Respighi: Fountains of Rome

Fontane di Roma (Fountains of Rome)

BORN: July 9, 1879. Bologna, Italy
DIED: April 18, 1936. Rome

COMPOSED:  1915-16

WORLD PREMIERE:  February 8, 1918. Arturo Toscanini conducted in Rome

US PREMIERE: February 13, 1919. Arturo Toscanini conducted the New York Philharmonic

INSTRUMENTATION:  2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes and English horn, 2 clarinets and bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, chimes, cymbals, glockenspiel, suspended cymbal, triangle, 2 harps, celesta, piano, organ (ad lib.), and strings

DURATION: About 24 mins

Though he was schooled in his native Bologna, Ottorino Respighi started his career in earnest as an orchestral viola player in Russia, where he had the opportunity to study with Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, renowned as a master of orchestral color. Further work ensued in Berlin, with Max Bruch, before Respighi returned to Italy, where he would make his mark. Though he was not a radical at heart, he became briefly associated in 1910 with the anti-establishmentarian Lega dei Cinque, an Italian “League of Five” (with Pizzetti, Malipiero, Giannotto Bastianelli, and Renzo Bossi) to balance the famous “Russian Five” of the preceding century. The League advocated, in Bastiandelli’s words, “the risorgimento of Italian music . . . which from the end of the golden eighteenth century until today has been, with very few exceptions, depressed and circumscribed by commercialism and philistinism.” (That rustling you just heard was Giuseppe Verdi turning over in his grave.)

Within a few years Respighi was appointed composition professor at the Accademia di Santa Cecilia in Rome, and when Alfredo Casella came on board as his colleague in 1915, bringing with him some of the radical ideas he had picked up during a recent residence in France, Respighi was again swept up in a burst of modernist enthusiasm; but, again, he soon retreated to his essentially conservative stance. By 1932 we find him joining nine other conservative composers to sign a manifesto condemning the deleterious effect of music by such figures as Schoenberg and Stravinsky and encouraging a return to established Italian tradition. (Curiously, Mussolini came down in favor of the modernists, although he was personally a fan of Respighi’s music.) Respighi was by then very famous and very rich. Success had come his way through his hugely popular tone poem Fountains of Rome. He followed up with two further, vaguely related, tone poems that are not infrequently presented as a three-movement “Roman Triptych”: Pines of Rome (1923-24) and Roman Festivals (1928).

One of the traits that set Respighi apart as an individual voice was his fascination—not widespread among the Italian composers of his generation—with the music of Italy’s distant past. His transcriptions of early repertory are among his most-heard works today, including his three installments of Ancient Airs and Dances, essentially symphonic transcriptions of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century lute pieces, and The Birds, based on Baroque keyboard movements. Another distinctive Respighian hallmark surfaces in works such as his ballet Belkis, Queen of Sheba and certain pages of the “Roman Triptych”: his willingness to go what many would consider over the top in terms of orchestral sonority and color.

James M. Keller

Respighi on Fountains of Rome

In this symphonic poem the composer has endeavored to give expression to the sentiments and visions suggested to him by four of Rome’s fountains, contemplated at the hour when their characters are most in harmony with the surrounding landscape, or at which their beauty is most impressive to the observer.

The first part of the poem, inspired by the fountain of Valle Giulia, depicts a pastoral landscape: droves of cattle pass and disappear in the fresh, damp mists of the Roman dawn.

A sudden loud and insistent blast of horns above the trills of the whole orchestra introduces the second part, “The Triton Fountain.” It is like a joyous call, summoning troops of naiads and tritons, who come running up, pursuing each other and mingling in a frenzied dance between the jets of water.

Next there appears a solemn theme borne on the undulations of the orchestra. It is the fountain of Trevi at mid-day. The solemn theme, passing from the woodwind to the brass instruments, assumes a triumphal character. Trumpets peal: Across the radiant surface of the water there passes Neptune’s chariot drawn by seahorses and followed by a train of sirens and tritons. The procession vanishes while faint trumpet blasts resound in the distance.

The fourth part, the Fountain at the Villa Medici, is announced by a sad theme which rises above the subdued warbling. It is the nostalgic hour of sunset. The air is full of the sound of tolling bells, the twittering of birds, the rustling of leaves. Then all dies peacefully into the silence of the night.

Ottorino Respighi

James M. Keller is Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and the New York Philharmonic. He is the author of Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford University Press).

(January 2018)