A 21st Century Dies Irae – in Conversation with Composer Thomas Crow


Please introduce yourself and your relationship with Faith and Music.

My name is Thomas Crow and I am a Catholic Composer from Wakefield in England. My Mum is Catholic and my Dad is Anglican, but my sister and I were brought up Catholic, serving at Mass for many years. My Dad has played the organ at his church for as long as I can remember, and my sister and I were always encouraged to interact with music. I have been in ensembles from an early age, singing both sacred and secular music in choirs, and playing a wide range of genres on my flute. It has been evident to me for many years that the sacred repertoire is my preference. These various choirs had me singing alongside the Yorkshire Philharmonic Choir, and on international tours. During my Classical Music degree at university, I changed my primary instrument from flute to voice and joined the church choir, with whom I sang at a number of Latin Masses at a variety of churches. This was my first proper introduction to the Latin Mass; my inquisitive side just had to do more research and I have now become enchanted. This attachment to the church’s long and venerable history is evident in the music I compose; be that in the words I choose to set, or the use of plainchant melodies running through pieces, Catholicism greatly influences my compositions.

How did you come to compose a Dies Irae on a secular Composition Master’s Degree program?

 I attempted to compose from an early age, but it took off for me after we were introduced to the Sibelius software in school around the age of 13. After that point I spent most of my spare time in the music computer room composing. It was a natural progression for me to take Music for GCSE and A Level, the latter including harmonisations of Bach Chorales. During the first year of my bachelor’s degree at Liverpool University, I learnt about counterpoint using the Johann Joseph Fux text Gradus ad Parnassum. Both the Chorales and the Fux were approached without any text. I have therefore had no formal tuition on setting text but have instead learned ‘on the job’ whilst singing in choirs and writing motets. When I started my master’s degree at Manchester University, I had a Mass setting and a number of motets under my belt. I was assigned an academic advisor, who despite the title of the degree, MusM Composition (Instrumental & Vocal), informed me that I would not be composing much vocal music here. I took this as a challenge, and by the end of the degree, of the 6 assessed compositions, 3 of them included the voice. In many ways, writing this Dies Irae was a response to that challenge unknowingly set by my advisor. I also wanted to use the opportunity to write a substantial work for choir and ensemble which would both score me well and be something to be proud of as a standalone piece of music aside from the qualification.

Great! What was the first stage in approaching the composition?

 The first stage was choosing the text. I knew I wanted something Catholic, Latin and with multiple movements, but I also knew that to score the marks for the degree, I would need to have a modern approach to harmony and tonality. The Dies Irae sequence seemed like the perfect text as it can programmatically cope with more dissonance, given that Hell is a real possibility at the Day of Judgement! My relationship with the text was inspired by the late, great Krzysztof Penderecki’s use of text in his Passio et Mors Domini Nostri Jesu Christi. I studied this piece for one of the modules of my degree shortly before starting work on my Dies Irae, so that idea of having a fluid relationship with the text being set was very fresh for me. Much of the text I used doesn’t actually come from the Sequence, and I used other texts which I thought would augment the work.

It’s an unusual ensemble with which you chose to accompany the choir. How did that decision come about?

It was almost entirely a logistical decision. I knew the piece needed to be performed, so I had to work with the available resources to me at the university. I formed a ‘wish-list’ but then went about recruiting performers to determine what was possible. I wanted to include the Cor Anglais because of the melancholic timbre of the instrument as typified by John Williams in his score for Schindler’s List. There was only one Cor Anglais player in the department; fortunately, I was able to recruit her, as otherwise I would have had to rethink my whole plan. This happened before the first note of music had been written! The next instrument on the list was the Trumpet, given that ‘tuba’ is the Latin word for Trumpet, as in the Tuba Mirum movement. I decided to write for two trumpets to enable me to write antiphonally, in part influenced by Sir James MacMillan’s pieces In Splendoribus Sanctorum and Tu Es Petrus, but also by choral Cantoris/Decani formation. It would have been nice to include an Organ, as it is intrinsically Catholic, but it would have posed a logistical nightmare. There were two sensible solutions: to use either a Piano or a String Quartet. I opted for the latter as it felt more Catholic due to its orchestral use in Mass settings. The final instrument I added was the Percussion, as it was able to add a ‘bombastic’ element which I lost when I decided against using the Organ, and offered a wide range of additional timbres to the ensemble.

I want to talk about the use of, at times, jarring dissonance within the work. How do you mesh that with the notion of using your talents for the Greater Glory of God?

I would argue that by composing music about the Day of Judgement with this level of atonality, I am honouring God by depicting the importance and significance of that day. Whilst the musical palette will be quite novel to many listeners, the overall structure is not that foreign. Taken as a whole, it actually bares much similarity to Sonata Form, with the opening movement being the Exposition, movements II-V being Development, and the Pie Iesu being the Recapitulation with those opening chords returning at the beginning of the final movement, albeit much higher this time. Those opening chords all compliment the melody notes they are accompanying, and those moments are somewhat influenced by the writing of Stravinsky in his Requiem Canticles and Symphony of Psalms. Stravinsky wrote about ‘the religiosity of others’ (Blyth, 1991, p.255), as he was Russian Orthodox, but these pieces are about Catholicism. One other moment which could be perceived as being unfamiliar and atonal is the word ‘Deus’ in the Iudica Me movement. This particular passage was influenced by Elisabeth Lutyens’ Lament of Isis on the Death of Osiris and also by plainchant in equal measure. There are a lot of ways in which contemporary music can be seen as the completion of a ‘full circle’ back to more like plainchant and early polyphony, a theory which professional choirs such as ORA Singers champion.

Where can readers find out more about you and your music?

Firstly, thank you for this opportunity to speak about my music. I hope readers are interested in me and my music, and if so, the Dies Irae we have discussed can be found here on my Soundcloud, and I have a Facebook page which is the main source of news. Please ‘like’ the page and feel free to send me a message or leave a review to let me know what you think.