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Respighi (1879-1936) - The Pines of Rome

Following 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 orchestral colour. 

Most of 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. 

Scored 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! 

1. 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. 

2. 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! 

3. 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”!). 

4. 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, Kamo, Whangarei 0101, Northland, New Zealand


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