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All four works on The Mozart Requiem program feature music that has found its way into popular culture.

Fans of the Oscar-winning 1984 film Amadeus will remember the scene in which Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, on his deathbed, dictates unfinished parts of the Requiem to his rival Salieri.

Stanley Kubrick used Gioachino Rossini’s playful overture to La gazza ladra in his 1971 film, A Clockwork Orange, to chilling effect, while Amilcare Ponchielli’s “Dance of the Hours” is indelibly associated with Alan Sherman’s 1963 hit single, “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh (A Letter from Camp),” as well as with dancing hippos and crocodiles from Disney’s 1940 animated extravaganza, Fantasia.

Alexander Borodin’s “Polovtsian Dances” originated as a ballet in his unfinished opera, Prince Igor, but fans of the Tony award-winning musical Kismet know it better as the romantic ballad, “Stranger in Paradise.”

Overture to La gazza ladra (The Thieving Magpie)
Gioachino Rossini

Gioachino Rossini’s opera, La gazza ladra, based on the 1815 French play, La pie voleuse (The Thieving Magpie) by Théodore Baudouin d’Aubigny and Louis-Charles Caigniez, tells the story of a servant girl convicted of stealing a silver spoon. Moments before her execution, the real thief is revealed: a mischievous magpie.

In the early 1800s, opera overtures generally bore no musical relationship to the operas they preceded. Overtures served as a signal to the audience that the evening’s entertainment was about to begin; their musical content might foreshadow the emotional range of the opera, but did not usually include any of the opera’s actual themes. Some composers like Mozart and Rossini, who could rely on their inexhaustible supply of musical ideas, put off composing overtures until the last possible moment.

La gazza ladra opens with snare drum rolls, a sound not commonly heard in early 19th century opera. These rolls punctuate the overture, which also features a military march; playful tunes that hint at the magpie’s roguish antics, and a waltz-cum-march.

At a glance
  • Composer: born February 29, 1792, Pesaro, Italy; died November 13, 1868, Passy, Paris
  • Work composed: 1817
  • World premiere: Milan, in the Teatro de La Scala, on May 31, 1817
  • Instrumentation: piccolo, flute, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, bass trombone, timpani, bass drum, 2 snare drums, triangle, and strings.
  • Estimated duration: 9 minutes
Headshot Image for Gioachino Rossini

Gioachino Rossini


Though he died over 150 years ago, Rossini’s music still influences pop culture. The Lone Ranger, Looney Tunes, Mrs. Doubtfire, even Family Guy all borrow from his large body of…

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“Dance of the Hours” from La Gioconda
Amilcare Ponchielli

In his own lifetime, Amilcare Ponchielli enjoyed considerable renown as a composer of opera and music for wind band.

Today, Ponchielli is best known for his ballet “Dance of the Hours,” from La Gioconda, the only one of his operas still regularly performed. Through its many parodies and other adaptations, “Dance of the Hours” has become a classical music meme familiar to almost everyone, although few know its original author.

In its original context, “Dance of the Hours,” which occurs near the end of Act III of La Gioconda, serves as a respite from the looming tragedy about to overtake the title character, her lover Enzo, and her rival Laura. The evil Alvise, head of the Venetian Inquisition, has decreed that Laura must die by ingesting poison. To save Laura, La Gioconda sneaks into Alvise’s palace and replaces the deadly poison with a powerful sleeping potion. Meanwhile, Alvise invites the local nobility (including a disguised Enzo) to his palace for the evening, and entertains them with the “Dance of the Hours,” a five-part ballet representing the different parts of a 24-hour day: dawn, daylight, dusk, night, and sunrise the following morning. Listeners will immediately recognize “Daylight” and the second dawn, in the form of a whirlwind can-can. The party breaks up at the tolling of a funeral bell, as Laura’s seemingly lifeless body is revealed to the shocked revelers.

At a glance
  • Composer: born August 31, 1834, Paderno Fasolaro [now Paderno Ponchielli], Italy; died January 16, 1886, Milan
  • Work composed: 1876
  • World premiere: April 8, 1876, at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan
  • Instrumentation: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, glockenspiel, triangle, harp, and strings.
  • Estimated duration: 9 minutes
Headshot Image for Amilcare Ponchielli

Amilcare Ponchielli


Ponchielli reached #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 list for three weeks. Or rather, the parody song “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh (A Letter from Camp)” based on “Dance of the Hours” did.

“Polovtsian Dances” from Prince Igor
Alexander Borodin

Alexander Borodin, like the other members of the Kucha, or Mighty Five (a nickname for a group of influential 19th-century composers based in St. Petersburg that included Mily Balakirev, César Cui, Modest Mussorgsky, and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov) wrote music in his spare time.

A chemist by occupation, Borodin made significant contributions to both his profession and his avocation.

The Kucha aspired to create authentically Russian music, free from the domination of Germanic aesthetics. To this end, the Kucha featured indigenous folk songs and dances from different regions of the Russian empire.

Borodin used folk dance tunes most effectively in his unfinished opera Prince Igor, the tale of 12th-century prince Igor Sviatoslavich’s failed attempt to stop the invading Polovtsian Tatars in 1185. In the opera’s second act, Igor and his son are captured and held in the Polovtsian military camp. To pass the time, the Polovtsians sing and dance for the captive Russians. The opera Prince Igor has had a fitful performance history, but the ballet sequence known as the “Polovtsian Dances” quickly became a stand-alone orchestral piece, and Borodin’s most popular and most performed music.

At a glance
  • Composer: born November 12, 1833, St. Petersburg; died February 27, 1887, St. Petersburg
  • Work composed: Borodin worked on Prince Igor from 1869-1874 and intermittently thereafter, but it remained uncompleted at the time of his death. Borodin’s friend and colleague, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, orchestrated the Polovtsian Dances.
  • World premiere: Eduard Nápravnik led the first performance of Prince Igor on November 16, 1890, at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg
  • Instrumentation: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes (1 doubling English horn), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, glockenspiel, snare drum, suspended cymbal, tambourine, triangle, harp, and strings
  • Estimated duration: 14 minutes
Headshot Image for Alexander Borodin

Alexander Borodin


If you think Cinderella had a dramatic night, Borodin died just past midnight while attending a ball.

Requiem, K. 626 (Süssmayr)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

The mysterious circumstances surrounding Mozart’s Requiem have lent the work an enduring aura of romance and intrigue.

The real story of the Requiem is no less compelling, but ultimately it is the music itself that endures. The dramatic power of Mozart’s final composition highlights the austere and ultimately redemptive language of the text of the requiem mass.

In the summer of 1791, Count Franz Walsegg von Stuppach sent a messenger to Mozart with an anonymous commission for a requiem to honor Walsegg’s late wife. Walsegg, an amateur musician, had a habit of commissioning works from well-known composers and claiming them as his own; hence the need for anonymity and subterfuge. Mozart, whose financial situation was always precarious, accepted the commission and completed several sketches before putting the Requiem aside to finish his operas The Magic Flute and La clemenza di Tito. By October 1791, in failing health, Mozart returned to the Requiem; he completed the Introit, Kyrie, most of the Sequence, and the Offertory before his death on December 5. Mozart’s widow Constanze, facing a mountain of debt, asked one of Mozart’s students, Franz Xaver Süssmayr, to complete the remaining sections. Süssmayr agreed, using unfinished sketches and possibly ideas discussed with Mozart prior to the composer’s death to compose the Sanctus, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei sections. In the Communion, Süssmayr repeats music Mozart had previously used in the Introit and Kyrie.

Meticulous attention to the meaning of the text of the Requiem dictates the musical structure throughout. The chorus’ heartfelt pleading in the opening lines, “Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine” (Grant them eternal rest, O God), are set in a dark minor key. This is transformed into a promise of glowing eternity in the next sentence, “Et lux perpetua luceat eis” (and may perpetual light shine upon them) as the music moves into a major key. The strong Kyrie (Lord, have mercy/Christ, have mercy) emerges as a somber fugue, Mozart’s homage to J. S. Bach.

The Sequence begins with the Dies irae (Day of Wrath), whose fiery, agitated setting and orchestral accompaniment bring the terrible fury of the text frighteningly alive. In the Tuba mirum, the bass soloist and solo trombone proclaim the Day of Judgment. The chorus returns to beg for salvation in the powerful Rex tremendae, followed by the more intimate pleading of the Recordare; here, each of the soloists makes a personal petition to God. The thundering Confutatis follows, juxtaposing images of the damned consigned to the flames of hell with that of a supplicant kneeling in prayer. In the exquisite Lacrymosa, the chorus gives voice to grief and weeping, while the sighing violin appoggiaturas echo the text’s laments. In the Offertory, the chorus ends its plea for mercy with a reminder, in fugal form, of God’s promise to Abraham.

The Sanctus opens joyfully, as both chorus and orchestra sing God’s praises accompanied by shining exclamations from the brasses and a fugue on the words “Hosanna in the highest.” The aria-like melody of the soloists’ Benedictus conveys the blessedness of those “who come in the name of the Lord;” a recurrence of the fugue from the Sanctus follows. With the Agnus Dei, the chorus and orchestra return to the darkly shifting mood of the opening movement; this culminates in the Communio, which uses the music of the opening Requiem aeternam and concludes with the same fugue used in the Kyrie, this time setting the words “cum sanctis tuis in aeternam” (with Thy saints forever).

At a glance
  • Composer: born January 27, 1756, Salzburg, Austria; died December 5, 1791, Vienna
  • Work composed: 1791. Mozart died before finishing the Requiem; one of his students, Franz Xaver Süssmayr, completed the Requiem using Mozart’s notes and sketches.
  • World premiere: The first complete performance of Süssmayr’s version was performed on January 2, 1793, in the Jahn-Saal in Vienna.
  • Instrumentation: soprano, alto, tenor, and bass soloists, SATB chorus, 2 bassoons, 2 basset horns (or clarinets), 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, organ, and strings.
  • Estimated duration: 50 minutes
Headshot Image for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

(1756– 1791)

Move over Honey Boo Boo — Wolfie was a child star of monolithic proportions. Having written his first 30 symphonies by the age of 18, he was the most well-known…

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© 2019 Elizabeth Schwartz

These program notes are published here by the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra for its patrons and other interested readers. Any other use is forbidden without specific permission from the author, who may be contacted at www.classicalmusicprogramnotes.com.