Ottorino Respighi ‘Pines of Rome’: Harmonious Horticulture

Happy Thursday, readers! We’ve come to day R in the August Alphabet Challenge, and I must admit I have found it very tricky to pick only one composer out of many I have on my R list! But I have decided to share with you an absolutely wonderful tone poem by the Italian composer, Ottorino Respighi, entitled Pines of Rome. This is a really wonderful work and I hope you will find it as fruitful as I!

Ottorino Respighi was born on July 9th, 1879 in Bologna, Italy. From a young age he was taught piano by his father, as he was a local music teacher in the area. After that he enrolled at the Liceo, where he studied violin, viola and composition with Luigi Torchi and Guiseppi Martucci. His musical talents flourished whilst studying at the Liceo, and Respighi successfully graduated in 1899 with a diploma in both violin and composition. For some years that proceeded, Respighi was unsure whether to pursue a career as a virtuoso violinist, or become a composer. The latter won Respighi’s attention. He believed that to flourish as a composer, the best route would be to leave Italy, and be educated by composers from across different lands. He initially moved to Russia, so that he could study with Rimsky-Korsakov. After this he travelled to Germany, where he met Max Bruch. Throughout his travels he still played his violin in various professional orchestras and opera houses. Respighi returned to Rome in 1913, where took up a place as professor at the Liceo Reale de S. Ceilia. He resigned from this role in 1925 so that he could give more time to his compositions.

In 1925 he toured both America and Holland, where he premiered new pieces including the piece I’m looking into today, The Pines of Rome. Respighi is known for his interest in Italy’s musical traditions, which makes him a quintessential nationalistic composer. Respighi composed a wealth of different music including operas, orchestral works and vocal poems. His compositions brought him much fame and he was elected to the Royal Academy of Italy in 1932. Respighi also made a trip to Brazil, where he composed the work, Impressioni brasiliane.

As well as a performer and composer, Respighi was also an acclaimed musicologist. He was very interested in the music of Monteverdi and Vivaldi. His work as a musicologist did affect his style in his later compositions, where he based a lot of his tonality and melodies on early Italian music. He claimed his music used a mixture of pre-classical musical forms and late 19th-Century romantic harmonies and textures. Respighi died in 1936 from endocarditis.

Pines of Rome is a symphonic poem that was composed in 1924. It is the second orchestral poem in Respighi’s Roman Triology, which include the works:

Fountains of Rome (1917)

Pines of Rome (1924)

Roman Festivals (1928)

Each of these piece depicts a certain aspect of Italian life, with Pines of Rome depicting pine trees in various locations around Rome at different times of the day. The work is in 4 movements, and each title briefly describes the location of the pine tree. The Roman Triology is perhaps Respighi’s most famous and most-loved work, with Pines of Rome being the most remembered. Listed below are the four movements, with a brief description of what they depict musically:

I. I pini di Villa Borghese: Allegretto vivace (The Pines of the Villa Borghese)

The Villa Borghese is a monument to the patronage of the Borghese family. The music depicts a sunny morning, where children are playing by some pine trees in the garden. They are singing nursery rhymes and playing with toys.

Respighi writes in the programme notes:

“Children are at play in the pine groves of Villa Borghese; they dance around the circle; they play at soldiers; marching and fighting they are wrought up by their own cries like swallows at evening; they come and go in swarms.”

II. I pini del catacomba: Lento (The Pines of the Catacomb)

The second movement depicts an image of a solitary chapel in Campagna. There is a lot of open land, with tree silhouettes dotted around the land. We are taken on a journey to the catacombs and then to priests chanting.

Respighi writes in the programme notes:

“We see the shades of the pine trees fringing the entrance to the catacomb. From the depth there rises the sound of mournful psalm-singing, floating through the air like a solemn hymn, and gradually and mysteriously dispersing.”

III. I pini del Gianicolo: Lento (The Pines of the Janiculum)

The third movement is set on the Janiculum hill. There is a full moon that shines on the pines that grow on the hill. This movement is incredibly innovative because at the end of the movement, Respighi took a recording of a nightingale on a phonograph. This was a technique that had never been done before, so it was a hot-spot for discussion.

Respighi writes in the programme notes:

“A quiver runs through the air; the pine trees of the Janiculum stand distinctly outlined in the clear light of a full moon. A nightingale is singing.”

IV. I pini della Via Appian: Tempo di marcia (The Pines of the Appian Way)

Within the last movement we are taken to Appian Way, where the pine trees stand in a misty atmosphere. It is dawn and the sun is starting to rise. The legion advances along the Appian Way and the tremble of the footsteps from the army are heard. This movement ends with the army rising in triumph to the Capitoline Hill.

Respighi writes in the programme notes:

“Misty dawn on the Appian Way; solitary pine trees guarding the magic landscape; the muffled, ceaseless rhythm of unending footsteps. The poet has a fantastic vision of bygone glories; trumpets sound and, in the brilliance of the newly risen sun, a consular army bursts forth towards the Sacred Way, mounting in triumph to the Capitol.”

Without further ado let’s get to the best bit – the music itself!

I. I pini di Villa Borghese: Allegretto vivace (The Pines of the Villa Borghese)

The first movement starts with a flurry of bright winds and tuned percussion, which is representative of the sun shining into the garden at Villa Borghese. The melodies of this movement are based on folk-songs. There are four principal themes which are thematic in nature, and that give us vivid imagery of the garden. There are two transitional melodies which are shorter and are not as developed. The first melody, led by the cello and bassoon is in Bb major, which is bright and brings a very positive vibe to the movement. The second theme is in F major (dominant of Bb) and is led by the horns, clarinet and cellos. The third is in A major and is built as a canon with the strings and woodwind being at the forefront of this. The fourth is based around F major, but also drives through D major. These major themes are short and they are connected by two transitional sections which are far less conventional. These very short themes are modal, the first in Phrygian on A and the second Mixolydian on G. The mix between tonal and modal harmonies gives the movement lots of depth and colour within the timbre. The most striking thing about this movement is certainly Respghi’s use of short note values. All themes are based on either a quaver length or shorter values. The fast nature of this movement bounces between the duple metres of 2/8, 2/4 and 3/8. The broken-chord figure that is essentially the basis of this movement is carried through the whole movement, until the flourish at the end.

II. I pini del catacomba: Lento (The Pines of the Catacomb)

The second movement is based on Gregorian modes, namely Aeolian and Iolian. The mood and character of this movement is completely different from the previous, with a dark and shadowy atmosphere settling in. Coming up from the depths of the very low and bassy introduction sings a psalm, which depicts the priests chanting. The idea of this movement representing a solitary area and the trees that stand there is very vivid to me. There are two main themes which are varied throughout, the first is from the introductory passage and the second starts when the trumpet plays a leghato melody over the strings. This movement feels very mournful, lonely and in some places rather dark. I feel that Respighi has transported us into a very solitary underground catacomb, and the deep pedal notes that are played are representing the sites that can be seen in this derelicht tomb. A climax occurs with the horns and strings leading this section. I always find that this is leading us towards some sort of light within the deep and sorrowful darkness of this movement. The strings play a memorable motif, which is counteracted by the brass, who play a very noble cell of music. The themes begin to die away and the lower-end of the orchestra start playing in their lower registers, which creates a mysterious atmosphere. The movement ends with a flute and bassoon solo, which slowly dies away.

III. I pini del Gianicolo: Lento (The Pines of the Janiculum)

The third movement is also based on two main themes, which are based on broken chords. The first theme is based on a pentatonic scale, which creates a very magical and mystical atmosphere. The clarinet plays a solo based on wide intervals on the pentatonic scale. The second theme is tonal and is based around going between major and minor, in this case E and G major and minor. I believe that this clarinet solo is trying to depict the moonlight shining through the pine trees that are standing in line on the Janiculum. The lower strings provide a steady pedal note below, which represents the darkness of the night. The strings play a steady motif which is pulsating and gives a rocking feeling below the clarinet. This movement is incredibly nostalgic and introspective and perhaps this memory is something very close to Respighi himself. The oboe and cello both take over solos, which are based on the same theme, but just varied somewhat. The upper strings also do this and they constantly shift the harmonic language. Respighi’s use of extreme ranges on the strings especially is striking and makes this movement very beautiful indeed. The movement ends with tuned percussion and harps playing broken chords which lead into the clarinet returning with a solo completely unaccompanied. The sound of the recorded nightingale can then be heard, with a delicate accompaniment from the first violins. It’s an incredibly innovative way to end the third instalment and is such a joy!

IV. I pini della Via Appian: Tempo di marcia (The Pines of the Appian Way)

The fourth movement is based on one motif which is extended throughout the whole movement. Wide intervalic leaps are again at the centre of this. The beginning sets the tone for the footsteps of the army, and this is heard in the piano and lower strings. It creates a very ‘impending doom’ sort of feel. Respighi uses his Russian influences by making this incredibly chromatic and based around the tonality of F major. Wind instruments take turns in playing a variation of the initial theme. The jaunty nature of this movement creates a very uneasy feel, however, the ‘foot step’ motif keeps the feel regulated and secure. The horns and brass start a conversation based on a fanfare-like theme. This leads to the climax of the movement, where the soldier’s are walking through the Appian Way. There is a strong presence from the brass and lower sections of the orchestra, which makes this a very bold part of the movement. I find the last minute or so of this movement so exciting as the timbral mix of these instruments creates a bold statement which sees Respighi’s style based on baroque and romantic influences. The movement ends with a strong chord on F played by the whole ensemble.

Pines of Rome is an incredibly interesting work which incorporates a range of different interesting musical techniques. For instance, Respighi’s use of the recording in the third movement creates a very nature-based feel for the movement. I find Respighi’s style so very fulfilling and a joy to listen to, and I hope you can also find some joy in his music too! He was a quintessential nationalistic composer, who drew influences from a range of different places, whilst always staying true to his Italian roots. Tomorrow is day S in the August Alphabet Challenge – who could it be?!

Happy Reading!

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