Feste Romane  (1928)


As scion of a family of professional musicians, Respighi inherited a rich talent as part of his birthright.  His earliest lessons were with his father, but he progressed so rapidly that he began his professional training in violin, piano and composition at the age of thirteen.  As a young man, he was torn between ambitions to become a concert violinist and a composer, and for several years he led a dual life as performer and creator.  He got a job as violist with the orchestra of the St. Petersburg Opera and took advantage of the time in Russia to study with Rimsky-Korsakov, whose brilliant orchestral technique was a lasting influence on him.

From St. Petersburg, Respighi moved to Berlin to work with Max Bruch on violin and composition, and while there he befriended such musical luminaries as Busoni, Fritz Kreisler, Caruso, Paderewski and Bruno Walter.  Except for a brief stint back in Berlin in 1908-1909 teaching piano at a private school, Respighi spent the years from 1903 to 1925 in Italy, first as a performer, then as professor of composition and finally as head of the Santa Cecilia Academy in Rome.  He left the Academy in 1925 to devote himself to composition and touring, and he made four trips to the United States during the next seven years. He died of a heart attack in 1936 at the age of 56.

Young Respighi

Ottorino Respighi

(1879 - 1936)

Roman Festivals of 1928 was the third of Respighi’s trilogy of symphonic poems inspired by the city of Rome, preceded by The Fountains of Rome in 1916 and The Pines of Rome in 1923. During the dozen years that he composed this triptych, he had become one of the leading musical figures of the time and, after he left his teaching post at the Saint Cecilia Academy in Rome in 1925, devoted himself to composing and touring. It was on the second of his four visits to the United States that the premiere of the Roman Festivals took place. It came near the end of a coast-to-coast tour, during which Respighi was repeatedly enervated by the pace of American life and harassed by squads of inquisitive reporters and bothersome paparazzi.

In the charming biography of her husband, Elsa Respighi recounted one worrisome incident that occurred in Chicago.  “Respighi was resting on the bed just before his concert when someone knocked at the door,” she wrote. “I went to open it and found myself face to face with a classical criminal type (straight out of an American film) who asked to see Respighi.  Meanwhile I heard Ottorino, without moving, warmly welcome the unexpected visitor: ‘Oh, Mario, how are you?  What a marvelous surprise!’ Ottorino went on talking to him, told him he had seen his mother just before she died and met his sister Bologna, reminisced about this and that.  Grim when he entered the room, the man’s expression gradually became gentler, sadder and when he finally decided to speak, his voice shook with emotion.  ‘I came to ask you for a ticket for the concert tonight,’ he said.  ‘Of course, I’ll leave one with the porter,’ replied Ottorino, and with that, the man, apologizing for being in a hurry, almost ran out into the corridor.  I had scarcely closed the door when two more knocks made me run to open it again.  It was the police who wanted to know if we had seen a man who had climbed the fire-escape, got in the corridor by breaking a window and later been observed leaving our room.  ‘We’ve had a narrow escape, it seems to me,’ Ottorino said to me afterwards, and he told me that Mario had been one of his playmates as a boy.  When he grew up he went to America and joined a gang of mobsters. In recent years he had been sent to jail several times and his mother had been heart-broken.  Respighi’s cordial welcome obviously disarmed the poor devil and the memory of his mother touched him.”  Mr. and Mrs. Respighi were probably glad to move on to the next town.

Respighi said that this work was a vivid musical depiction of “visions and evocations of Roman fêtes.” Its four scenes span the history of that great city, from the chilling struggle of the early Christians in the coliseums of ancient times (“Circus Maximus”), through the Medieval pilgrimage (“The Jubilee,” built around the old German hymn “Christ ist erstanden”) and the Renaissance merriment of the wine festival and the moonlit serenade (“The October Festival”), to the revelry of modern-day Rome (“Epiphany”). As with Respighi’s other Roman tone poems, this one juxtaposes music of intimacy and sensitivity with episodes of overwhelming sonority to make a work as rich in orchestral color as the subject it portrays.

Respighi prefaced the orchestral score of his Roman Festivals with the following description of the music:

  1. I. CIRCUS MAXIMUS – A threatening sky hangs over the Circus Maximus, but it is
    the people’s holiday: ‘Ave Nero!’ The iron doors are unlocked, the strains of a religious song and the howling of wild beasts mingle in the air. The crowd comes to its feet in frenzy. Unperturbed, the song of the Martyrs gathers strength, conquers and then is drowned in the tumult.
  2. II.THE JUBILEE – Pilgrims trail down the long road, praying. Finally, from the summit of Monte Mario appears to ardent eyes and gasping spirits the holy city: ‘Rome! Rome!’ A hymn of praise bursts forth, the churches ring out their reply.

  3. III.III. THE OCTOBER FESTIVAL – The October [Wine Harvest] Festival in the Roman ‘Castelli’ covered with vines; echoes of the hunt, tinkling bells, songs of love. Then in the tender twilight arises a romantic serenade [for mandolin].

  4. IV. EPIPHANY – The night before Epiphany in the Piazza Navona; a characteristic rhythm of trumpets dominates the frantic clamor; above the swelling noise of float, from time to time, rustic motives, saltarello cadenzas, the strains of a barrel-organ in a booth and the call of a barker, the harsh song and the lively stornello in which is expressed the popular sentiment – ‘Lassàtese passà, semo Romani! (‘We are Romans, let us pass!’).


Max Bruch

Ottorino and Elsa Respighi

The Circus Maximus