Ottorino Respighi: Pines of Rome


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 working as a local music teacher in the area. Respighi later enrolled at the Liceo, where he studied violin, viola and composition under the tutelage of 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 to 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 a 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 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 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.


The Music

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 one of these works depicts a certain aspect of Italian life, with Pines of Rome representing pine trees in various locations around Rome at different times of the day.

The work is in four movements, and each title briefly describes the location of the pine tree. The Roman Trilogy is perhaps Respighi’s most famous and most-loved work, with Pines of Rome being the most performed today.

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

“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.”

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, which come through four main themes which are representative of nature. There are also two transitional melodies which are shorter and less-developed, that slot in between the main themes to create seamless movement between the musical cells of music.

The first melody, led by the cello and bassoon, is in Bb major. There is a positive atmosphere created throughout the orchestra, which spills into the second theme which is in the dominant key of F major. This time led by the horns, clarinets and cellos, this theme builds on the previous. The third theme is in A major, and is built as a canon between the strings and winds, which highlights an effective development of the theme. T

he fourth theme is based around F major and D major. These four main themes are short, and are connected by two transitional sections, which are far less conventional. The transitional themes are modal, the first in Phrygian on A, and the second in Mixolydian on G. The mix between tonal and modal harmonies gives the music a lot of harmonic colour and depth, creating a really special piece of music. One of the most striking aspects of this movement is Respighi’s use of shorter note values.

All major themes are based on either 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 final flourish of sound.


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

“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.”

The second movement is based on Gregorian modes, namely Aeolian and Ionian. 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 bass instruments, the introduction sings of a psalm, which depicts the priests chanting.

The image depicted here also resonates with the solitary area and plain trees surrounding the area. 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 legato melody over the strings. This movement feels very mournful, lonely and in some places rather dark. The deep pedal notes resonate from the catacombs into the solitary area, creating an eerie reading on this music.

A climax occurs with the horns and strings leading this section. 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’)

“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.”

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. The clarinet theme has been said to represent the moon peaking through the Janiculum at the dead of night.

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.

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.


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

“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.”

The fourth movement is based on one motif which is extended throughout the whole movement. Wide intervallic 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. 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 feeling, however, the ‘footstep’ 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 soldiers 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.

The final few pages of music are very exciting, which is amplified by the timbral mix of instruments that create such a bold statement. The ending also highlights Respighi’s wide range of influences from Baroque to Romantic and everything in between. The Finale movement ends with a strong F major chord played by the whole ensemble.


Ⓒ Alex Burns

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