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Ottorino Respighi became what seemed unthinkable a hundred years ago: an Italian composer of orchestral music. He composed no successful operas at all.
Instead, he wrote the first significant Italian contributions to orchestral music since the Baroque era. He studied composition with the Russian Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Under his influence, and that of the French Impressionists and Richard Strauss, Respighi wrote some very successful symphonic tone poems, foreign in form, but very Italian in subject matter.
The Pines of Rome (1924), the best known of them, is one of three tone poems that celebrate Rome–along with The Fountains of Rome (1918) and Roman Festivals (1929). It owns the distinction of being the first piece of live electronic music: Respighi wanted the sound of a nightingale and didn’t believe that any combination of instruments, or even a coloratura soprano, could achieve it. The score, therefore, includes a part for a phonograph recording of a nightingale in the third movement.
The work has four movements, played without pause. Resphighi provided the following program note in the score:
I. The Pines of the Villa Borghese (Allegretto vivace)
Children are playing in the pine groves of Villa Borghese. They dance in circles and march to mimic soldiers and battles. They are excited by their own cries and, like swallows at evening, they disappear in a swarm. Suddenly the scene changes and. . .
II. The Pines Near a Catacomb (Lento)
We see the shadows of pines crowning the entrance of a catacomb. The sound of mournful psalm singing rises from the depths, floating solemnly on the air, gradually and mysteriously dissipating.
III. The Pines of the Janiculum (Lento)
In the trembling air, the pines of Janiculum Hill stand, outlined distinctly in the light of a full moon. A nightingale sings.
IV. The Pines of the Appian Way (Tempo di Marcia)
In the misty dawn on the Appian Way, solitary pines guard the tragic country. Indistinctly, incessantly, we hear the rhythm of innumerable steps. The poet imagines a vision of ancient glory; at the sound of trumpets in the brilliance of the sunrise, a consular army bursts forth towards the sacred Way, triumphantly climbing to the Capitol.
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