Ottorino Respighi: Fontane di Roma

performed by the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal under Charles Dutoit

…or Fountains of Rome

While it’s a four-movement work, this entire piece takes up only about fifteen minutes.

But we should back up a bit and start by saying that this piece was the first in a trilogy of Roman-inspired four-movement works by Ottorino Respighi. It premiered in 1917 and was unsuccessful then, but when Toscanini conducted it in Milan the following year, Wikipedia says it was “with tremendous success.”

The idea for each of these pieces is that the four movements depicts a slice of Roman life focused on one of the things from the title, in this case, fountains. Both this work and the next one also give us a timeline of sorts, starting with the first movement set in the morning, all the way through to the sunset and evening.

I have to say… I have a strange relationship with these pieces. While they are, as you will see, full of life and imagery and imagination and are really splendidly written, they’re not necessarily old standards of the concert hall. They are likely Respighi’s most famous compositions, but… what I suppose I’m trying to say is that I would assume it’s rare that these works represent any kind of first of any kind with classical music for someone. Let me ‘splain.

I took Latin in school. Not by choice, at least not originally. I got thrown into it my last year of junior high and don’t recall it being an especially enjoyable experience, but I did well with it, and got good grades, so I continued in high school, where I began to enjoy it very much and got excellent grades.

After years of studying a “language that no one speaks,” I was a little jealous of my classmates who were studying French or Spanish. It wasn’t that they could speak it any better than I could speak Latin, actually, but there was at least some supposed immediate use it had beyond word roots, etymology and an outstanding comprehension of grammatical structures.

In any case, I’d taken Latin for about a year when our family went to Italy for the first time, and I was beyond excited to spend time in Rome, to see for myself the things that I’d seen terrible sketches or old photos of in textbooks, to be in the places where this language was written, not only in fancy engravings on architecture, but graffiti, millennia-old scrawlings, cobblestone, the whole thing, to have walked where these men and women walked, to have been in the place where these historical figures lived and moved, was enough to blow a junior-high kid’s mind.

And then a few years later in band, we heard a concert-band transcription of one of the Respighi works and it took me right back to that first impression of walking on the Roman streets, the Via Appia, everything. Breathtaking.

So I bought Montreal’s recording, with zero knowledge of who they were or who Charles Dutoit was. And then I met him, here in Taipei a few years ago when he came with the Royal Philharmonic, shook his hand, and got his autograph. Then I found out that a friend of a friend played under Dutoit in Montreal, I’m pretty sure for that very recording that I linked above. ‘Tis a small world.

So I have an interesting kind of nostalgic connection to these works, as the first album of classical music I ever bought, going on like… 15 years ago. I digress!

The four sections, like I said (did I?) depict different fountains around Rome.


The first movement is La fontana di Valle Giulia all’Alba, or The Fountain of Valle Giulia at Dawn, pictured above. Actual photos of the fountain show it as a verdant, pretty, delicate place, and one can easily imagine it at sunrise, the fog lifting to reveal a pastoral landscape. The movement begins this way, quietly, and doesn’t ever really build to much. It’s pastoral, heavy with woodwinds over humming tremolo strings, delicately orchestrated, almost chamber-like, and it starts to come to life only toward the end of the movement, with a bit of brass in the far distance, ushering in what comes next.

The second movement is set around La fontana del Tritone al mattino, or The Triton Fountain in the Morning, breaking the peaceful morning air with triumphant horn calls. We hear the horns that begin this movement, the gods and goddesses making calls with their conch shells, and it sound almost menacing at first, in its chromaticism and energy, but the flute introduces a playful theme, and with the harp in the background, it sounds like splashing water. It’s playful, lively, almost scherzo-like, and very brief, ending much unlike it began.

In the third section, we find ourselves at La fontana di Trevi al meriggio, or The Trevi Fountain at Noon, “is ushered in by a triumph giving news of a recent victory by the god Neptune.” The cover image is a photo of the Trevi fountain that I took on a trip to Rome. It’s a huge, towering thing, tall and deep, and the sun shines on it fantastically, illuminating the water into a neon-blue color, fitting for the majestic nature of this movement. This movement (in fact these pieces, in some ways) may call to mind something like Holst’s Planets suiteThis section is indeed wholly more triumphant or majestic in nature than the second, with a strong, almost march-like heartbeat, powerful brass and soaring horns, swirling woodwinds, the whole thing. It’s powerful, inspiring, in much the way it is to see the sun shine on the Trevi fountain, and ultimately leads right into the final section.

anderson2c_james_281813-187729_-_n-_648_-_vaticano_preso_da_villa_mediciFor the final section, we find ourselves at La fontana di Villa Medici al tramonto, The Villa Medici Fountain at Sunset, pictured left. It’s another more pastoral scene, and remember, it’s evening time now. Wikipedia says it “portrays a much more melancholic atmosphere, as the brilliance of the sun fades.”

There is indeed a certain magic, a certain energy in each of these short sections, and in this final one, the longest of the piece, we hear it winding down, similar to the opening of the work, but in reverse. Flute, violin, piano all work together in an almost ostinato-like manner as the energy and excitement of the day’s happenings slowly fades. It is, you might say, almost somewhat like a lullaby: heavenly, ethereal, warm and comforting. Pastoral trills from flute and clarinet spring up here and there. Bells call out from the distance, a fitting reminder that it’s getting late, and is perhaps time for bed, and instead of a triumphant, final crunchy chord, the piece ends with quiet bells and a peaceful goodbye from the strings.

I suppose the sections are sections, and not “movements” as I called them. Each leads into the other without pause, and they don’t have their own independent structures or keys or anything; even listening without paying much attention to the tracks in iTunes, it should be pretty obvious when the mood changes, when we’ve moved to a new section. It’s incredibly effective writing, very visual, evoking the kinds of emotions and imagery that seem to match the composer’s inspiration. All that aside, though, it’s just pretty.

But this one isn’t even my favorite one, even if it might be one of the more well known. There are two more Roman pieces on the way, and I decided we’d talk about them all this week! Stay tuned!



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