Program Notes

Pini di Roma (Pines of Rome)

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

COMPOSED: 1923-24

WORLD PREMIERE: December 14, 1924. Bernardino Molinari led the Augusteo Orchestra, in Rome

NORTH AMERICAN PREMIERE: January 1926. Arturo Toscanini conducted at a New York Philharmonic-Symphony concert

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—October 1926. Alfred Hertz conducted. MOST RECENT—October 2012. Vasily Petrenko conducted

INSTRUMENTATION: 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes and English horn, 2 clarinets and bass clarinet, 2 bassoons and contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, cymbals, small cymbal, triangle, tambourine, a ratchet, bass drum, tam-tam, bells, harp, celesta, recorded birdsong (a nightingale), piano, organ, and strings, plus offstage trumpet and 6 buccine (the buccina was an ancient Roman instrument of curved brass, limited to a few pitches of the overtone series, and used mostly for herding and for military signals; the buccine are replaced here by 2 flugelhorns doubling cornets, 4 Wagner tubas, 4 trumpets, and 2 trombones, playing in 2 antiphonal groups)

DURATION: About 23 mins

THE BACKSTORY  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.

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 swept up in a burst of modernist enthusiasm; but, 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. 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—Pines of Rome (1923-24) and Roman Festivals (1928)—and these three works are not infrequently presented together as a “Roman Triptych.”

One of the traits that set Respighi apart as an individual voice was his fascination with the music of Italy’s distant past. 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.

When the New York Philharmonic performed the American premiere of Pines of Rome in 1926, the composer (referring to himself in the third person) wrote to Lawrence Gilman, then the orchestra’s program annotator: “While in his preceding work, Fountains of Rome, the composer sought to reproduce by means of tone an impression of Nature, in Pines of Rome he uses Nature as a point of departure, in order to recall memories and vision. The centuries-old trees which so characteristically dominate the Roman landscape become witnesses to the principal events in Roman life.”

THE MUSIC  Respighi left extensive prose descriptions of his Pines of Rome:

The Pines of the Villa Borghese (Allegretto vivace)—Children are at play in the pine groves of the Villa Borghese, dancing the Italian equivalent of “Ring around a Rosy.” They mimic marching soldiers and battles. They twitter and shriek like swallows at evening, coming and going in swarms. Suddenly the scene changes.

The Pines Near a Catacomb (Lento)—We see the shadows of the pines, which overhang the entrance of a catacomb. From the depths rises a chant, which echoes solemnly, like a hymn, and is then mysteriously silenced.

The Pines of the Janiculum (Lento)—There is a thrill in the air. The full moon reveals the profile of the pines of Gianicolo’s Hill. A nightingale sings.

The Pines of the Appian Way (Tempo di Marcia)—Misty dawn on the Appian Way. The tragic country is guarded by solitary pines. Indistinctly, incessantly, the rhythm of unending steps. The poet has a fantastic vision of past glories. Trumpets blare, and the army of the Consul bursts forth in the grandeur of a newly risen sun toward the Sacred Way, mounting in triumph the Capitoline Hill.

Pines of Rome is famous for being one of the first pieces to include electronics in its orchestration. However subversive it seems in retrospect, this arrived in the most innocent fashion: through the composer’s instruction to play a recording of a nightingale at the end of the third movement (“The Pines of the Janiculum”). In the published score, Respighi suggested that the commercial recording issued by the Concert Record Gramophone Company as R6105 be used. To this day the publisher supplies that particular recording with the score, although the medium has changed through the years from the original 78-RPM record to LP, cassette, and compact disc. I cannot say whether it is true, as has been claimed, that Respighi himself recorded this immortal nightingale.

James M. Keller

James M. Keller is the Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and of the New York Philharmonic. His book Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide, published in 2011 by Oxford University Press, is now also available as an e-book and an Oxford paperback. 

Edo de Waart conducting the San Francisco Symphony (Philips)  |   Fritz Reiner conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (RCA Living Stereo)  |  Yan Pascal Tortelier conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra (Chandos)

ReadingRespighi, by Pierluigi Alvera (Elite)  |  Ottorino Respighi, by Elsa Respighi, the composer’s widow (Ricordi) 

(May 2018)

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