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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Until the nineteenth century, very little medieval music had been rediscovered, and what little was known was known mainly to specialists. However, the nineteenth-century fascination with the Middle Ages, the Gothic Revival in art and literature, inspired composers to write symphonic works and operas using medieval stories and themes. By the time twentieth-century musicologists began decoding and publishing music from the medieval past, a general consensus as to “what sounds medieval” had already been established in the minds of educated listeners familiar with European art music (see Annette Kreuziger-Herr’s 2005 article “Imagining Medieval Music: A Short History”). Ideas of the medieval constructed in the 19th century via medievalist works of art persisted well into the twentieth, and eventually the imagined medieval sound of Romantic music turned out to be incompatible with the newly discovered historical record.
While Early Music performers in the 1970s and 1980s based their performance styles on historical research, their artistic work was inevitably conceived in relation to existing concert repertoires and standards of performance, as well as ideas about the Middle Ages known by them and by their audiences. A general goal was to create performances that audiences could feel were convincingly accurate to how the music would have sounded in the past. But a sense of authenticity depends not just on the performers’ historical accuracy, but on a complex interaction of experiences and expectations on the part of the audience.
Two films, Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Knightriders, play directly with the clash between romantic interpretation of the Middle Ages and historically informed performances of music, for comedic effect. In Music in Films on the Middle Ages: Authenticity vs. Fantasy, John Haines examines six tropes of music in medievalist films: bells, horn calls and trumpet fanfares, court and dance music, minstrels, chant, and warriors on horseback. Haines mentions Monty Python and the Holy Grail several times, but does not discuss any of its music; he does not discuss Knightriders, likely because of its modern setting.
This essay examines the way these two films used music to highlight issues of the real, the historical, and the existence of competing medievalisms central to the understanding of medieval music in modern times. In the director’s commentary for the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), writer/performer/director Terry Jones had this to say about the film’s music:
Neil Innes had originally written the music for the entire film, and when we showed it, it didn’t really seem to work… we’d all agreed that Neil should go for a very authentic sound, and authentic instruments. The trouble is, it sounded quaint, and when we went to do the read-up I realized that actually you needed kind of mock-heroic music. But of course at that stage, we couldn’t afford to go and record some more music, so the only thing I could do was to go to a music library – I went to DeWolfe’s [a music library that licenses stock music] in London, and spent sort of weeks going through their discs, and sorting out bits of music to put on to it, to give it that sort of … it was just that we realized that if you had sort of music that sounded slightly quaint, because it was on original instruments, and you had all these silly goings-on, it looked comic, the music, instead of actually looking, um, real….
They wanted an “authentic sound,” but what they got didn’t seem real: here is the problem of conflicting expectations in a nutshell. Jones likely meant that the newly composed music, including the sounds of pre-modern instruments, was consciously reminiscent of older music as it was beginning to be known. The song sung by Sir Robin’s minstrels is likely a survival of Innes’ “authentic” score. The singer – Innes himself – sings a minor-mode melody reminiscent of a Tudor-era tune (think “Greensleeves”), accompanied by recorders, some reed instrument, and drum beats. The terms “original instruments” or “authentic instruments” don’t just refer to antique instruments (or copies of antique instruments), they were code for a particular approach to the performance of old music, an approach that was becoming very popular in 1970s Britain (for more on the British Early Music revival, see The Art of Re-Enchantment: Making Early Music in the Modern Age by Nick Wilson).
Jones characterized the pre-existing stock music chosen at De Wolfe’s as “mock Heroic,” but there’s really nothing mock about it per se— it’s genuinely heroic-sounding orchestral music, in the romantic post-Wagnerian style of Hollywood film scores, probably written in the 1950s or 1960s. There are brass fanfares when the company sights Camelot in the distance, angelic choirs for the vision of God who speaks to Arthur from the clouds, and especially, there is the wonderful music used when the company is galloping with coconuts. Here they are, approaching the castle of Gui de Lombard
The music for the galloping horses is heard several times during the film, and the contrast between its epic majesty and the sight of King Arthur and his knights not riding horses but rather banging two halves of coconuts together to simulate the sound of hoofbeats enhances the sight gag. The melody consists of four repetitions of the same melody, a strong rhythmic fanfare. The melody itself is made up of two almost identical phrases that each rise and then return down. The rhythm both emphasizes the steady pace and, through its mixture of long and short durations (a so-called “dotted rhythm”), suggests the gait of galloping horses. First we hear percussion, the high-frequency snare drums and lower booming tympani, then the low brass play the melody, harmonized. Higher trumpets join in for the second repeat, with flutes doubling the melody at a higher octave for added brilliance. That combination plays the third repeat, with strings joining for the fourth repeat. The tympani play faster, approaching the fanfare’s final cadence, but it becomes an anti-climax as Patsy, played by Terry Gilliam, can’t really play his long herald’s trumpet. A very knowing joke, as onscreen Hollywood heralds are frequently accompanied by the sound of modern valved trumpets playing chromatic phrases impossible to play on the visible long trumpets.
[The whole piece can be heard here; the part heard repeatedly in the film begins at 1:27:]
In its instrumentation, especially the use of brass and percussion, and the dotted rhythms (long, short, long, short, etc.) suggesting hoofbeats, this fanfare draws on a long tradition of music written to suggest galloping horses, whether ridden by medieval knights or other hunters or warriors. The most famous example is probably the finale to the “William Tell” Overture by Gioachino Rossini (1839). That galloping music influenced many film scores featuring knights on horseback, and it is likely that Terry Jones recognized the style from films he could have seen since the 1950s, such as MGM’s Knights of the Round Table (1953), starring Mel Ferrer as King Arthur and the very wooden Robert Taylor as Sir Lancelot which features music by Miklós Rózsa (1907-1995), who wrote similar music for both medieval knights and Roman charioteers, including trumpets to suggest fanfares and uneven rhythms to suggest hoofbeats.
The music in my second example deals directly with the clash between then and now. The 1981 film Knightriders was written and directed by George A. Romero, better known for his horror films (he invented the modern zombie film with 1968’s Night of the Living Dead). Knightriders follows the adventures of a traveling Renaissance-faire troupe of actors who stage jousting tournaments while riding motorcycles; the interactions between the actors come to parallel Arthurian stories. The film revolves around the conflict between modern reality and the desire to live one’s life according to (a modern understanding of) medieval chivalric virtues. This scene shows the troupe’s act: the action is straightforward, but the music is complicated, with the score by Donald Rubenstein using five distinct kinds of music in a theoretically sophisticated manner. In order, we hear: live music played on-screen by visible performers, recorded music played onscreen, and then three musically distinct flavors of underscore music. Watch for a yet another knowing gag about the technical capabilities of heralds blowing straight trumpets, as well as a cameo appearance by the writer Stephen King as a scornful man eating a sandwich.
The music performed on-screen functions as part of the scene. The painfully amateur band of minstrels plays a tune from Handel’s oratorio “Judas Maccabeus” (1746), probably known to the squeaky violinist from its use as a Suzuki teaching piece. We can imagine that these musicians are playing the oldest piece of music they know, and in response the audience—both onscreen and offscreen—is led to believe that the rest of the show will be similarly amateurish. The professionally recorded trumpet fanfare demonstrates again how their (and our) musical associations for medieval scenes, especially tournaments, come so strongly from Hollywood. The actors can’t begin to play their instruments, but everyone knows that the heralds and their fanfares are crucial for the scene they’re trying to set.
When King William and Linet take their thrones, we hear underscore music—guitar and fiddle—for the first time; the shift from source music to underscore is done with great subtlety. This music has the informal flavor of folk music, which connects it to the little onscreen band, but now played professionally. The cue is extremely short, but serves as a transition from the real world of the tacky Ren-fest to the imagined world of chivalry and knighthood in some mythical past enacted by the modern-day warriors. The spectacular motorcycle stunts are underscored by more folk-sounding music: again fiddle and guitar, this time playing a fast jig. This music is exciting, as befits the action, but the specific sounds, reminiscent of Irish folk music, do more than just underscore excitement: they begin to move us backwards in time. Folk music reads as traditional, as old, but not ancient. The folk music sounds inhabit an intermediate place, a remembered past between the present and the imagined distant past of the middle ages.
When the individual jousts begin, the underscore music changes again, first to the heroic type of “Hollywood Knights” music, prompting the audience to equate the “real” riders onscreen with their fictional (and filmic) knightly counterparts. This kind of orchestral music, with prominent strings, is used throughout the film for moments of almost magical transformation, suggesting that for believers, such transformation is indeed possible. For the second and third jousts the underscore changes one last time, to trombones playing very archaic-sounding music. Here at last in 1980 is the sound of “authentic instruments” that Terry Jones eschewed back in 1974, and it doesn’t sound quaint at all here, it sounds real. These riders aren’t (just) carnival performers, they are knights at a tournament, risking bodily injury in their quest for personal excellence.
The music in this sequence plays with a basic distinction in film music and film music scholarship: is the music diegetic, that is, part of the film’s story, or nondiegetic, that is, as Robynn J. Stilwell describes in “The Fantastical Gap between Diegetic and Nondiegetic,” in Beyond the Soundtrack, “an element of the cinematic apparatus that represents that world?” (184). The terms were first used by Claudia Gorbman in her pioneering study, Unheard Melodies: Narrative Film Music (1987), and have been a major focus of film music scholarship ever since.
In this sequence, the amateur musicians and the taped fanfare, count as diegetic music, while everything else is nondiegetic. Stilwell points out that border crossings between these two categories are common, but meaningful; she coined the term “fantastical gap,” the gap between what we see and hear and what we hear without seeing, to discuss the liminal (conceptual) space between the two (185-187). Stilwell describes movement from diegetic to nondiegetic as a “trajectory [that] takes on great narrative and experiential import. These moments do not take place randomly; they are important moments of revelation, of symbolism, and of emotional engagement within the film and without” (200). The Knightriders tournament sequence, already liminal as a “play within the play” of the film, traverses the fantastical gap in a way that dramatizes a central question for the performance of Early Music: what happens when modern performances are historically informed, but emotionally unsatisfying? For George Romero, as for Terry Jones, the answer is to give priority to the emotional, drawing on their and their audiences’ expectation for “Hollywood Knights” soundtrack music. Early Music performers in the 1980s made similar choices, merging familiarity and unfamiliarity in exciting ways that unfortunately left them open to criticism that their performances were “inauthentic,” an advertising claim they found themselves defending.
The modern performance of surviving pieces of medieval music, recorded in notation, will always enact a kind of medievalism, involving the creative use of material survival from the past. But to understand the goal for the performance of medieval music as historical accuracy alone is to miss an important point. Medievalisms, the creative use of historical material, create meanings for modern audiences, meanings that then help to shape further understanding of the historical past.
The decades since these two films were made and released saw great growth in both artistic approaches to Early Music, and in the skill of performers in playing old instruments and singing in newer, non-Classical styles. Professional recordings enjoyed real commercial success as a sub-genre in Classical music starting in the 1980s, accelerating audiences’ familiarity with the novel sounds of old music re-vivified. The 1990s saw “new age” music and Celtic folk-music sounds added to the mix, while performers in the 2000s have drawn inspiration from Greek Orthodox chant, and continental folk musics. “What sounds medieval” will always be conditioned by what modern performers and listeners imagine “the medieval” to be, and how “the medieval” is understood to be different from later times. As those imaginings are themselves constantly changing, so will their representations in music.
Featured Image: “Monty Python Coconuts” by Flickr User Mark Turnauckus
Elizabeth Randell Upton is Associate Professor of Musicology at UCLA and the author of Music and Performance in the Later Middle Ages (“The New Middle Ages” series, Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), which examines late fourteenth and early fifteenth century vocal music to discover evidence for the experiences of performers and listeners in the medieval past, recorded in surviving musical notation. Her next book will explore mid-twentieth century Early Music revivals in the UK and US, moving beyond the usual focus on musicological scholarship and classical music traditions to examine Early Music’s interactions with both folk music revivals and popular music.
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