Ottorino Respighi: Pini di Roma

performed by the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal under Charles Dutoit

The Pines of Rome

Like I said in yesterday’s post, I have a strange nostalgic connection to these pieces. It’s not that they’re necessarily favorites, but I have a certain fond memory of them, being familiar with them but knowing nothing, or very little, about them.

It was, indeed, a time where I knew nothing about music but music. I just listened, not a lot, but some, and became familiar with this work in the way you become familiar with, say, a city or a building that you pass through every day in the same way, you know it like the back of your hand, but nothing about it. Take a wrong turn, close your eyes and turn around a few times, mix things up and I’m lost.

In any case, the fourth movement was what really struck me, and not because of Fantasia. We’ll get to that. It is by far my favorite of the three in the Roman trilogy.

The work was written a few years after the Fountains, seven to be exact, and premiered in 1924. The piece again contains four movements, this time depicting (you guessed it) pine trees in various places around Rome, again at different times of day. While the fountains of which Respighi wrote are still standing, I’m not actually so sure about the pine trees, at least (maybe) not the same pine trees.

  1. Pines of the Villa Borghese (I pini di Villa Borghese: Allegretto vivace)
  2. Pines Near a Catacomb (I pini presso una catacomba: Lento)
  3. Pines of the Janiculum (I pini del Gianicolo: Lento)
  4. Pines of the Appian Way (I pini della Via Appia: Tempo di marcia)

The feel of the first movement is bright and energetic, almost a little crazy, in contrast with the morning of Fountains, which was a little more ethereal and peaceful. Wikipedia says “It is a sunny morning and the children sing nursery rhymes and play soldiers.” It does indeed sound like the frenetic, lively play of children. The Villa Borghese is in reference to the Borghese family, an apparently important bunch “who dominated the city in the early seventeenth century.” The movement is full of texture and color, lots of percussion, horn calls, clicking, trickling, splashing sounds, muted brass, even a ratchet. It’s made of distinctly strong rhythms, but is a very refreshing, enjoyable way to begin this work. It is the shortest movement of the work, and ends very abruptly.

The second movement is about catacombs, and can’t you just hear it?! This movement gives me chills just about every time I listen to it, and after the first movement, I always forget how stunningly beautiful, hollow, haunting, ancient, powerful, and mournful it is. It’s a masterpiece. Wikipedia describes it as “a majestic dirge, conjuring up the picture of a solitary chapel in the deserted Campagna; open land, with a few pine trees silhouetted against the sky.” Low instruments (including the organ) feature here, giving us the feeling of a dark underground, sturdy but old place. Hymns are quoted in this movement, and there’s a heavenly trumpet solo above angelic strings, but it builds to something truly monumental, memorializing, commemorating what is now perhaps thousands of years of history, a tour through a “subterranean cavern in which the dead are immured.” However, the piece never goes to dramatics or gimmicks, never going too far. It’s incredible. Wait for the brass to enter over the string ostinato. It’s chill-inducing.

We’ve apparently spent no small amount of time in these underground places, for when we emerge, it’s already dark. The moon is out, and the third movement is a nocturne. I’ll be honest: in the past, this movement always put me to sleep, and I always woke up about halfway through the finale (you’ll know when). This nocturne (perhaps appropriately) begins with flourishes from piano, and is the longest movement in this performance. It is tranquil, pastoral, calm. It is night, for sure, but there nothing dead or gloomy or frightening to be found. A clarinet sings throughout much of the movement, with strings politely accompanying in the background. Could it be any more different from the second movement? There are a few mildly shocking moments with interesting harmonies (from the piano), but all subtle, colorful. There’s a solo violin as well. It’s almost movie music. But we’ll talk about that later. As our solo clarinet winds down, an actual nightingale sings to us, and this instantly, instinctively tells us the sun is rising. The harp picks up the clarinet’s melody, and the piece ends with actual chirping birds (played from a phonograph at the premiere, which Wikipedia says “created discussion.” It had apparently never been done before).

In contrast with Fountains from yesterday, the final movement brings us, not to the end of the day, but full-circle, 24 hours around to the next day, and we hear marching, and what infectious marching it is. How could you talk about Rome without talking about the army, and the Appian Way? The army returns successful from battle, and we hear them first, or almost feel them, with piano and bass clarinet. There’s a veiled, subtle kind of almost ready-to-burst energy as strings and clarinets bring up the intensity of the work. There’s this seductive-sounding, slithery but intoxicating English horn solo that enters over the heartbeat of still-afar-off marching feet, but the sound builds, and registers get higher. The ‘approaching’ effect is very real. Muted brass sound far off, but the piece measurably unfurls into one of the most glorious, powerful, warm, bright, epic spine-tingling climaxes that a 20-minute piece could ever reach. The organ roars, drums thunder, and the brass obviously herald majestic success. The word ‘peal’ comes to mind, and is used in the Wikipedia article. It is the major-key, glorious, bright, sunny triumphant answer to the darkness of the second movement. It is one long line to epic greatness, as Roman soldiers come from afar in the glistening morning sun and march over the horizon into view to fill all available space with the sounds of victory.

I say ‘movie music’ for a few reasons. For one, yes, the first movement and part of the finale were used in Fantasia. Did it make you think of whales? Unlike what we saw with Dukas’s piece a few weeks ago, the translation of the piece onto film here isn’t necessarily in line with the original intentions of the work. Oh well.

Secondly, John Williams cited it as the inspiration for some of his Superman music, and both Prokofiev and Holst saw Respighi’s works as influential to their own.

In short, the piece is a small but incredibly powerful twenty-minute journey: four quite distinct places throughout a city with a vast history of thousands of years. You don’t have to understand music (theory or history), or know anything about it to appreciate this music, or to have an emotional response. Whether you see whales or warriors, it’s a vivid, lively piece, and again, by far my favorite of the trilogy.

It’s always nice to go back and listen to old things every now and then. One more Roman thing tomorrow. Stay tuned.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s