Respighi settled in Rome in 1913 when he took up an appointment as professor of composition at the Santa Cecilia academy, the city’s famous conservatory. He met and married his wife there – she was one of his students – and the vibrant concert life in Rome spurred Respighi to action. The Fountains of Rome was the first result of his efforts.
His symphonic poem The Pines of Rome was the second in a triptych of works paying tribute to The Eternal City. The piece’s first movement shows children playing outside the Villa Borghese, the opulent home of one of Rome’s most prominent 17th-century families. “Pines Near a Catacomb” depicts a solitary church in the middle of a Roman field dotted with pine trees, the section’s ominous melody building to a sweeping climax. In the third movement, Respighi paints a musical portrait of the “Pines of the Janiculum” at night. The Janiculum was one of Rome’s seven hills, so named because it was the site of temple of Janus, the Roman god of portals and the new year. In this section, Respighi specified the use of a gramophone recording of birdsong to capture the atmosphere perfectly. The work closes with a portrait of the pine tree-lined Appian Way, the military road of the Roman Republic. The Roman legions emerge from the mists, and the orchestra mirrors their approach, growing louder as the soldiers get closer to the Capitoline Hill. As the movement closes, the victorious warriors, led by the Republican Consul, arrive at the Capitol with the rising sun behind them, their glory reflected in the work’s jubilant closing pages. The Pines of Rome was, and continues to be, a great success and popular favorite, so much so that Respighi used the money he made from it to buy a villa, which he appropriately named “The Pines.”
Fountains is also in four movements, each representing one of Rome’s fountains at a different time of day. The opening movement depicts the Valle Giulia at dawn. Now enveloped in the suburbs north of Rome, the Valle Giulia was, during Respighi’s lifetime, a pastoral landscape. The orchestra gradually awakens, murmuring strings joined by plaintive oboes and English horn as cattle pass through the mists in the distance.
In the second movement, the majestic Triton Fountain on the Piazza Barberini springs to life in the morning light. The fountain was created by the sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini, and his work – and Respighi’s as well – was inspired by the story of the end of the flood from the first book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses: “The ruler of the seas sets his trident aside, smoothes the billows, and summons the sea-blue Triton who towers up over the depths... and commands him to blow into his sounding shell and by his signal recall the waters and the rivers.”
The third movement represents what is undoubtedly the grandest of Rome’s fountains, the Trevi Fountain, at midday. Respighi’s majestic writing for brass over swirling strings and cresting waves of percussion captures the fountain’s sheer scale, with its central depiction of Neptune in his shell chariot, emerging from beneath the sea and standing under a Roman triumphal arch.
The finale depicts the modest fountain in front of the Villa Medici, which sits atop a hill overlooking St. Peter’s, at dusk. Respighi’s orchestra provides the rich atmosphere of graceful birdsong, gentle evening breezes, and twinkling stars through a combination of sumptuous writing for strings and woodwinds and his use of percussion instruments such as the celesta and the orchestra bells. The work ends as gently as it began.
John Mangum is Vice President of Artistic Planning for the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra.