Figures 1: Map indicating the regions of the two investigated musical cultures.

Figures 1 and 2: Maps indicating the regions of the two investigated musical cultures (Graphic Maps, Map of Europe).


The Gregorian chants of the Medieval times and traditional French popular music have many similar characteristics. The two musical links that will be investigated will be conjunct melody and strophic form, and the two songs that will be studied are the requiem mass “Dies Irae” and “La Vie En Rose” by Edith Piaf.

Gregorian chants were sacred songs sung in Latin by large groups during religious ceremonies in the Medieval period. They tended to have monophonic texture, meaning there was only one line of melody sung in unison. Men, women and children would all gather to sing Gregorian chants in their attuned octaves without instruments. These chants were recorded on a four-line format, like so:

Figure 3: Original four-line notation for Gregorian chants.

Figure 3: Original four-line notation for Gregorian chants.

For the sake of clarity, the Gregorian chant studied will be explained in modern five-line format (Forney 72-73).

“The epoch (1940s to 1960s) was perhaps best defined by the melodramatic romanticism of Edith Piaf. She was the quintessential singer of lost love, but frequently set it against a decadent backdrop of of sex, death and drugs.” (Scaruffi)

The French style of traditional popular music is often smooth and dreamy in timbre, and “La Vie En Rose” is no different. Traditional pop was at it’s height in the mid 1940s to the early 1960s. It is considered to have predated rock and roll that originated in the 1950s. Traditional Pop can be identified easily by the use of very catchy and memorable tunes that are meant to draw in the listener instantly and make a lasting impression on them (Scaruffi).

“Dies Irae” also begins with a very conjunct melodic movement but incorporating chromaticism and establishing that as a significant part of the song, and the melody moves in very legato phrases, or very smooth and connected. Both of these songs were meant to be memorable in a way, and a conjunct melody was one way of achieving that. For “Dies Irae”, being a religious song, large groups of early Catholic people sung the song during funeral mass, and this included men, women and children alike (Forney 78-79). The song was therefore required to have a simple melodic structure along with its monophonic texture, or single melody line which allowed for the ranges of all the singers to be satisfied (Henry).

Gregorian chants had free rhythm to almost no rhythm, but when put with words, “Dies Irae” almost sounds like it has sounds like a prayer (Forney 78). The reason “Dies Irae” and most other Gregorian chants lacked very many leaps in the melody was because the musicality of the piece did not matter so much as its holy message whereas Edith Piaf partially had the goal of selling records in order to survive. To do this she had to have the attention of the audience using memorable and timeless tunes like “La Vie En Rose” (Scaruffi). The chromatic melodic movement of the beginning of “Dies Irae” is shown below.

Figure 4: Opening melody of Dies Irae

Figure 4: Opening melody of “Dies Irae”

“La Vie En Rose” had a large range to fulfill Edith Piaf’s singing talent, but it also showed conjunct melody along with a few leaps. Western traditional popular music was often written to attract audiences with catchy tunes that are easy to pick up and remember, and with Piaf’s version, the melody is structured in a way that almost every syllable of the lyrics has its own note value (syllabic phrasing). The image below shows the very conjunct melody of the introduction in “La Vie En Rose”. This melody is also very diatonic, meaning it is based on the seven tone scale that most Western popular music is based on. “Dies Irae” was very chromatic with immense use of half steps in the melody.

Figure 5: Conjunct melody in the introduction of "La Vie En Rose"

Figure 5: Conjunct melody in the introduction of “La Vie En Rose”

Even though “La Vie En Rose” shows almost similar conjunct melodic movement as “Dies Irae”, much of the time the song moves in whole steps rather than chromatically throughout the song including some embellishments and triplets, with the exceptions of some large leaps. This musical element only further establishes the fact that “La Vie En Rose” and other songs of Western traditional popular music were meant to lure audiences with memorable tunes rather than to express a specific symbolic message such as death like in the case of “Dies Irae”.

The repetitive and therefore memorable melodies that are evident in the strophic form of “La Vie En Rose” establish the catchy tune that is meant to attract large audiences instantly, hence the genre “popular.” In the original version with Edith Piaf, the introducing melody is sung twice in the duration of the song with different words. The first phrase of text in the beginning is “Des Yeux Qui Font Baisser Les Miens.” When the introduction is repeated halfway through the song, the first phrase lyrics changes to “Des Nuits D’amour A Plus Finir.” This structure is continued throughout the entire song and takes on the form of different verses. The main melody of “La Vie En Rose”, shown below, is sung seven times in words and a last time at the end in improvisation while the introduction melody is only sung twice but also with different words.

Figure 6: Main melody of La Vie En Rose

Figure 6: Main melody of “La Vie En Rose”

Edith Piaf’s mellow but powerful voice adds great depth to the main melody of “La Vie En Rose” and keeps it interesting even though it repeats so many times. “Dies Irae” was not created to be interesting but more delivering in the word of God. Piaf’s expressive voice allowed the song to go through a number of dynamic and tempo changes that made the repetitive refrains and verses easier to listen to. The song starts out loud but grows even grander by the end of the song. Her brilliant vibrato at each suspended note especially provided depth to the lyrical tone of the piece.

Since “Dies Irae” was sung with large groups, the unique talents of specific singers would have been impossible to define with things such as individual vibrato or tone, but “Dies Irae” has a clear strophic form also. The beginning melody that has already been shown repeats itself right after it is finished. This is the same for various other melodies that are later introduced in the song. The poems that were used as the lyrics for the Gregorian chants were sometimes in triplets and sometimes in couplets, and the repetition that is evident in “Dies Irae” shows how the musicians divided the texts for each melodic phrase.

Figure 7: Example of strophic form in “Dies Irae”

This image shows an example of a phrase in “Dies Irae” where the a tune is established and returns but the text is different. The melody is always very simple which probably made it much easier for entire congregations to sing the same melody in unison while holding it in their minds for another time where they would have to sing the same song. The tempo of “Dies Irae” slows down near the end, just like in “La Vie En Rose”, to bring a close to the song. The audiences listening to both songs would have needed this ritardando to comprehend that the music was over. That’s why the strophic form of the songs also tended to become simpler, especially that of “Dies Irae”. At one point, the melody turns into long repeating notes like shown below.

Figure 8: Example of simplified melody in Dies Irae

Figure 8: Example of simplified melody in “Dies Irae”

Edith Piaf also showed this sort of concluding simplicity when at the end, she uses only the sound “da” to sing the main melody for the last time as an improvisational tribute to the genre of jazz, which she was influenced by.

It’s true that “Dies Irae” and “La Vie En Rose” originated from very different musical cultures. The Greogian chant probably was one of the most ancient forms of music that used both diatonic and chromatic tones and influenced much of the later Western music that derived from the region. “La Vie En Rose” was also a very culture-inspired piece that was influenced by the joys and sorrows of life and expressed these aspects by the smooth timbre of Edith Piaf’s mellow voice and the song’s memorable qualities just as the choir of “Dies Irae” manipulates a deep and full tone to create a holy atmosphere and the way the song has repetitive and easily memorized melodies establishes the power and passion of the Catholic religion. Both of these songs are rich in musical taste and are a great source of entertainment for any music lover with an open mind and a need for a relaxing experience.

Word count: 1,501 words

DIES, IRAE. [dies Irae.] Acto De Contricion. Que Pecador Hace Delante De Una Imagen De Christo Crucificado, Glossando La Prossa Dies Iræ Dies Illa. [with the Latin Text.]. Valencia, 1758. Print.

Forney, Kristine, and Joseph Machlis. The Enjoyment of Music. 10th ed. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2007. 72-73, 78-79. Print.

Graphic Maps. Map of Europe. N.d. World Atlas, Galveston, Texas. Web.

Henry, Hugh. “Dies Iræ.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 4. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. 5 Mar. 2013 < 04787a.htm>.

La, Vie E. R. La Vie En Rose. S.l.: Som Livre, 2005. Internet resource.

Lee, Alvin. blank world map. 2012. WikimediaWeb.

“Requiem Dies Irae sheet music.” MIDI-MP3-Karaoke-Sheet Music-Video. HamieNet. Web.

RH, MAPS IN MINUTES. Europe 1919. 2008. National Archives, Surrey. Web.

Scaruffi, Piero. “A History of French Rock Music.” Musica. Scaruffi, n.d. Web.

“Sheet music La Vie en Rose Tenor Saxophone, Soprano Saxophone by Edith Piaf. Life in Pink Tenor and Soprano Saxophone Score.”tubescore. Blogspot, 26 Dec 2011. Web. 5 Mar 2013.


Links to Images and Sheet Music

Figure 1 (blank world map):

Figure 2 (map of Europe):

Figure 3 (original notation for Gregorian chants):

Figure 4, 7 and 8 (“Dies Irae” sheet music):

Figure 5 (Introduction melody of “La Vie En Rose”):

Figure 6 (“La Vie En Rose” sheet music):