex, and losing no time, he buskyd þiderwarde bytyme (112). Erkenwald spends the night reciting his canonical hours, beseeching God’s help to solve the mystery in order to confirm the people’s faith. His prayers prefigure the closure of the poem, functioning as an expression of desire, which through supplication is fulfilled leading to celebration as his wish and the wishes of the people are fulfilled in that the mystery of the body and divine workings are revealed.
Once he assumes control of proceedings all clamour and commotion cease, at his behest (131-2).
Voice File 2 lines 131-145
Click here to read a transcript of likes 131-145
The exquisite notes of the choir are an instance of that important element of medieval cultures, music, with every aspect of medieval life and experience and embodiment being musically significant. Lords gather, not rush to herken (134) the beautiful, intricate singing. After this carefully designed performance of sound in honour of God, the bishop processes to the tomb location. We learn of all the great, good and ordinary souls who follow the bishop as the area is unlocked with a great bundle of keys. The keys probably jangle in the echoing confines of the cloister, a naturalistic detail that draws the listener/ reader into the scene. Having negotiated the cloister the focus then narrows to a moving conversation between the bishop and the corpse. All is silence now (218-20).
Voice File 3 lines 193-220
Click here to read a transcript of lines 193-220
The crowd is as large as before, with a crush forming behind the bishop as he passes through it, yet it is becalmed through sheer amazement. The contrast between the calmness and silence of the crowd now and its previous frenetic noisy activity is quite arresting. Boisterous garrulous behavior evident amongst those attending religious worship is widely attested and, as Diana Wood notes, the church court records contain references to louts disrupting worship and bear testament to widespread chattering with warnings issued upon occasion (207).
The dean recounts to Erkenwald all their attempts to unearth the identity of the body (159-62). Erkenwald responds by counselling the need to draw inspiration from God and to trust in their faith and to emphasize that only with divine aid can miracles be comprehended. Thereafter follows a dialogue between the bishop and the body in which we learn of the circumstances of the latter’s life and death. We are presented with performance history, the dead speaking to the living, to us, rather than information having to be gleaned from dusty monuments, texts and documents. These living words reveal God’s plan and their underlying significances are mediated by Erkenwald for the deceased judge and spectators. The poem in turn translates these events for later readers/listeners. The focus remains firmly fixed on the bishop and the corpse, with the crowd quietly observing and listening, in the same manner as those who hear/read the text.
Indeed, throughout this section the references to noise are limited to verbs and phrases which suggest sorrow. The corpse hummyd (281) and gefe a gronyng (283). One can almost hear the silence as Erkenwald pauses and looks at the tomb with flowing tears. As he warpyd the words of baptism wete (321) drips from his eyes and trillyd adoun (322). A drop falls on the judge’s face, facilitating his having a vision of paradise. His sadde soun (324) sounds out in that place for the last time for a final time as he describes what he sees and “wyt this cessyd his sowne, sayd he no more” (341). The judge is miraculously received into heaven and his body instantaneously decomposes, in the midst of great tranquility.
The climax of the poem is a crescendo of sound, as the crowd rejoices at the happy fate of the judge, but it is a happiness inevitably tinged with sadness in the face of death (350-2).
Voice File 4 lines 309-352
Click here to read a transcript of lines 309-352
All are involved in the procession with bells ringing out throughout the town. The bells call not only the folk of Erkenwald’s London to participate in this joyful spectacle; they invite later audiences to join the celebration. Thus childlike innocence and enthusiasm combined with the direction of the church in tangible situations are deemed beneficial. This is paralleled in the positivity of silence and the three correct usages of human speech as explicated in a fifteenth-century sermon by an Oxford student monk on the gospel reading for the third Sunday in Lent, Luke II:14-28. An individual, especially a cleric, must be silent and meditate before he can graciously address the Lord. Quiet study is necessary prior to exhorting people to leave their sinful ways, with the final purpose of rightful speech being confession, which should only be exercised after the silent acquiring of wisdom (41-51).
The poem’s narrative voice adds that physicality is merely vainglorious, and what is fundamental is the soul’s achieving of bliss through the expression of love for Our Lord who makes this feasible. Such explicit comments are comparatively rare in St. Erkenwald with the role of the church and lay folk, and their obligations performed, expressed, rather than stated. The poem provides a model of the religious culture of a cathedral with the roles of clergy and laity carefully delineated. Through a spectacle of sound, ordered and disordered, of human and divine orchestration, pastoral care and guidance is enacted for the audience in and of the poem.
Featured Image: Image from the Crusader Bible, Morgan Library M.638, fol. 3r.
Bonnie Millar, Ph.D., Researcher at the University of Nottingham holds degrees from Trinity College Dublin, and the University of Nottingham. She has authored a critical study of the Siege of Jerusalem, and also publishes regularly on alliterative poetry, medieval romances, gender theory and myths. Publications include a paper entitled “Hero or Jester: Gawain in Middle English Romances and Ballads” in Le Personnage de Gauvain dans la literature européenne du Moyen Âge ed. Marie-Françoise Alamichel, a chapter on “Key Critics, Concepts & Topics” in the Continuum Handbook of Medieval British Literature, “A Measure of Courtliness: Sir Gawain and the Carl of Carlisle” in Cultures Courtoises en Mouvement: Proceedings of the Thirteenth Congress of the International Society of Courtly Literature and contributions to the Facts on File Companion to Pre-1600 British Poetry. Current projects include a full length study of the figure of Gawain entitled Gawain: From Hero to Anti-Hero in late Middle English and Early Modern Romances and Ballads.
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