Today, I want to present you a composer whom many people do not know because he, similar to Ildebrando Pizetti, Alfredo Casella and Gian Francesco Malipiero, worked in the shadow of the masters of Verismo such as Puccini, Leoncavallo and the fascist Mascagni. I’m talking about Ottorino Respighi, an apolitical composer, who lived for art. Mind you, he was a very important scholar as he did a lot of research on 16th-18th century Italian music (cf. his three suites of Ancient Airs and Dances).
Well, Respighi was a very prolific composer: He composed many orchestral works, nine operas and also ballets as well as vocal and chamber works. In my view, he is quite an underrated figure as he did not achieve a “pop” status in the fashion of his mentioned contemporaries. However, the great conductor Arturo Toscanini admired the discussed composer very much and even recorded the ˝Pines of Rome˝ twice (a thing that is rarely done in classical music with such pieces as it is not a Beethoven symphony. Am I right Mr. Karajan?). Well, Karajan also recorded the work in 1978, but it the ˝Pines of Rome˝ are not everything. Thankfully, there are also conductors that, in addition to them recorded something else: Leonard Bernstein also did the ˝Roman Festivals˝. Those two pieces are not the only ones in this cycle as there is also a third tone poem, namely ˝The Fountains of Rome˝. Sadly, I rarely see a recording of all three pieces together.
Respighi’s style can be described as quite unique, really something new. He is impressionistic, without a doubt, but it is very much different to Ravel or Debussy. In my view, it is better, but, probably, my view stems from the fact that both of them are overplayed in the orchestral repertoire of symphony orchestras around the world.
Well, Respighi combines his impressionism with a very romantic, chromatic touch. The orchestral forces are used up to their totality and brilliance. However, on the other hand, he is also able to use few instruments and create beautiful melodic and harmonic lines.
The ˝Pines of Rome˝ seem to be his most famous work. We can say that it has everything in its combined four movements: a chromatic fast movement, a slow, somber and pious chant, a delicate and an impressionistic description of nature on a hill and the triuphant return of the Roman army. It describes the pine trees or, rather, the sorroundings of them in four distinct places around the city of Rome: in the English landscape garden of the Villa Borghese; the catacombs of the Campagna (the area sorrounding Rome); on the Janiculum hill and, finally, the Via Appia.
The work begins with a description of a childrens’ play in the garden of the Villa Borghese. It is a fast movement with some dissonance in the brass sections of the orchestra ( naturally, as children are proned to causing trouble) and it shows Respighi as a master of orchestration, combining several sections of the orchestra to create childish chaos.
Afterwards, we make a giant leap from frolicking to death as we enter the catacombs. In fact, the movement employs a chant that is part of the traditional mass, namely the Kyrie (“God, have mercy! Christ, have mercy! God, have mercy!). Respighi is also playing with dynamics quite a lot. The dynamics of a piece are the volume of the piece and the composer gradually moves from pianissimo (pp) to fortissimo (ff) and back down to the former.
Slowly, this leads us to the Janiculum hill, on which the birds are singing and the water is flowing. Again, Respighi demonstrates the lushness of his orchestral and emotional power. Orchestra really have to be careful to be expressive and to obey the indicated tempo.The movement really has to be performed very slowly and dreamy. We have to understand that Respighi was an impressionist, which is seen in the brief solo sections of the oboe and the violin in the middle part of the movement. The human joy is expressed through the ecstatic entrance of the complete orchestra. In the final bars of the moment, Respighi uses something that has never been used before in music, namely sound effects. He recorded the singing of a nightingale and incorporated it into the piece.
Shortly after, we hear a moderate and quiet march as the Roman army is nearing the Via Appia and the pines on both sides of the road. The march is getting louder and louder and the gradually the complete orchestra enters (even an organ!) and the march ends triumphantly.
Interestingly, the piece was written in 1924, but, essentially, the final movement is similar to the Bolero by Ravel because of the intensifying dynamics and the repetition of one theme. Therefore, we can ask ourselves the question: Is Ravel a copycat?
Does Respighi need more recognition in the musical spheres around the world? I think he does and hopefully you, dear readers, will also acknowledge his genius.
Jonatan Horvat (Wagnerjabin)