46. Ottorino Respighi's Roman Trilogy
Antonio Pappano and the Orchestra dell'Accademia di Santa Cecilia
“A review of his work: His music soon spread throughout Europe, and he was invited to America where he performed the Piano Concerto. He would have wished that he would be remembered as an opera composer, but it was to be his orchestral extravaganzas, mainly the trilogy of Roman pictures that has made his name famous.”
-Italian composer Ottorino Respighi reviewing his own career
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Welcome back to Building a Classical Music Collection, and the top 50 classical recordings of all-time. We are making progress, now reaching #46 on the list. Coming in at #46 is a recording made in 2007 of Ottorino Respighi’s spectacular orchestral works Roman Trilogy (The Fountains of Rome, The Pines of Rome, and Roman Festivals) made by English-Italian conductor Antonio Pappano and the Rome based Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia on the EMI label (now Warner).
Ottorino Respighi was born in Bologna, Italy in 1879 and died in Rome in 1936. Encouraged to pursue his interest in music from a young age, Respighi would eventually become one of the leading composers of the early 20th century. Respighi’s works span operas, ballets, orchestral suites, songs, chamber music, concertos, and transcriptions of 16th to 18th century Italian music. However, it was his three kaleidoscopic orchestral suites that form the Roman Trilogy (The Fountains of Rome, The Pines of Rome, and Roman Festivals) which brought him international fame and that continue to live on in frequent recordings and performances.
After taking lessons in violin and piano as a youth, Respighi enrolled at the Liceo Musicale di Bologna where he continued his music studies. For a few seasons he was the principal violinist at the Russian Imperial Theatre in Saint Petersburg, and it was during that time he met the Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. He took some lessons from Rimsky-Korsakov, and Respighi’s compositions would eventually show some definite influence from the great Russian. Giuseppe Martucci, Respighi’s composition professor in Bologna, would later say of him, "Respighi is not a pupil, Respighi is a master."
Respighi relocated to Rome in 1913, where he would remain for most of the rest of his life between short periods in Bologna. In Rome he would take the position of professor of composition at the Liceo Musicale di Santa Cecilia. While continuing to teach a bit, from 1923 onward Respighi focused most of his time on composition. Once he began to develop an international reputation, Respighi toured other countries, often guest conducting his own works in the United States, South America, and Europe. While working on his opera Lucrezia in 1935, Respighi became ill with bacterial endocarditis. He died four months later at the age of 56. His wife Elsa would survive him by some 60 years, tirelessly championing her husband’s music for the rest of her life.
Respighi’s great gift was putting into music the visual images and emotions evoked by cherished places. In particular, his orchestration is often colorful and exquisite in detail, but also contains a lot of charm and beauty. In terms of music history Respighi falls somewhere between the Romantic and the Avant-Garde or modern time periods, but is often considered to be “neoclassical”, meaning his compositions are highly tonal, accessible, and relatively easy to understand. He wrote a great deal of “programmatic” music, or music that is meant to depict ideas or images that are non-musical in nature. In other words, there is a background narrative driving the music. Italian music was undergoing a revival after World War I especially, and Respighi began studying Italian Medieval and Renaissance music. He either transcribed works (which is where a composer rewrites a piece of music, either solo or ensemble, for another instrument or other instruments than which it was originally intended) or borrowed some themes or snippets from ancient works. He did this most famously in another popular work, Ancient Airs and Dances for orchestra.
There is much evidence, including Respighi’s own comments, to suggest that his goal was to become a great opera composer. No doubt he would have been greatly influenced by the operas of Italian compatriots Giuseppe Verdi and Giacomo Puccini. But even though Respighi would compose several operas, none of them took hold with audiences and critics. Indeed, even his other compositions attracted little attention until he composed The Fountains of Rome, finished in 1916. Respighi worked a few times with the famous Russian ballet impresario Sergei Diaghelev, most notably creating the ballet La boutique fantasque, after Rossini in 1918. Several other Respighi compositions went on later to become well-known, including Gli uccelli (The Birds), Trittico botticelliano (Three Botticelli Pictures), Impressione brasiliane (Brazilian Impressions), and Il tramonto (The Sunset).
After moving to Rome, Respighi became entranced by the surroundings of the Eternal City. When beginning work on the first installment titled The Fountains of Rome he explained that he intended “to reproduce by means of tone an expression of nature” and to impart a feeling for the “principal events of Roman life.” According to Respighi’s wife, he began composing music about Rome “solely to satisfy a spiritual need; it can be called the synthesis of the feelings, thoughts, and sensations perceived by the maestro in his first few months of life in Rome.” The intention is to convey his response to his physical and emotional environment. His trio of Roman suites are not to be interpreted literally, but rather the music is meant to depict Respighi’s own impressions of the scenes. In most cases the ‘program’ written about the music was done after the music was composed.
Respighi uses many musical devices at his disposal to paint images, including folk tunes, chant-like melodies, a gramophone recording of a nightingale, a full range of percussion instruments, and lush orchestral writing. Frequently labeled as a “Romantic-impressionist”, with his Roman trilogy of works Respighi is more interested in painting a beautiful surface than going into the emotional depths. There are some influences heard from Richard Strauss and Claude Debussy, as well as Rimsky-Korsakov.
It seems Respighi’s music strongly divides listeners, and while he has garnered praise from many listeners and musicians, he has also had quite a few detractors and critics. Some consider his music too nationalistic, and Respighi at one time was placed in a group of Italian composers associated with Mussolini’s fascist regime. However, these associations had little basis in fact, and Respighi himself was not politically active. There is also a disconnect between the critical reception of his music, and the popular reception of it with listeners, conductors, and performers. The music intelligentsia have tended to dismiss Respighi’s music as low-brow, vulgar, strident, or as derivative from other composers. It is still fashionable in some circles to belittle and patronize Respighi’s music, or to regard it as cheap or not equal to other serious composers. In my view, these attitudes toward Respighi’s music could not be more wrong. In recent years the prejudice toward Respighi has faded, and his reputation has enjoyed a well-deserved revival.
On a personal note, Respighi’s Roman Trilogy orchestral suites have been very meaningful to me. I was fortunate enough to live on the Janiculum Hill in Rome for two years when I was in my twenties, and ever since then Respighi’s music about Rome has held an emotional and nostalgic place in my heart. If you are able to travel to Rome, you will better understand the feelings so accurately evoked by Respighi’s music in specific places and times of day. I have never been anywhere in the world where the light creates such magic when it hits the streets, filters through the pine trees, or casts shadows from St. Peter’s Basilica or the Colosseum. I find myself feeling sentimental about Rome for so many reasons, but of course there is the city’s vast historical and religious importance.
The Fountains of Rome (1916)
The first of Respighi’s suites about Rome was The Fountains of Rome, and he noted in the score that each movement was “contemplated at the hour in which their character is most in harmony with the surrounding landscape or in which their beauty appears most impressive to the observer.” The Fountains of Rome was the most important turning point in Respighi’s career, and would eventually bring him great success, wealth, and reputation. The work had its first performance in Rome in 1917.
In Rome the quality of water has been a marvel since ancient times, and there are public water fountains located in squares around the city. Many of the fountains around the city were created in Baroque times by the artist Bernini.
Ken Smith from Sony Classical liner notes writes about The Fountains of Rome:
The first part of the poem, inspired by the Fountain of Valle Giulia, depicts a pastoral landscape: droves of cattle pass, and disappear in the fresh damp mists of a Roman dawn. A sudden loud and insistent blast of horns above the whole orchestra introduces the second part, The Triton Fountain. It is like a joyous call, summoning troops of naiads and tritons, who come running up, pursuing each other and mingling in a frenzied dance between the jets of water. Next there appears a solemn theme borne on the undulations of the orchestra. It is the Fountain of Trevi at midday. The solemn theme, passing from the wood to the brass instruments, assumes a triumphal character. Trumpets peal: across the radiant surface of the water there passes Neptune’s chariot drawn by sea horses, and followed by a train of sirens and tritons. The procession then vanishes while faint trumpet blasts resound in the distance. The fourth part, The Villa Medici Fountain, is announced by a sad theme which rises above a subdued warbling. It is the nostalgic hour of sunset. The air is full of the sound of tolling bells, birds twittering, leaves rustling. Then all dies peacefully into the silence of the night.
The Fountains of Rome with its four unbroken sections set the standard, not just for the Roman works to come, but for the aesthetic of all Respighi’s later compositions.
The Pines of Rome (1924)
Following the success of Fountains, Respighi turned to The Pines of Rome in 1924, depicting “the century-old trees that dominate so characteristically the Roman landscape and become testimony for the principal events in Roman life.”
Uncle Dave Lewis in the All Music Guide says:
It is scored for a very large orchestra, cast in four movements, and reflects a colorful montage of impressions that capture the imagination without wandering or becoming digressive.
The Pines at the Villa Borghese…captures the energy and irreverence of children at play, including a discordant trumpet “raspberry” towards the end. This is contrasted by an austere phrase of planchant that begins The Pines Near the Catacombs. Meditative in mood, the movement leads to a climax built around an insistent, repeated figure stated in the strings. This leads seamlessly into the next section, Pines of the Janiculum. Opening with a spray of color from the piano, the piece slowly evolves into a beautiful nocturne punctuated by the recorded sound of a nightingale’s twittering in one of the first instances where a recorded sound is specified for a concert score. The Pines of the Appian Way transforms from a slow, mysterious section into a loud, exciting march that evokes ancient Rome, its gladiators, and its chivalry.
Even if audiences initially booed some parts of The Pines of Rome at the premiere, the triumphant march that concludes the work won the audience over and was greeted with a tremendous ovation. The work was soon played all over Europe to great acclaim, and became a frequent concert piece in the United States as well. Several Hollywood film composers in particular have pointed to Respighi’s Pines as being inspirational for their work. There were critics that condemned Pines for being trashy, overblown, or too conservative. But time has proven the work’s staying power, as well as its advocacy from conductors such as Toscanini, Reiner, Koussevitzky, Stokowski, and others.
Roman Festivals (1928)
While Respighi’s third installment in the Roman triptych, Roman Festivals, is my personal favorite, there is no doubt it is also the most boisterous, brash, and even perhaps vulgar. It is sometimes treated as the wicked stepchild of the three Roman suites, and has at times been excluded from concert programmes and recordings. That is a pity, because Festivals contains some of Respighi’s best music in my opinion. Respighi himself wrote in 1932:
“We take the stand against this art which cannot have and does not possess any human content and tends to be only a mechanical experiment and a cerebral conundrum. In the musical world today there reigns the biblical babel. For 20 years the most diverse and disparate trends have been consolidated in an uninterrupted revolutionary chaos…A logical connection must bind the past with the future, and the romanticism of yesterday must become the romanticism of tomorrow.”
Michael Rodman says in the All Music Guide:
Respighi’s steadfast sensibilities included most notably a particular sense of orchestra gigantism and real-as-life color, features abundantly on display in Roman Festivals. This work…calls for, in addition to a standard configuration of instruments, a number of others intended to evoke those that might have been heard in earlier times: an organ, a mandolin, two tavolette (a sort of drum), and three buccine (a trumpetlike military instrument).
The premiere was held on 21 February 1929 at Carnegie Hall in New York City, with Arturo Toscanini conducting the New York Philharmonic.
Conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier said of Roman Festivals that it contains "a really inspired mix of sophisticated orchestration, chromaticism, harmony and powerful driving rhythms" used in the piece, and judges "La Befana" as "exuberant, almost orgiastic" and "much more varied and satisfying musically" than the similarly eruptive final movement of Pines of Rome. I could not agree more.
Respighi wrote his own descriptions for each movement:
Circenses - ‘Circus Maximus – a threatening sky hangs over the Circus Maximus, but it is the people’s holiday: Ave Nero! The iron doors are unlocked, the strains of a religious song and the howling of wild beasts mingle in the air. The crowd comes to its feet in a frenzy. Unperturbed, the song of the martyrs gathers strength, conquers and then is drowned in the tumult.’
Il Giubileo - ‘Jubilee – pilgrims trail down the long road, praying. Finally, from the summit of Monte Mario appears to ardent eyes and gasping spirits the holy city: Rome! Rome! A hymn of praise bursts forth, the churches ring out in reply.’
L’Ottobrata - ‘October Festival – it is the October wine harvest in the Roman Castelli covered with vines; echoes of the hunt, tinkling bells, songs of love. Then in the tender twilight arises a romantic serenade on the mandolin.’
La Befana - ‘Epiphany – It is the night before Epiphany in the Piazza Navona; a characteristic rhythm of trumpets dominates the frantic clamour; above the swelling noise float, from time to time, rustic motives, saltarello cadenzas, the strains of a barrel organ in a booth and the call of a barker, the harsh song and the lively stornello in which is expressed the popular sentiment ‘Lassatece passa, semo Romani!’ (‘We are Romans, let us pass!’).’
Respighi’s Roman Trilogy has been recorded many times over the years, and particularly in recent decades. For a long time I was on a search for the best recording, and there are plenty of fine versions out there both from a performance and a sound quality point of view. However, the recording that gets under the skin of the music most effectively in very good modern sound is the one by Antonio Pappano and the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia recorded by EMI in Rome at the Auditorium Parco della Musica in 2007. The combination of a very fine Roman orchestra playing an Italian composer’s music about Rome, led by the English-Italian conductor Pappano is unbeatable.
Sir Antonio Pappano is currently music director of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London and of the Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia. He is scheduled to become chief conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra in 2024. The award-winning conductor first made his mark in opera, where he continues to make his mark at Covent Garden. He has held the director post at Santa Cecilia since 2005. Pappano has overseen a tremendous revival at Santa Cecilia, substantially raising the standards of the orchestra and bringing it back to international prominence through tours and recordings.
The Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia was the first orchestra in Italy to devote itself exclusively to the symphonic repertoire, giving premieres of major masterpieces for over a century such as Respighi’s Fountains of Rome and Pines of Rome. Founded in 1908, the Orchestra has been conducted by some of the major musical figures of the 20th century: from Mahler, Debussy, Saint-Saëns, Strauss, Stravinsky, Sibelius, Hindemith, Toscanini, Furtwängler, De Sabata, Karajan and Abbado to the most impressive performers of our day including Gergiev, Thielemann, Dudamel, Temirkanov while Bernardino Molinari, Franco Ferrara, Fernando Previtali, Igor Markevitch, Thomas Schippers, Giuseppe Sinopoli, Daniele Gatti, and Myung-Whun Chung have been its Music Directors.
There are more spectacular sounding recordings of these Roman warhorses, but none that get to the heart of the music better. Pappano has a natural feel for the phrasing needed, and he leads without exaggeration. Rhythms are sprightly, but never overdone. I like how Pappano genuinely takes his time in Fountains, drawing out the phrasing delicately which highlights Respighi’s lush writing. Balance is the key here, and it is delightful how Pappano can bring restraint where needed, but also full-throated power such as the opening of the Triton Fountain or the brass in Trevi. The delicacy then returns with the Villa Medici Fountain at sunset, which is shimmering.
The opening of Pines at Villa Borghese is appropriately brisk, with excellent articulation from the trumpets and percussion. When we move to the Catacombs, we switch back again to a subtle elegance filled with mystery and awe. If you have ever been to the actual catacombs outside Rome, you can sense the spiritual weight hanging in the air. The distant trumpet here is truly distant as it should be. When the movement goes into the Gregorian Chant, it grows magnificently into a glorious climax in the brass. The pines of the Janiculum hill gracefully overlook the city, and therefore lie somewhat out of the noise and chaos of the traffic and people below. It is a peaceful place, and the clarinet here plays the main theme beautifully and poignantly. The strings join in and at 2’45” we hear the strains of a lovely melody, and you feel transported away to a place that is at one with nature. The closing of this movement with the nightingale could be placed further forward in the sound, but it is truly one of the highlights of the entire album. The final movement, the pines of the Appian Way, begins with a foreboding pulsing rhythm, but we don’t hear the marching of the Roman soldiers in the distance quite yet. Pappano does not push things too quickly, but rather holds things back until just the right moment. The crescendo here is built very slowly, which I really like. Reaching the climax too quickly, so to speak, can ruin the whole affair. There are other conductors that are perhaps more spectacular or bombastic here, such as Reiner, Muti, or perhaps Maazel. But Pappano is satisfying musically and dramatically.
The final suite Roman Festivals is here given a full-blooded reading with conviction. Pappano makes no apology for the brashness or boldness. Circus Maximus is frenzied and has no small amount of terror, especially toward the end of the movement when Pappano slightly accelerates with powerful accents toward the kill. This is a visceral moment. The second movement Jubilee contains some of Respighi’s most modern sounding music, creeping along as it does with a melody playing above the pulse. There is dissonance and struggle here, which then breaks into a softly pining melody. Detail is revealed as it builds again into a tremendous climax on horns, trumpets, and strings and then moves into more triumphant territory toward the end. The third movement has always been one of my favorites, l’Ottobrata, heralded by horn fanfare. The strings play underneath a song on the horns with more trumpet fanfares. It indeed sounds like a festival. Strings and percussion take us on a ride until we arrive at a joyous gathering. We find a pastoral setting complete with a mandolin and strings. The final La Befana has great energy and fun, but importantly Pappano doesn’t push too hard as you might hear on some other recordings. There is a LOT going on here, and in some recordings you cannot hear all the details. Pappano is sure to bring out all the focus, as you might encounter if you happen upon a street festival in Rome. There is a tendency by some conductors to push the tempo too quickly at the end, which is exciting but can cloud inner details. Pappano is just right here, slightly accelerating into an exciting finish while also allowing us to hear all the notes. A fitting conclusion to not only Festivals, but the entire triptych.
A final word on the Pappano recording. The sound is quite good, but the dynamic range is very wide. So there are some softer sections that I have to turn up the volume to hear, and some louder sections where I have to turn down the volume. This may be annoying for some listeners.
Other recommended recordings
Nobody has ever recorded The Pines of Rome better than Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on RCA Living Stereo from 1959. This is an historic and legendary recording paired with one of the best versions of The Fountains of Rome (slightly outclassed by Pappano in my view) and a very fine version of Debussy’s La Mer. The sound is incredible for the time, and the famous Chicago brass are unmatched. Moreover, Reiner captures the impressionistic elements exceptionally well. Reiner’s Pines is well-nigh perfect in its vision and execution. A most satisfying listening experience, however the exclusion of Roman Festivals means that it cannot compete for a complete traversal of the Roman Trilogy.
Italian conductor Riccardo Muti, one of the best living conductors in the world, recorded all three Respighi Roman suites with the Philadelphia Orchestra, originally released in 1985. Muti has an instinctive and natural feel for this music, and with his Philadelphia band he brings one of the most passionate readings of all, and probably one of Muti’s best recordings. The recorded sound unfortunately seems almost distant and backward, and in louder climaxes we lose some focus and detail. The performance itself is sizzling, certainly one of the most exciting versions available. Muti accelerates thrillingly at the end of Festivals, much like Toscanini. Enjoyable.
Speaking of Toscanini, the Maestro knew Respighi personally and premiered several of his works including Roman Festivals. Toscanini was a great advocate of these works, and recorded them for RCA between 1949 and 1953 taken from broadcasts at Carnegie Hall. In my estimation Toscanini was the greatest interpreter of Respighi’s tone poems, and these are recordings of tremendous energy, momentum, insight, and passion. While these are invaluable recordings, the sound is fierce in spots, congested in louder passages, and has considerable background noise. These recordings don’t have the boxy sound like some of Toscanini’s studio recordings, but they are still compromised due to the dated and inferior sound. Nevertheless, the performances are unforgettable.
Seiji Ozawa would not be near the top of conductors I would think of when I consider Respighi. Nevertheless, his recordings of these suites is easily among the best and a candidate for the very best. Recorded with the Boston Symphony Orchestra by Deutsche Grammophon in 1979 in very good analog sound, Ozawa truly seems to enjoy these pieces. One of the criticisms over the years of Ozawa as a conductor is his restraint and that he never really lets go of the reins with the orchestra. Happily, that is not the case here as these are warm, passionate, full-blooded readings. The Pines of the Appian Way are suitably militant and overpowering, La Befana is exuberant but not played too fast, and the softer passages such as the Pines of the Janiculum are atmospheric and exceptionally well played. I return to this one often.
Finally, Yan Pascal Tortelier and the Philharmonia Orchestra recorded all three Roman tone poems for Chandos records in 1991 at All Saints’ Church, Tooting, in London. This recording possesses brilliant, demonstration sound quality and the performance itself is also among the best available. You will hear details here other recordings might gloss over. Tortelier leads these pieces wonderfully. Fountains is perceptive and beautifully played, Pines builds to a stirring conclusion similar to Pappano even if the acoustic is a bit over resonant, and Festivals is thrillingly gaudy and powerful, with brass and percussion delivering a knockout. Well worth hearing.
Thank you once again for reading. I truly hope you are enjoying discovering some new music, or some recordings you want to sample. Until next time, happy listening!
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Buja, Maureen. Roman Parties. Respighi: Roman Festivals. https://interlude.hk/roman-partiesrespighi-feste-romane/
Duchen, Jessica (February 2012). "Balancing Act". Opera News: 18–22.
Heald, David (2006). Respighi - Preludio, Corale e Fuga, Burlesca, Rossiniana, Five Etudes-Tableaux (PDF) (Media notes). Gianandrea Noseda, BBC Philharmonic Orchestra. Chandos Records. CHAN 10388. Retrieved 17 June 2020.
Ottorino Respighi: A Dream of Italy 1982, 15:36–15:50.
Perry, Tim. RESPIGHI Roman Trilogy Review. http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2007/nov07/respighi_trilogy_3944292.htm
"Sir Antonio Pappano appointed chief conductor of London Symphony Orchestra". Classic FM. 30 March 2021.
"The Three Arts". The Evening Sun (Baltimore, Maryland). 28 December 1920. p. 12 – via newspapers.com.
Webb, Michael (2019). Ottorino Respighi: His Life and Times. Troubador Publishing Ltd. ISBN 978-1-789-01895-0.
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