Respighi (1879-1936) - The Pines of Rome
World War I came a minor renaissance: a new generation of composers abandoned
Italy's long-standing operatic obsession in favour of a national style
based on old masters like Vivaldi and Corelli. Respighi, a conductor, teacher,
string player, pianist and composer, became a leading light of this movement.
His wide knowledge of ancient culture furnished diverse inspiration, from
early Italian music and Byzantine Chant, and from old paintings and architecture.
Although intrigued by Stravinsky, Debussy and Strauss, the pervasive influence
is that of his teacher Rimsky-Korsakov, who nurtured his talent for iridescent
these influences permeate his famous Roman Tryptich, composed in
1916, 1924, and 1928. While acknowledged as masterpieces of orchestration,
they are often vilified for supposed “shallowness”. True, maybe, but “So
what?” I could similarly criticise, say, several hundred dances by Johann
Strauss, or the Spanish Caprice by a certain N. A. Rimsky-Korsakov. I could,
but I won't because that's not the point - this is: there's no law requiring
music to have “depth”. Respighi did write music with abundant “depth”,
so presumably the tryptich of which I Pini di Roma form the centrepiece
was composed expressly to titillate, to flood our heads with gorgeous colour
and vivid images: Respighi as musical tourist guide. And why not? Especially
when it's done this brilliantly.
for large orchestra, including organ and augmented brass, I Pini di
Roma falls into four sections played continuously. There are explicit
titles to guide, more or less reliably (depending on experience), our imagination.
These may be swallowed whole, or (preferably) taken with a little salt!
I Pini di Villa Borghese. A scintillating, glittering, shimmering impression
of children playing among the pine groves on a sunny afternoon. The central
section, cheekily winking towards Debussy's second Nocturne, is
a brazen march suggesting the passage of a carriage drawn by trotting horses.
I Pini presso una catacomba. A sudden hush. In the gloaming we confront
the ominous entrance to a catacomb, from which emanate the gloomy strains
of ancient plainsong. A contrasted central episode this time, incongruously,
reminds me of the Sioux nation gathering on the plains for a pow-wow!
I Pini di Gianicolo. Night falls. The pines of the Janiculum reflect
silver moonlight. Presently, in the langorous stillness we discern the
remote song of a nightingale, courtesy of a gramophone recording (N.B.
technically speaking, CD players are still “gramophones”!).
I Pini della Via Appia. Grey dawn breaks. A faint tramping is heard:
the victorious Roman legions approach along the Appian Way. Another reflection
of Debussy's Nocturne, this swells to an incandescent climax replete
with organ pedals and braying brass, including, if the composer’s instructions
are followed in full, ancient bucinas - or their more recent relatives
- distributed around the hall.
© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street,
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