A Fiddling Tourist Guide in Rome

The pines of Rome at the Villa Borghese. © Charles Thibo
The pines of Rome at the Villa Borghese. © Charles Thibo

Rome. What a city! Rome in September on a free weekend. What an experience! A year ago: I am climbing the “Spanish Staircase” under a warm sunlight and walking to the Villa Medici and the park surrounding the Villa Borghese. Flowers everywhere and the pines smell delicately on this late Saturday afternoon. I leave the noise of the city behind me, girls sitting in the grass and chatting, a bike passing by, on a distant playground I hear children having fun… life is good!

The composer Ottorino Respighi must have felt in a similar way when he started to compose a cycle of three symphonic poems describing the “Fountains of Rome”, the “Pines of Rome” and the “Festivals of Rome”. It took him 12 years, from 1916 until 1928. The three symphonic poems follow a clear idea: Rendering the composer’s feelings and impressions about four wells at different times of the day, pines in four different settings (Villa Borghese, Catacombae, the hill Gianicolo and the Via Appia) and four events in Rome (Roman games at the Circus Maximus, arrival of Christian pilgrims, October celebrations and a fair at the Piazza Navona).

Each time I listen to the three pieces, I am mesmerized by their suggestive power – I can see the morning mist at the well in the Giulia valley, I can hear the soldiers marching on the Via Appia, I can rejoice with the pilgrims when they get a first glimpse of the Holy City. Marvellous! I hope you feel motivated to visit Rome this way. There is at least one recording with the three pieces together on one album, the one by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Seiji Ozawa.

Respighi, born in 1879, studied piano, violin and composition and soon became a professional musician. Although he was originally from Bologna, he lived mostly in Rome – after a brief stint in Russia and Germany. From 1924 to 1926 he headed the Santa Cecilia Conservatorium in Rome, where he had taught composition since 1913. He left the director’s post after two years to devote more time to composing. He wrote several other remarkable works: a collection of ancient songs and dances “Antiche Arie ed Danze per Liuto” inspired by the Baroque style, the ballet “The Magic Cauldron” and the cantata “The Sensitive”: a poem of Shelley set to music by Respighi. The last two works are available on a recording by the Palermo Orchestra Sinfonica del Teatro Massimo, while the first one has been recorded numerous times. I am quite happy with a production of the Berliner Philharmoniker under conductor Herbert von Karajan.

I checked on my iPod playlist: The first two symphonic poems and “Antiche Arie ed Danze per Liuto” are my number 1 album of classical works – and  will remain so unless I feel a sudden urge to listen to Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 3 K. 216 over and over again!

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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