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greatest requiem

“Should not church music be mostly for the heart?” —Joseph Martin Kraus

The Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead—the Requiem, sometimes called Missa pro Defunctis (or Defuncto) or Messe des Morts—is surely the most dramatic of liturgical forms and has inspired countless composers, from medieval times to the present. What the Czech composer Antonin Dvořák, a devout Roman Catholic, said in regard to his Mass in D could just as easily be applied to his famous Requiem: “Do not wonder that I am so religious. An artist who is not could not produce anything like this.” And yet, not only Protestant composers but also those whose Christian faith was weak or non-existent wrote Masses for the Dead. After all, human life itself is the supreme drama, and what imagined scene could be more powerful than that of the individual soul pleading the case for salvation before the Almighty?

The term “Requiem” comes from the first Latin word of the Mass, which begins Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine (“Grant them eternal rest, O Lord”). The structure of the formal Requiem Mass and its Latin text developed within the Catholic Church over time, and composers have generally picked and chosen—and even added—when setting sections of the Death Mass proper. The Requiems of the classical and Romantic periods generally used some or all of these parts:


Mozart’s Requiem, in the composer’s hand

Introitus: Requiem aeternam


Graduale: Requiem aeternam

Tractus: Absolve, Domine

Sequentia: Dies Irae

Offertorium: Domine, Jesu Christe

Sanctus and Benedictus

Agnus Dei

Lux Aeterna

Pie Jesu

Libera me

In Paradisum*

During the Medieval, Baroque, and Classical periods, composers wrote Requiems with the intent of actually having them performed during the saying of the Mass for the Dead. This would later change, as during the Romantic period, composers wrote Requiems on a larger scale in terms of both length and required orchestral forces; they became, in effect, dramatic oratorios, and often operatic in style. Indeed, the great opera composers Giocomo Puccini, Giuseppe Verdi, and Gaetano Donizetti all wrote pieces in this genre. At the same time, composers began to take more liberties with both the form and text of the Catholic Requiem Mass; Verdi altered some of the words of the Latin liturgy, and Johannes Brahms incorporated words of Scripture in German translation.

In the twentieth century there appeared the “secular” Requiem, a work that was meant to commemorate the dead but which dispensed with traditional religious belief, retaining only a vague spirituality. For instance, Frederick Delius, an atheist, originally termed his effort in the genre, which used a text largely derived from the philosophies of Friedrich Nietzsche and Arthur Schopenhauer, A Pagan Requiem. Paul Hindemith’s When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d: A Requiem for Those We Love uses as its texts the poem of the same name by Walt Whitman, commemorating the death of Abraham Lincoln. Even those twentieth-century Requiems that employed parts of the Roman Mass for the Dead took greater liberties than ever before with the text: Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, for instance, uses the poetry of Wilfred Owen.

The list below ranks the greatest Requiems of all time, in order of greatness. Readers will notice that several popular Requiems have been left off this list: the aforementioned Requiems by Dvořák, Brahms, Britten, and Verdi, as well as settings by Gabriel Fauré and Maurice Duruflé (both of whom omit the Dies Irae,  indicating the sedate nature of their settings). It is the present writer’s opinion that these six Requiems are vastly overrated: whereas Dvořák’s rambles over the course of its ninety-plus minutes, the Verdi is overly operatic and includes only one memorable moment—the brief and dramatic Dies Irae; Britten’s simply lacks music of the highest quality. The remaining three lack any sort of real fire; they may charitably be called “devotional” in spirit, but are more properly deemed somnolent. Brahms, Fauré and Duruflé seem to have thought that death and judgment are all about quite resignation and consolation, without any place for desperate pleading and the terror of possible, eternal damnation.

I should remind readers that, as with all my “top ten” classical lists, the following does not constitute a democratic assessment of the consensus greatest works of all time, but represents rather my informed opinion on the matter, which I hope is more interesting. There are many worthy Requiems which I have been forced to leave off this list. I welcome with interest the opinions of readers as to the merits of ones I have omitted—and the demerits of the ones I have included.

1. Wolfgang Mozart: Requiem in D Minor, K. 626 (1791)

It will surprise none that Mozart’s immortal Requiem tops this list. In all of sacred music, there are few works that rival the writing here: the mystery of the Introit, the fire of the Dies Irae, the brilliance of the Confutatis, and the majesty of the Rex Tremendae. Mozart’s work simply operates on a higher plane than any other examples in this genre. Famously left incomplete by the dying composer, its supreme status is enhanced by the mysterious circumstances of the composer’s death, and by the puzzle of who exactly finished the piece as we know it today. The performance below is the best among the fifty or so recordings I have listened to over thirty years.


2. Hector Berlioz: Grand Messe des Morts, Op. 5 (1837)

A massive work, in terms of the number of musicians for which it calls—sixteen timpani, four brass choirs, and at least 210 choristers—Berlioz’ Requiem is, contra the composer’s reputation, not simply a showpiece full of sound and fury, but a masterpiece full of beauty, and yes, even extended contemplative sections. Berlioz’ Dies Irae rivals Mozart’s in its fire and awesomeness., while the meltingly beautiful Sanctus, featuring a solo tenor [beginning at 57:45 in the recording below] stands as one of the most beautiful things ever penned by the human hand. Surely this work alone should guarantee the agnostic Berlioz a mansion in Paradise?


3. Michael Haydn: Requiem in C minor, MH 155—Missa pro defuncto Archiepiscopo Sigismundo (1771)

I have noted elsewhere how Mozart was surely influenced by the Requiem of Michael Haydn, the younger brother of the more famous Franz Josef Haydn. And though one will think of that greater Requiem when listening to this one, this Mass for the Dead, which takes about thirty-five minutes to perform, stands on its own as a work of genius, one imbued with an unrelieved sense of drama and urgency. The younger Haydn, some of whose works until recent times were long mistaken for those of Mozart, should be better known.


4. Georg Joseph Vogler: Requiem in E-flat major (1808)

Though Mozart thought little of him, the German-born Georg Joseph Vogler (1749-1814) had a successful career as a composer, performer, and teacher (Carl Maria von Weber and Giacomo Meyerbeer were among his pupils), and was something of an innovator in terms of music theory and practice, devising a new organ-like instrument and an alternative method of fingering for the harpsichord. An ordained Roman Catholic priest—and thus known also as Abbé Vogler—his Requiem dates from the last years of his life, and contains many dramatic moments, passages of sublime beauty, as well as some unusual arrangements. There is a supremely dramatic Dies Irae, a melting tune in the Lacrymosa, an absolutely gorgeous a capella Benedictus for the four soloists (listen at 38:00 in the video below), and an eerie Quantus tremor, whose echoing brass motif is a truly memorable effect. Weber called Vogler’s the “divine Requiem,” and it was indeed compared to Mozart’s in its day. Though the judgment of time has deemed it not to reach that exalted level, it is nevertheless a great work.


5. François-Joseph Gossec: Requiem (1760)

A severely underrated composer, the long-lived (1734-1829) Gossec had a career that spanned that of Baroque composer Jean-Philippe Rameau (his teacher) through the premier of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. He wrote much worthy, and sometimes brilliant, orchestral and chamber music, as well as many choral works and operas. Highly esteemed in his day, perhaps his reputation has suffered because of the propagandistic music he composed on behalf of France’s Revolutionary regime. Gossec’s Requiem, composed in 1760, is a monumental work, running about an hour-and-a-half and full of power and beauty. While on his tour of Paris in 1778, Mozart met Gossec, liked him, and—as in the case of Michael Haydn’s Requiem, though to a lesser degree—was probably influenced by Gossec’s setting when he wrote his own Mass for the Dead thirteen years later.


6. Luigi Cherubini: Requiem in C Minor (1817)

Luigi Cherubini (1760-1842) composed his first Requiem (a second, in D minor, would come twenty years later) on the occasion of a memorial Mass for King Louis XVI, who had been executed by French Revolutionaries in 1793. Cherubini’s Requiem was much admired by later composers; Robert Schumann deemed it “without equal in the world,” and Ludwig van Beethoven requested that it be played at his own funeral, declaring, “If I were to write a Requiem, Cherubini’s would be my only model.” (Beethoven never did write a Requiem.) In employing only a chorus and not soloists, Cherubini avoids any hint of the operatic. Though influenced by Mozart’s setting, Cherubini’s voice is entirely his own and anticipates several Requiems that would be penned later by Romantic composers.


7. Osip Kozlovsky: Requiem in E-flat minor—Missa pro defunctis for King Stanisław August Poniatowski (1798)

Possibly the first Requiem composed in Russia, Polish-born Osip Kozlovsky’s Mass for the death of King Stanisław August Poniatowski of Poland was commissioned by the king himself. Kozlovsky primarily wrote for the royal theater—dances and incidental music—but his Requiem is a grand creation that surprises with its profundity. It ends, atypically, with funeral march, followed by a setting of the Salve Regina. Unfortunately there presently exists only one recording of this work, a Soviet-era production in somewhat inferior sound; but it is well worth repeated listening despite its sonic shortcomings.


8. Franz von Suppé: Requiem in D Minor (1855)

A candidate perhaps for most unlikely to write a Requiem, the Austrian composer Franz von Suppé wrote some fifty operettas and stage works, but it is generally only the overtures to some of these that are played in the concert hall today. His Requiem is one of a handful of his sacred works and certainly his best. Dedicated to Pope Pius IX, the work clocks in around seventy-five minutes and is dramatic and profound, with only a touch of the operatic in one or two places. Unusually celebratory in tone for a Requiem, especially one in D minor, Suppé’s nevertheless contains passages both of quiet lament and blazing terror.


9. Camille Saint-Saëns: Requiem, Op. 54 (1878)

Camille Saint-Saëns is generally considered a second-rate composer, and he is known today primarily for pieces like his “Organ” Symphony and his “Carnival of the Animals.” His status as an unbeliever makes him an unlikely candidate for composing a Mass for the Dead. But indeed he did—and in a mere eight days. Though he may not have bought into the theology represented by the Catholic Requiem Mass, he considered his composition a serious work. “I know how to respect what is respectable,” the composer once said of religious belief.  The urgent strings that open this Mass immediately grip the listener, and the trombone calls and organ notes of the Tuba Mirum sound bring to mind the famous opening of Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra, composed eighteen years later. Unlike some of the sprawling Requiems composed, Saint-Saëns’ clocks in at only thirty-five minutes, never outstaying its welcome.


10. Joseph Martin Kraus: Requiem in D Minor (1775)

Joseph Martin Kraus was sometimes called the “Swedish Mozart” because he too composed in the “Classical style” and because his life was nearly exactly contemporaneous with that of “the miracle that God allowed to be born in Salzburg.” His Requiem, written when he was nineteen years old, was one of his earliest compositions and shows the effect of the Sturm und Drang (“storm and stress”) movement on the young composer in its many dramatic moments; the memorable Dies Irae stands out in this regard. Yet the relatively-brief piece (some twenty-six minutes long) also possesses “snatches of Mozartian grace” and moments of ethereal beauty; sample the haunting Lacrymosa, for instance. Kraus once asked: “Should not church music be mostly for the heart?”


Bonus: A Requiem Never Recorded

Florian Leopold Gassmann: Requiem in C Minor (1774)

Florian Leopold Gassmann (1729-1774) was born in Bohemia and moved in 1757 to Venice, where he wrote operas and served as choirmaster in a girls’ conservatory. He was called into the service of Emperor Joseph II in 1763. In Vienna, he served as court ballet composer, chamber composer, and court conductor. There he tutored the young Antonio Salieri, who succeeded Gassmann as court conductor upon the latter’s death. Gassmann wrote his Requiem in the last year of his life, completing only the Introit, Kyrie, and Sequence. Though popular in the half-century after his death, and though it influenced Mozart’s own effort in the genre, there has never been a recording of Gassmann’s Requiem. What appears below is a “Vocaloid/MIDI Simulation” by one musicologist, which gives us a tantalizing taste of this work’s greatness.

*The Latin text of the Requiem can be found hereIt is actually not quite correct to say, as I did above, that the Requiem Mass has inspired “countless” composers, for one aficionado has tallied more than 5,000 examples of this genre, penned by more than 3,100 composers, spanning the Medieval period to the present. The Latin text of the Requiem can be found here

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43 replies to this post
  1. Agreed, Faure’s probably deserves a place on the list. Also, more contemporary is Morten Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna. It’s written as if Palestrina composed in our times. Probably one of the most beautiful pieces I’m familiar with.

  2. I can’t wait to listen to some of these. My personal favorite requiem is the one composed by Tomas Luis de Victoria. I prefer the relative simplicity of polyphony to the majesty and grandeur of orchestral pieces, without despising the latter.

  3. A very timely article for me as I myself am humbly trying to compose my own requiem in the classical style and have be listening to many other settings for inspiration. Many of the ones I’ve discovered on my own have made your list. I especially love the Cherubini setting, it is severely underrated. I also hold the Michael Haydn and Tomasek settings in very high regard as well.

  4. Sad not to see any of the Renaissance polyphonic Requiems here: Victoria, as mentioned by another commenter, but especially Ockeghem. I also think you give short shrift to the Durufle Requiem. I understand not including it because it omits the Sequence, but I think “desperate pleading” is a perfectly apt way to describe his Offertorium and Libera Me movements.

  5. A new ‘Requiem’ s/be considered for addition to this list. It is “Requiem” by Mark Hayes, and can be heard in its entirety on “Spotify.” Absolutely gorgeous and inspiring, its in six parts and was composed around 2013, its for full orchestra and massed chorus. Try it, you’ll like it!

    • I listened to this – a cross between film music and music from the musical theatre genre with a bit of recycled early 20th century romanticism. Do we really need the tubular bells at the end to hammer home the religious nature of the work? Quite pretty but nothing new.

  6. “I know how to respect what is respectable,” the composer once said of religious belief.

    It’s going to take time to assess the recommendations–hours of good listening beckon.

    But I would be remiss if I didn’t express my appreciation for the quote from Saint-Saëns–it strikes me as a profoundly sane position, one that I share, but had never been able to express so cogently.

  7. Thanks Stephen! Here’s another to add to the list of serious contenders: Mikos Theodorakis, Requiem.


  8. Pentti Kauppi
    I am requiemdiscophile in Finland,my collection consists of about 430 requiems,LP and CD. Impossible
    task to say “Top Ten” but P.F. Cavalli´s Missa pro Defunctis (1675) is surely” One Of The Best”.
    You can see more of my collection in

  9. Thank you so much for including the outstanding Kozlovsky Requiem – the discovery of the year for me! But you definitely should also include the second Requiem from Cherubini in d-minor!!!

  10. Would you happen to know if there is a score of Kozlovsky’s requiem, I’ve looked everywhere and can’t find one

  11. While (as a conservative) I respect your right to an opinion, I most passionately disagree with your assessment of Brahms’ German Requiem and Faure’s Requiem – they are in my view two of the greatest works of art, and I hold them very dear.

  12. While I understand the technical reason for your omission in the explanation above, I think that both Faure’s and Durufle’s Requiems are among the most sublime works ever composed. On an emotional level they capture the drama of human life and death so beautifully. Kudos for discussing the truly awesome subject of Requiem masses nonetheless

  13. What do you think of Andrew Lloyd-Webber? His version of Pie Jesu combined with Agnus Dei is beautiful when sung by the right singer.

  14. Thank you for a very interesting list. Have you heard HIF Biber’s Requiem in F. It has long been one of my favorites, as is Heinrich Schutz’s Musikalische Exequien. Sincerely, JR

  15. Great list, Stephen. Just listened to Kozlovsky’s Requiem for the first time. I’m working my way through the rest of the list. Wonderful music! I understand your decision to exclude Faure’s Requiem, it does try to be a “kinder, gentler” Requiem, but when I lose a friend or loved one, that’s the music I inevitably turn to as I work through my grief.

  16. I appreciate several of your more obscure selections and will use them as a springboard for further exploration. I want to observe, though, that this list appears to be written from the perspective of a listener, rather than a performer. As a chorister, I can assure you that the Fauré and Brahms Requiems are anything but somnolent. But virtually everyone knows about them, anyhow (along with Verdi and Dvorak) so I am not annoyed by the omissions, personally.

  17. Are you familiar with Howard Goodall’s Eternal Light Requiem? Whilst being a thoroughly modern requiem, its astounding beauty will surely stand the test of time, and I feel it could rightly have been on this list. It was originally composed to accompany a dance piece by the Rambert Dance Company in 2008, but has since been performed countless times by choirs all over the world, and had its official US debut at Carnegie Hall in New York on 20th November 2016.

    • Yes! I agree with you, Alison. My choir performed this in the spring (the 500th performance!) and it was just magical. The baritone solo in the Lacrymosa brought tears to my eyes. His voice was so beautiful. I actually started listening to our recording right before reading this article. I love how Goodall incorporates English on top of the Latin in certain movements. In Flanders Fields is wonderfully intense, too. I hope more people discover this requiem.

  18. Thank you for your recommendations; I have listened to so much that I was looking for something new. I grew up thinking the real or the best Requiems were the ones you indeed left off the list…you know the big massive operatic requiems with a thousand voices and overwhelming orchestra. Well I went out and purchased Gossec, Cherubini, Suppe, Saint-Saens, Vogler. I have Tomasek coming in the mail. Kozlosky appears to be OOP. The others I had. I have to admit I was disappointed in all these new requiems. But I will give them another try. Thanks again

  19. Sadly lacking any Spanish renaissance era requiem settings. There is of course the famous Victoria 6part require, but also Morales’ 5 part requiem and the pro defunctis by Guerrero are beautiful and moving!

  20. I am left to believe, or think, that one’s apprehension of beauty and meaning is so very individual…. I cannot agree with your list, but would not ever want to engage in any disagreement. I am happy to agree with no. 1, although we do not even know what it would have been had the composer had the time to complete the work.

    I can think Jesus on the cross (even as a lapsed Catholic) and think of Mozart dying with his Requiem unfinished in connected moments of reflection. But Faure’s Requiem will always be my number two to Mozart’s, and I cannot understand your choices. I have never been so moved by any music, and as I said, I am a Catholic, who grew up going to Mass six times a week, who can recognize and repeat most of the Latin in the Requiem. I grew up singing Gregorian chants, and I can only attribute your list to a difference in tastes, just as some people do not like the color purple.

    I also heard more Masses than I ever wanted to, growing up in a household (thank someone eternal) that had classical music playing in it every night of my life.

    Sadly, the Requiem of Brahms will not make it to my list.

  21. You missed out the best one actually. The plainchant Gregorian requiem mass. The one that inspires all the rest. The OG.

    The Tract, Absolve is bar none the best. And all of them written by an obscure monk by the Grace of God and not through his own merits hence choosing to remain anonymous forevermore.

  22. Great list. I understand the exclusion of some traditional favorites. Interesting reasoning there, and true they don’t meet certain criteria you mention I think it makes way for inclusion of some magnificent and lesser considered works.

  23. Great list! So glad to see the Cherubini on there, a fantastic though sadly underperformed piece. I was a bit disappointed with no mention of Penderecki. His Polish Requiem is one of my favorite pieces of all time, and perhaps his best work. (The Passion wins most days for me though.) You heard the Polish Requiem?

  24. Thank you so much for this. This is my main reference that i’ve used to learn about requiems. I only knew about Mozart’s, and fell in love with Michael Haydn’s once i listened to it. have listened to over 20 since then time and again. Michael’s style and rythm really shows he’s asking for something passionately (repose for a soul). Mozart was definitely inspired by Haydn’s version of the requiem. both should either tie first spot, or at least Haydn’s own should come second. I strongly hold my opinion that Michael Haydn’s requiem is the best!

  25. I’ll never consent to Verdi’s Requiem being classed as “overrated” and as including “only one memorable moment”. It is a work of genius, and this genius shines through in many instances, such as the Rex tremendae and the Kyrie. And then yes the supremely memorable moment is the Dies Irae where the drama and imaginative composition is simply overwhelming, so much it outshines about everything else. It captures the thumping terror so forcefully, perhaps even more than Mozart’s (though I think that overall Mozart’s oeuvre stands higher). Verdi’s work is quintessential when speaking about requiems (even for just the Dies Irae) and I’ll never for the life of me understand how it can be omitted from a top ten list.

    Thanks for the list, and it has certainly opened my eyes to efforts which I was not aware of. However i’m guessing (and I’m very possibly wrong) that this list comes more from a musicological side, and less from a performing music side.

  26. Also a contribution not mentioned here, not even in the comments: Ildebrando Pizzetti’s Requiem. This has an entirely a capella setting with some imaginative polyphony; in my opinion certainly worth a listen.

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