The Dies Irae is a hymn/plainchant written by Thomas of Celano, an early Franciscan monk, in the mid 1250s. It is a beautiful modal melody and meaningful Christocentric text which deals with death, the day of judgement, sin, and our passive dependency on God’s grace granted through His Son’s death on a cross.
In my first attempt to harmonize the Dies Irae, I selected the chords I wanted and then harmonized. However due to not paying attention, lack of knowledge of voice leading, and the inherent difficulty of harmonizing a plainchant; the attempt resulted in a piece which, although beautiful chordally, has many errors. My second attempt discarded many of my preferred chords (e.g. the second chord is a i⁶ rather than a VI) but achieved a proper harmonization, following all of the rules as far as I am aware. Both are attached below.
The orchestration uses a woodwind trio of Flute, Clarinet, and Tenor Saxophone along with strings divided into first and second violins and first and second cellos resulting in four string parts. There are three main sections. The first is reminiscent of the Dies Irae’s plainchant roots; the cellos provide a drone on the tonic while the woodwinds intone the melody above. The second section is my flawed harmonization, but, at the suggestion of my teacher, rearranged so that the melody is in the cello and the winds sing the alto, tenor, and bass parts above. This avoids the requirement of proper voice leading and places the focus on the chords where I wanted it. The third section is the correct harmonization, this time in normal SATB order in the strings and the winds doubling at various spots. The cellos return to the drone for a coda where the solo flute intones the beginning phrase once again.
Because it is quite difficult to get an orchestra into church, I also transcribed the piece for solo pipe organ.
voice leading – dies irae – f minor – 24.mus – Incorrect voice leading – Finale
voice leading – dies irae – f minor – 24 – Incorrect voice leading – PDF
voice leading – dies irae – f minor – 24 – Incorrect voice leading – MP3 played by Finale