Pines of Rome, P. 141

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            After Respighi moved permanently to Rome in 1913--at the time, a center of orchestral concerts in Italy--he turned more attention to the composition of instrumental music.  His first big success was the symphonic poem, Fountains of Rome, from 1916, although it did not garner accolades immediately.  But, by the early 1920s it was fast becoming an international hit, and he was on his way to world-wide recognition—not to speak of a much more secure financial future.  He followed up on this success with two more symphonic poems evocative of his home:  Pines of Rome (1924) and Roman Festivals (1926).  Collectively, they are often known as his “Roman trilogy.”  They all are showpieces for orchestra, spectacular evidence of his mastery of orchestration, vivid musical imagination, and flamboyant penchant for instrumental color.  He had listened well to his predecessors who were successful in this vein.

            Pines of Rome is cast into four movements, all using the conceit of pine trees that happen to be growing by various evocative Roman locations to tie everything together.   Respighi scored the work for a large orchestra:  the usual and familiar full complement, with additions of piano, organ, celesta, off-stage brass band, and (for the first time in musical history), a sound recording of a bird.  All of these resources receive a full workout.  What else would one expect from a composer who, in a later composition (Brazilian Impressions) adroitly depicted snakes and spiders in a Jungle research institute! Pines of Rome was an immediate hit; Toscanini was so enamored with it that he included it in the first concert—and nineteen years later, the last—that he conducted with the New York Philharmonic.

            The first movement,  “Pines of the Villa Borghese,” is a sparkling, lilting evocation of children playing on a Sunday morning, madly dashing about, full of youthful delight.  The Villa Borghese is one of the largest public gardens in Rome, built in the informal English garden style, containing spectacular plantings, lakes, pathways, and buildings.  It has long been a favorite with tourists and natives alike, and Respighi conjures up a bright musical context that depicts the cheerful setting. A filigree of attractive rhythmic figures and simple tunes clearly evoking childhood mirth sustains the fun-filled, light-hearted atmosphere.   Woodwind trills, cheeky dissonances, glissandi in the harps and keyboards, high register brass, and the complete absence of “gloomy” low instruments sustain the joy.

            It abruptly ends, though, as we enter the dark world of a catacomb.  The second movement (“Pines Near a Catacomb”) is set in the malarial region of the Roman campagna, abandoned in ancient times, but with extraordinary stark beauty.  The ominous, dark atmosphere of the burial caverns is aptly portrayed by most of the instruments that we did not hear in the first movement.  Trombones, with the deepest of organ notes beneath them, don the garb of priests as they solemnly chant the melodies of the dead. The gloom is then broken by a shimmering solo trumpet, offstage in a lonely elegy.  The chanting soon returns, building to a huge climax, more affirmatively, perhaps alluding to triumph over death.  All soon dies down (no pun intended), as the brass returns to a crespular chant.

            The “Pines of the Janiculum” is a tranquil visit at night to the prominent hill west of Rome where St. Peter is popularly thought to have been crucified, and which is now the site of a number of universities, colleges, and academies.  It offers a spectacular view of Rome, and is named after the Roman god, Janus, who famously looked simultaneously in two opposite directions: the past and the future.  This movement is a nocturne, opened by the gong and piano, introducing various woodwind solos that quietly evoke the moon on the pines.  Apparently, a nightingale is perched in one of them, for as the music gradually fades away in trills, his song is faintly heard.

            The nightingale is chased away, and the mood is ominously broken by the distant tread of the Roman Legions on the Appian Way (“Pines of the Appian Way”), beginning far off, perhaps in the morning mist, as they grow inexorably closer.  A sinuous solo in the English horn adds a bit of mystery.  Fanfares are heard, both in the orchestra and in the off-stage band that portrays the ancient Roman buccine—the large circular horns familiar from Roman mosaics.  Everyone in the orchestra gradually joins in as the Legions march closer, and the music grows inevitably to a paroxysm of aural grandeur.  It’s one of the most impressive moments in orchestral sound, and never fails to please.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan