Ottorino Respighi was born on July 9, 1879, in Bologna and died on April 18, 1936, in Rome. Fontane di Roma was composed in 1915-16 and premiered on February 8, 1918, in Rome, with Arturo Toscanini conducting. Toscanini also introduced the work in North America when he conducted it with the New York Philharmonic on February 13, 1919. Alfred Hertz led the first San Francisco Symphony subscription performances of this music in November 1929; it was performed here most recently in February 2008 with Vladimir Ashkenazy conducting. Fontane di Roma is scored for two flutes and piccolo, two oboes and English horn, two clarinets and bass clarinet, two bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, chimes, cymbals, glockenspiel, suspended cymbal, triangle, two harps, celesta, piano, organ, and strings. Performance time: about fifteen minutes.
Pini di Roma was composed in 1923-24 and premiered on December 14, 1924, with Bernardino Molinari conducting the Augusteo Orchestra in Rome. Arturo Toscanini gave the first North American performance at a New York Philharmonic‑Symphony concert in January 1926. Alfred Hertz was on the podium for the first San Francisco Symphony performances, in October 1926. The most recent performances, in November 2004, were given under Yan Pascal Tortelier’s direction. Pini di Roma is scored for three flutes (third doubling piccolo), two oboes and English horn, two clarinets and bass clarinet, two bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three 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 six 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. Performance time: about twenty-three minutes.
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 Bastianelli’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—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—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.
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.”
Respighi himself left extensive prose descriptions of his “Roman Triptych” tone poems. About Fountains of Rome he wrote:
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.
About Pines of Rome he commented:
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
More About the Music
Recordings: Edo de Waart conducting the San Francisco Symphony (Eloquence) | Fritz Reiner conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (RCA Living Stereo) | Yan Pascal Tortelier conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra (Chandos)
Reading: Respighi, by Pierluigi Alvera (Elite) | Ottorino Respighi, by Elsa Respighi, the composer’s widow (Ricordi)