Roman Maciejewski Works in detail

Requiem – Missa pro defunctis

The idea

It is usually accepted that Roman Maciejewski began writing his Requiem in 1945. The date fits with the concept that the writing of the mass was inspired by the end of the Second World War and that the work was primarily a tribute to the victims of the tragedy (as well as all those who had perished in any other armed conflict). There is another motivation however – the work is also an expression of gratitude from Maciejewski to the Creator for saving him from a deadly illness. This may even have been the original reason, as is suggested by the composer’s remark included in the programme of the American premiere of the work according to which Maciejewski began working on the mass already in 1943. These circumstances seem to be confirmed also by the composer’s letter to his brother Zygmunt in which he wrote:

After the second operation I began my Missa pro defunctis, that is Requiem for the fallen. However, the third operation interrupted composition for a long time.

Maciejewski’s statements concerning the choice of mass as his medium make for interesting reading. They usually refer to religion, like, for example, in a letter to the composer’s brother Zygmunt of 9 June 1958:

If I have any talent in music and if God chose to use me in this manner as one of his innumerable tools, then only one thought is important – how to use this talent to bring man closer to man, and man closer to God. This thought inspired me to write the Requiem and sustained me during all those years of working on the piece.

On the other hand Maciejewski explained his preferences by referring to formal factors. As he said to Tadeusz Kaczyński:

I decided to do something that would attract people’s attention, if only by virtue of its size. Of course, I could have written a short epitaph, which would have been performed more often, but which would not have generated much interest, would not have been a source of profound experiences and would have gone unnoticed. That is why I decided to write a grand Requiem as a monument to all those who died in all wars.

Finally, in a conversation with Maria Woś he admitted that the choice of the mass was not dictated by a strictly religious aspect, but that the inspiration came from the semantics of the text used:

My idea was guided by the words of Christ dying on the cross – “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” […] This is how I found my way into the liturgy of the Catholic Church. Because there we hear about death, about the forgiveness of sins. There we hear about eternal light as well as people’s responsibility for individual or collective actions, and there is also a belief in goodness. This suggested to me that regardless of whether I was one of the members of this dogmatic Church or not, I should use the Missa pro defuntis – Mass for the dead.

The work on the Requiem took Maciejewski nearly fifteen years, but even its completion he would continue to introduce corrections into his opus vitae.

The construction

The original concept for the Requiem was not put into practice. In the 1940s the composer planned – as he described to his brother Zygmunt – that the work would have the following form:

I’m writing a Missa pro defunctis […] The duration is more or less two hours, with the first part of the mass (until the Offertorium) being much longer than the second, more or less like 5:3. As far as I know, my mass will feature the entire liturgical text for the first time […]. The parts are thus as follows:

  1. Introitus, Kyrie, Graduale, Tractus, Dies irae,
  2. Offertorium, Sanctus, Benedictus, Agnus Dei, Communio and Libera me.

How the various parts are planned:

  1. Introitus. […] The Introitus contains an announcement of the Kyrie themes.
  2. The Kyrie is a three-part contrapuntal form of large proportions. […]
  3. Graduale et Tractus will be performed as one movement […].
  4. Dies irae is the most powerful, in terms of dramatic tension, part of the mass for the dead. […] The entire Dies irae ends with an arch line of a contrapuntal Amen. […]

Thus ends part one of the Missa pro defunctis. Musically, it is the centre of gravity of the entire Mass. Part two has neither the dramatic tension of the Dies irae, nor the great line of the Kyrie. It consists of shorter sections […] and what matters to me the most here, with one exception, is a good interpretation of the text.

II. 5. The form of the Offertorium is that of a Passacaglia; against a background of an unchanging and recurring motif, mainly in the bass, there emerge freely sketched voices, composed in a series of sections. The voices are entrusted to four soloists. Thus it will be a quartet of soloists with a rather slow and calm rhythm.

  1. The Sanctus is to be full of rapture, short with a very brief fugue. Mixed choir with orchestra.
  2. The Benedictus to be performed by the choir with a reminiscence of the Sanctus.
  3. Agnus Dei. Three successively singing soloists with a response in the choir.
  4. Communio. Women’s choir.
  5. The Libera me begins with a solo bass in a recitativo-like style
    with two interruptions in a very dramatic part of the choir. It is followed by a reminiscence of the Dies irae. This parts ends in a manner similar to the beginning of the whole mass. Thus we have arrived at the starting point, a prayer quietly whispered by the choir.

Had Maciejewski composed the entire mass cycle, the present work would have constituted the first part of the Requiem (with a break after the Rex tremendae), but it would most likely have been more concise. In the end the plans were not carried out. The part of the mass that was composed functions as a complete work, although as late as in the 1960s, after the premiere at the Warsaw Autumn, Maciejewski talked to Tadeusz Kaczyński (in an interview for Tygodnik Powszechny) about a continuation of his work:

The predominant element of the next part of the work would be liturgical, e.g. the planned Benedictus, while the final psalm Libera me will be a synthesis of all elements. It is possible that film art will be used as one of the elements continuing the work. I imagine this as a sort of mystery play, with a performance having to be spread over two concerts.

However, these plans were never put into practice. In his Requiem Maciejewski used the liturgical text of the first four parts of the traditional mass for the dead structure.. The order is as follows: Oratio, Introductio(orchestral introduction), Introitus, Kyrie, Graduale, Tractus and Dies irae, with the last sequence being the most elaborate. The detailed plan is as follows:

Part no. Title/incipit Line-up No. in the score (PWM Kraków 1997) Remarks
I Oratio choir, orchestra 1 fragment of the text of the Introitus
II Introductio orchestra 7 orchestral introduction to the Introitus
III Introitus
1. Requiem aeternam

2. Psalmus. Te decet hymnus

3. Requiem aeternam

1. choir, orchestra

2. solo bass, orchestra

3. choir, orchestra





1. text of the antiphon fromthe Introitus

2. The Psalm Te decet hymnus is a Latin translation of the second and third verse of the thanksgiving Psalm 65 (64)


IV Kyrie
1. Kyrie eleison

2. Christe eleison

3. Kyrie eleison – Christe eleison

1. choir, two pianos

2. choir, soloists, orchestra

3. choir, orchestra





1. Fugue

3. Fuga triplex


Graduale et Tractus
V Gradual bass solo, choir, orchestra 1 includes syllogistic sentence  from Psalm 111:7 (Absolve Domine), one of the sapiential psalms.
VI Tractus tenor solo, choir, orchestra 11
Dies irae
VII Dies irae choir, orchestra 1
VIII Quantus tremor choir, orchestra 38
IX Tuba mirum choir, orchestra 96
X Mors stupebit choir, orchestra 170
XI Liber scriptus choir, orchestra 205
XII Quid sum miser tenor solo, orchestra Lamentatio I
XIII Rex tremendae choir, tenor solo, orchestra 245
XIV Recordare alto solo, orchestra 268 Lamentatio II
XV Dies irae choir, orchestra 295


Ingemisco bass solo, orchestra 308 Lamentatio III
XVII Inter oves(Coelum) soprano solo, orchestra 346
XVIII Confutatis(Infernum) choir, orchestra 355
XIX Oro supplex soprano solo, orchestra 556 Lamentatio IV
XX Lacrimosa women’s choir, soprano and alto solo, orchestra 466
XXI Judicandus choir, orchestra 493
XXII Pie Jesu choir, orchestra 501
XXIII Amen choir, orchestra 505

The technical means

Requiem – Missa pro defunctis is Roman Maciejewski’s only work with such a large vocal-instrumental line-up.The composer shows in it his complete mastery of the orchestra. This monumental composition is written for a quartet of soloists: soprano (lirico), alto (drammatico), tenor (lirico), bass (profondo), and a mixed choir of over 100 singers, string quintet, four flutes, three piccolos, three oboes, cor anglais, four clarinets (including E flat clarinet and bass clarinet), three bassoons, one contrabassoon, four trumpets, four horns, three trombones, two tubas, expanded percussion (for four players): triangle, cymbals, snare drum, bass drum, two tom-toms (large and small), timpani, slapstick, xylophone, castanets, tambourine (tamburo con corda), celesta, two pianos, organ (ad libitum), and two harps.

Some movements are elaborate when it comes to the instruments used (Dies irae, Tuba mirum, Confutatis, Amen), others have a more chamber-like texture (Oratio, Graduale, Recordare, Inter oves, Oro supplex and Pie Jesu).

It is worth noting the role of the soloists, especially in the Lamentations: Quid sum miser – What shall I, frail man, be pleading; Recordare – Leave me not to reprobation; Ingemisco – Spare the imploring one, O God; Oro supplex – Help me in my last condition; in which various attitudes of human beings faced with the Last Judgement are highlighted.

Solo parts (although not as distinctive as in the Lamentations) can also be found in other parts of the Requiem (for example, in the Introitus, Graduale or Tractus), they sometimes make up ensemble fragments (for example, the soprano and alto part in the Lacrimosa), and sporadically even a cappella fragments (for example, tenor with the choir in the Tractus).

A considerable asset of the work is the composer’s insightful approach to the choral part, which often generates dramatic tension, taking over the narrative and illustrative role. But the importance of human voices does not mean that the instrumental parts are marginalised. True, they sometimes duplicate the vocal parts, but also serve important and multifaceted functions: harmonic, colouring and, above all, melodic-figurative, which depends, among others, on the themes to be played (e.g. Introductio – cor anglais, clarinet, bassoon).

Thanks to his orchestration Maciejewski brilliantly builds the expressive layer of the work; he juggles the listener’s emotions by means of numerous climaxes and releases, adding to this a palette of articulation means, textural contrasts or various combinations of instruments, which testifies to the composer’s truly impressionistic attention to the colour of his sound.

It is worth pointing out that the outstanding quality of Maciejewski’s Missa pro defunctis is also determined by its melody based on the composer’s inventiveness. We do not find Gregorian chant quotations in Maciejewski’s Requiem, but the composer was no stranger to stylisation (e.g. the thoroughly motet-like Amen). Short motifs become “pre-themes” from which he builds the material of a given movement (see the Dies irae). Yet he also smuggles the same threads (e.g. from the Introductio) into various parts of the mass. However, this does not lead to monotony – the melody remains varied: from declamatory through cantilena-like to even figurative, with its choice and specific application being obviously influenced by the text. As one commentator observed:

One simply needs to […] listen to the text, follow the text all the time and, in a way, read this text together with the music. When I read it like this, it means that the text reaches me as a meaning that is multiplied, spread in time and set in this sound matter.

[W. Lisiecki, contribution to a discussion, in Muzyka źle obecna, Warsaw 1989, vol. 2, p. 83.]

These words confirm the importance in Maciejewski’s work of the links between the word and the music, of the related symbolism, from the symbolism of the key to the significance of the specific instruments, e.g. the harp, in a given moment, the presence of various categories of expression (lyric, epic and dramatic) to the omnipresent illustrativeness. All this is manifested in the expressiveness of the mass, for example in the representation of the infernal sphere or the anxiety associated with imminent death (e.g. Mors stupebit). On the other hand we have musical images of the Kingdom of Heaven (e.g. Inter oves). As a result of all this Maciejewski’s Missa pro defunctis is sometimes described as a “statement in a rhetorical style” (A. Kłaput, Retoryka Requiem Romana Maciejewskiego, MA thesis, Bydgoszcz Academy of Music 1991).

It is also worth stressing that in his Requiem the composer uses elements of a more modern musical language as well. Examples include a melodic line imbued with chromaticism (Lacrimosa), use of the twelve-note scale (Confutatis) or centralising ostinato structures. Elements of non-functional harmony are mixed here with the major-minor system (seen usually thanks to the chord base).

However, it was unequivocal references to the past, so evident in Maciejewski’s Requiem, that caused such unfavourable reactions during the premiere at the Warsaw Autumn. Elements that are timeless for some can be only “playing” with old conventions for others. This argument will probably always be cited by opponents of the Requiem who see it as a thoroughly eclectic work. Yet (paradoxically) one of the most traditional fragments of the work has become a distinctive feature of Maciejewski’s Missa pro defunctis. The fragment in question is the Kyrie and the traditional element – the fugue used as a form-creating element. The composer’s flirt with the Baroque was not just as test of his skill; it also helped him create one of the most energetic parts of his work, which Roger Wagner even regarded as the “greatest fugue ever written” (in a letter to Marta Finkelman from the New York Choral Society, of 10 September 1976).

When it comes to the macroform, the work may be seen as controversial – it grew to “impressive” proportions, probably even greater than the original plans, substantial in themselves. That is why suggestions of cuts are often made in connection with concert performances. Attempts to change its structural framework are also associated with concern for the stamina of today’s time-pressed listeners (the full version of Maciejewski’s Requiem lasts 2 hours and 20 minutes). Significantly, the score published by PWM Edition in the 1990s features marked fragments that can be cut in performance (the fragments were indicated by Maciejewski himself). Yet the very form and size of the work generate doubts and questions – What is this Requiem in fact? An oratorio or a mystery? A religious drama or a symphonic mass? Or perhaps a cantata?

Maciejewski believed that his Missa pro defunctis would have a chance “to fill a serious gap in Polish music” and that the composition’s asset, also internationally, was its “religious and universal nature” (as he wrote to his brother Wojciech). But did he continue to think so after the fiasco of the premiere at the Warsaw Autumn? We do not know. He certainly continued to believe in his opus vitae, and with time the neostyle of the mass became its asset and original feature for more and more listeners. The number of codes contained in musical references, skilful transition from traditional to modern elements, relation between the music and the literary layer, the extraordinary emotionality of the Requiem make up a conglomerate means which not only does not obliterate the individual traits of its composer, but, on the contrary, emphasises them. This is confirmed by the words of contemporary listeners:

From an end-of-century perspective [the work] becomes a symbol of the whole humanity’s struggle for a decent life according to the “Divine order of nature”. Only today are we able to assess its extraordinary stature and power. The specificity of the work also lies in the paradox that not only does time work to its advantage, but also the content is still very relevant […].

[Weber, “Tajemnica życia i śmierci w muzyce. ‘Non omnis moriar’ – Requiem R. Maciejewskiego”, Źródło, July 1996.]