Pines of Rome  (1924)


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)

The “Roman trilogy” of Respighi—the most successful Italian composer of his generation—includes three large symphonic poems that are easily his most famous works:  Fountains of Rome (1916), Pines of Rome (1924), and Roman Festivals (1928).  In these works, the composer creates a sonic portrait of his city—from Fountains, celebrating the great Bernini monuments, to the wild revelry of Festivals, Respighi paints a colorful, programmatic picture of the Eternal City.  For the central work, Pines of Rome, Respighi uses images of the ancient trees that line Rome’s parks and promenades to spur on four programmatic episodes.  The four movements are played without pauses.

In the score, Respighi provides the following description of the first section, “Pines of the Villa Borghese”:  “Children are at play in the pine grove of the Villa Borghese, dancing ‘Ring around the Rosy’; they mimic marching soldiers and battles;  they chirp with excitement like swallows at evening, and they swarm away.”  The music is appropriately light and high-spirited, with quick woodwind and horn lines beneath trumpet fanfares.

For “Pines near a Catacomb”, he turns to a much darker, “quasi-Medieval” texture.  Respighi was fond of using Gregorian chant or chant-like themes in his orchestral works, and the Lento second movement begins with a quiet chant that builds gradually towards a tremendous orchestral statement near the end of the movement.  Here, we see “the shadows of the pines that crown the entrance to a catacomb.  From the depths rises a dolorous chant which spreads solemnly, like a hymn, and then mysteriously dies away.”

In his description of “Pines of the Janiculum”, the composer notes:  “There is a tremor in the air.  The pines of the Janiculum hill are profiled in the full moon.  A nightingale sings.”  This is profoundly calm and quiet night-music, carried by the softer voices of the orchestra throughout.  At the very conclusion, a recording of a nightingale’s singing is added to the orchestral texture—probably the very earliest instance of a composer using prerecorded sounds in a concert piece.

The final section is titled, “Pines of the Appian Way”.  Respighi gives the following colorful description of an ancient Roman army on the march:  “Misty Dawn on the Appian Way.  Solitary pines stand guard over the tragic countryside.  The faint unceasing rhythm of numberless steps.  A vision of ancient glories appears to the poet; trumpets blare and a consular army erupts in the brilliance of the newly risen sun—towards the Sacred Way, mounting to a triumph on the Capitoline Hill.”  The movement opens quietly, with a slow and inexorable march, but builds gradually towards an enormous brassy peak (with several brassy knolls along the way…).  To create this picture of Roman military might, Respighi’s score calls for six bucinae—Roman war trumpets.  [Note:  He also provides the helpful suggestion that modern trumpets may be used if bucinae are not available!]


Max Bruch