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Ottorino Respighi (1879 - 1936)


The Pines of Rome
I. Pines of the Villa Borghese
II. Pines by a Catacomb
III. Pines of the Janiculum
IV. Pines of the Appian Way

Born and educated in Bologna in Northern Italy, the early musical career of Respighi was as a violinist, viola player and pianist. He played in the opera house in Bologna until at the age of 21 he was appointed to the opera orchestra in St.Petersburg. Here he met Rimsky-Korsakov, and took composition lessons from him (he also studied with Max Bruch in Berlin); his career quickly changed course, and by 1908 he was professor of composition at the famous St.Cecilia conservatoire in Rome. He was later made Director of the Conservatoire, but resigned in 1926 to devote all his time to composition. His music shows a blend of influences - one may detect a little of Rimsky-Korsakov and Stravinsky, something of Richard Strauss, and more than a whiff of plainsong - but the result is individual and very Italian, both sensuous and exciting.

The Pines of Rome is the second of his three tone poems on Roman subjects, and was written in 1924. Respighi asks for a large orchestra with a considerable percussion section, supplemented by harp, bells, celeste, piano and organ. He also asks for six buccine (ancient Roman war-trumpets) in the last movement. Since buccine have not existed for some 1600 years, the parts are normally taken by trumpets and trombones. And in the Janiculum movement, to confound the musical purists, he includes a recording of a real nightingale.

The work is in four sections, played without a break. At the Villa Borghese, children are at play under the trees. The orchestration is loud and shrill, punctuated by snatches of children's songs. To create this effect Respighi leaves the low pitched instruments (basses and trombones) out altogether, and writes very high parts for bassoons and cellos. A brittle edge is added by the piano, celeste and percussion. Toward the end, a blatant "wrong note" in the trumpets sends the children scattering, and the scene suddenly changes…

… to near the catacombs. (The catacombs of Rome were underground crypts where many early Christian martyrs were buried.) The music is low-pitched, quiet and chromatic. A lonely trumpet speaks of distant sunlight, and the psalm singing of a pilgrims' march can be heard. This rises to a powerful climax and fades, and the scene changes again …

… to woods on the outskirts of Rome. It is night time, and the scented breeze rustles the trees. As the movement fades, a nightingale is heard singing in the distance…

… In the final section a misty dawn on the Appian Way clears to the muffled rhythm of endless footsteps. Trumpets sound, and in what must be the most relentless and exciting march ever written, the cohorts of the Roman army march inexorably forward, mounting in triumph to the Capitol Hill.

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