On This Day (December 14)…Pines Premieres

Ottorino Respighi’s Pines of Rome premiered on this day in 1924 at the Augusteo Theater in Rome, Italy.

The Work

This piece, which as the title suggest is a vivid tone poem about four pine-ridden locations, serves as a loose sequel to Respighi’s earlier tone poem Fountains of Rome. The work features four movements about scenes under pine trees, loosely following the progression of a day from afternoon to early the next morning. Respighi included notes with each movement to elucidate what he was specifically picturing:

The Pines of the Villa Borghese (Allegretto vivace)—Children are at play in the pine groves of the Villa Borghese, dancing the Italian equivalent of “Ring around a Rosy.” They mimic marching soldiers and battles. They twitter and shriek like swallows at evening, coming and going in swarms. Suddenly the scene changes.

The Pines Near a Catacomb (Lento)—We see the shadows of the pines, which overhang the entrance of a catacomb. From the depths rises a chant, which echoes solemnly, like a hymn, and is then mysteriously silenced.

The Pines of the Janiculum (Lento)—There is a thrill in the air. The full moon reveals the profile of the pines of Gianicolo’s Hill. A nightingale sings.

The Pines of the Appian Way (Tempo di Marcia)—Misty dawn on the Appian Way. The tragic country is guarded by solitary pines. Indistinctly, incessantly, the rhythm of unending steps. The poet has a fantastic vision of past glories. Trumpets blare, and the army of the Consul bursts forth in the grandeur of a newly risen sun toward the Sacred Way, mounting in triumph the Capitoline Hill.

From Respighi’s notes on the work. Retrieved from here.

This piece also features a notable first in symphonic music, namely the first instance of an electronic component in a score. In the third movement, Respighi notes that “a nightingale sings”; rather than leaving such an important part of his scene to an instrument, he instead called for an actual recording of a nightingale to be played as part of the music. Originally, this came on a vinyl record, but has since made the jump to digital in most concerts.

The Premiere

The piece’s premiere was reportedly quite a wild affair. The audience booed the music a few times; the first of these times was during the first movement in response to a recurring trumpet blast. This trumpet blast is particularly dissonant and likely did not appeal to audience members upon first listen; while Europe was by now well within its Modern movement in the musical world, with Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and other more dissonant works now known quantities, audiences perhaps weren’t fully on board with such things.

The audience was similarly disturbed later in the work, during the third movement when the recording of the nightingale was blended with the music. Perhaps, once again, they were not ready for such an avant-garde touch in their music. Alternatively, the sound of the nightingale on vinyl may not have had the desired effect and simply sounded poor on that night! Despite these negative reactions, the majesty of the final movement apparently brought the whole audience to their feet.

Respighi continued to receive great critical and financial success with the piece after premiere night. It has since become his most well-known and most performed piece of music. The piece has also lived on in various other mediums. It has appeared as a soundtrack to several movies, including a famous segment in Fantasia 2000. The images in the movie have very little to do with pines or Rome, however! Instead, the animated images focus on a family of flying whales.

Some rock ‘n roll acts have also made use of the piece. Emerson, Lake & Palmer used the first movement as walk-on music for one of their tours in the mid-90s. Yes also used the first piece as part of their song “City of Love” off 90125.

Actually, Rome is usually called the Eternal City, not the “City of Love”…

This piece also has a great deal of personal significance to me. It has been one of my favorite pieces of music for a long time, and resultantly a subject I have been annoying various friends with for many years! The fourth movement was also the final piece I performed with my college symphony orchestra. It was one of the finest moments of my musical career as a whole, and something that will stay with me for the rest of my life.

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