April 6, 2006

Respighi's Rome

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The Italian composer Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936) was haunted by the grandeur of Rome, the Eternal City, with its great cathedrals, monuments, and fountains; he used to say that the city’s unit of measure was “a meter with a few centimeters over.” This grandeur terrified and tormented him. He moved to Rome from his native Bologna and was overcome by a depressed, anxious brooding which made him unable to work. Finally, the idea for his great symphonic poem The Fountains of Rome formed in his mind, and Respighi’s awe of Rome found its artistic expression. The work was fifteen years in gestation; in 1917 it was first performed.

My advice to you, if you think you don’t like classical music, is to try out The Fountains of Rome, followed by The Pines of Rome (1924) and Roman Festivals (1928), the other two of his famous Roman symphonic tone-poems. Of the first of these works, it was once said: “What does it mean to have style? It means to write Il Fontane di Roma.” The Fountains of Rome is indeed a masterpiece of style, startling for the vivid way in which it suggests images in the mind of the listener. Respighi is most famous for his genius for orchestration, his gift for “pictorial writing,” and this work shows off his profound ability, as he put it, “to reproduce by means of tone an impression of nature.” The Pines of Rome is equally suggestive, describing in four connected sections a series of scenes from Roman life. The concluding section, “The Pines of the Appian Way,” depicts the army of the ancient Roman Consul advancing down the Appian Way and mounting the Capitoline Hill in triumph. The section starts with a march of innumerable feet, evoked by a low rhythmic plodding, and gradually, relentlessly builds to a blazing climax. Roman Festivals is even more monumental and sonically overwhelming, although it has a certain garishness that may disturb the listener.

While you are at it, you might as well listen to the spectacular Church Windows (1925), which reflects even more than the Roman trilogy Respighi’s fascination with the solemn splendor of the past. Try the Geoffrey Simon/Philharmonia Orchestra of London performance (CD, Chandos). For the first two Roman symphonic poems, check out the Eugene Ormandy/Philadelphia Orchestra recording (CD, CBS Great Performances) or the Herbert Von Karajan/Berliner Philharmoniker (CD, Deutsche Grammophon). For Roman Festivals, look into the Michael Tilson Thomas/Los Angeles Philharmonic (record, Columbia Masterworks). Give Respighi a chance: nothing matches these works for their brilliant orchestration, evocative beauty, and archaic grandeur.

Archived article by Greg Isaacson