1916-1928: Respighi: Roman Trilogy, age 37-49

Mr. Peabody Says:

There are 12 movements here, divided up into three complicated tone poems about Rome. Where do you start? Try this very peaceful novement: The Villa Medici Fountain at Sunset, which is  6:04 long. Then if you like it, try going back to the beginning and listen to all of The Fountains of Rome.

Then for contrast, try this:

Now it’s extremely exciting and boisterous music about children playing, Pines of the Villa Borghese, and less than three minutes long: 2:49.

Or try this:

This is a nocturne or night song with bird calls. At the end turn the sound way up, because there is even a recording of a nightingale. The Pines of the Janiculum is 7:10 in length.

Now the complete recordings:

Giuseppe Sinopoli/New York Philharmonic Orchestra – The Fountains of Rome – 1916

The first of these, Fountains of Rome, was composed in 1916, but Pines of Roman came eight years later, then Roman Festivals came last in 1928. So this whole set is unified only by all all being tone poems all about Rome. Even the orchestration changed, although not too much.

  1. 0:01 The Fountain of Valle Giulia at Dawn 4:00
  2. 4:00 The Triton Fountain in the Morning 2:35
  3. 6:35 The Trevi Fountain at Noon 3:38
  4. 10:13 The Villa Medici Fountain at Sunset  6:04 (End 16:17)

Total time: 16:17


  • piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets in Bb and A, bass clarinet in Bb and A,
    2 bassoons
  • 4 French horns in F, 3 trumpets in Bb and A, 3 trombones, tuba
  • timpani, cymbals, triangle, bell in D, glockenspiel
  • organ (ad lib.), piano, celesta, 2 harps
  • strings

By Roman Festivals he used: timpani, bells, glockenspiel, cymbals, bass drum with cymbals, field drum, snare drum, ratchet, sleigh bells, tambourine, tam-tam, triangle, high and low wood blocks (horse hooves), xylophonepiano (2 and 4 hands), organ and mandolin. I don’t recall ever seeing a bigger percussion section, and it all sounds great.

I. The Fountain of Valle Giulia at Dawn

This starts in E Phrygian. Just days ago I said that finding something in Phrygian is rare. Well, here it is. Looking at the score you see no key, which either means that composer chose not to use one, or that the composer is in some mode that uses all the white notes. But he’s not strictly in a mode, so at times you can hear just about any mode. And he moves. Soon he is in 4 b’s, which could be any more with those flats. Then he moves to F major, very strong feeling, then morphs to Db major to end the movement.

II. The Triton Fountain in the Morning

This starts with a huge horn fanfare on C. It has a bit of a dominant feel, but it’s a bit unclear what they key is. Most likely it is C major, but with a heavily modal feeling. It’s over in less than three minutes, but you won’t know when it ends because the segue is seamless. The only clue is that it slows way down. It’s in fast 3/4.

III. The Trevi Fountain at Noon

It’s still in 3/4, and it still appears to be in C major, A minor or some mode, but a couple pages later it moves to E major, 4 #s, then Bb major, then D major, then D minor with no key change, and at the end it moves to 4/4 and gets back to E major.

IV. The Villa Medici Fountain at Sunset

Again there is no division. The last movement is still in 4/4 time and still in Emajor. But then it moves to E minor with a strong Aeolian feel. Then back to E major, on paper, but it’s not really there for a long time until it settles solidly into E major, yet toggling between E7 and Em7b5. Then a C9 chord, back to E7, Dm7b5, Em7b5 and so on. At the end he settles into E major, but with strange parallel 5ths in the winds: F#, F and E open fifths, and always D natural somewhere to give a strong Mixolydian feel. That just scratches the surface,

Giuseppe Sinopoli /New York Philharmonic Orchestra – The Pines of Rome – 1924

  1. 16:21 Pines of the Villa Borghese 2:49
  2. 19:10 The Pines Near a Catacomb 6:50
  3. 26:20 The Pines of the Janiculum 7:10
  4. 33:30 The Pines of the Appian Way 6:12 (End: 39:42)

Total length: 23:21


  • three flutes (third doubling piccolo), two oboes, cor anglais, two clarinets in Bb and A, bass clarinet in Bb and A, two bassoons, contrabassoon
  • four horns in F and E, three trumpets in Bb, two tenor trombones, bass trombone, contrabass trombone, six buccine in Bb (two sopranos, two tenors, two basses; usually played on flugelhorns and saxhorns)
  • timpani, bass drum, snare drum, cymbals, two small cymbals, tam-tam, triangle, ratchet, tambourine, glockenspiel
  • organ, piano, celesta; harp
  • strings

The gramophone refers to a recording made of a bird.

I. Pines of the Villa Borghese

It starts in Bb major, moves to F major, but then it moves solidly to A major, which is not shown, and he moves all over the place without showing it with a key signature. Then he moves to C major. Finally at the end he is solidly in A major and shows it.

Cchildren are playing by the pine trees in the Villa Borghese gardens, dancing the Italian equivalent of the nursery rhyme “Ring a Ring o’ Roses” and “mimicking marching soldiers and battles; twittering and shrieking like swallows”.

II. The Pines Near a Catacomb

It’s in 6 b’s, but with no key. It has a very strong feeling of Aeolian, so think of Eb minor. It moves to Eb major, then to E minor, and this time there is a key, and Aeolian again. But it’s very modal, so at times you just hear that there is F#, and that you are in some kind of mode. This is actually very easy to follow in the score because it’s simple

The children suddenly disappear and shadows of pine trees that overhang the entrance of a Roman catacomb dominates. It is a majestic dirge, conjuring up the picture of a solitary chapel in the deserted Campagna; open land, with a few pine trees silhouetted against the sky. A hymn is heard, the sound rising and sinking again into some sort of catacomb, the cavern in which the dead are immured. An offstage trumpet plays the hymn. Lower orchestral instruments, plus the organ pedal at 16′ and 32′ pitch, suggest the subterranean nature of the catacombs, while the trombones and horns represent priests chanting.

III. The Pines of the Janiculum

This starts in B major, with a strong pentatonic feel. Then he moves to E major and shows it in the key signature. Once again he returns to B major. He actually throws in one measure in 13/8. It end in pure B pentatonic, but with incredibly quiet trills in the strings, and then you hear the recording of the nightingale.

It is a nocturne set on Janiculum hill. The full moon shines on the pines that grow on the hill of the temple of Janus, the double-faced god of doors and gates and of the new year. Respighi had the sound of a nightingale recorded onto a phonograph and requested in the score that it be played at the movement’s ending, the first such instance in music.

IV. The Pines of the Appian Way

It starts on the most menacing sound in music, a tritone with B and F. There is no key. It’s mostly white notes, but there are some black notes that don’t quite fit in, giving it a very quiet, menacing sound. The English horn has a really spooky solo. Then he moves to Bb minor. It still has a very mysterious, dark sound. Something is coming. This actually has a very Mahler-like sound that strongly reminds me of the last movement of his 6th symphony. The key changes to Bb major, then to C major without a key change, back to Bb major, to F# major, back to Bb major, A major, D major, and back to Bb major.

Respighi recalls the past glories of the Roman empire in a representation of dawn on the great military road leading into Rome. The final movement portrays pine trees along the Appian Way in the misty dawn, as a triumphant legion advances along the road in the brilliance of the newly-rising sun. Respighi wanted the ground to tremble under the footsteps of his army and he instructs the organ to play bottom Bb on the 8 foot, 16 foot and 32 foot organ pedals. The score calls for six buccine – ancient circular trumpets that are usually represented by modern flugelhorns, and which are sometimes partially played offstage. Trumpets peal and the consular army rises in triumph to the Capitoline Hill.

Giuseppe Sinopoli/ New York Philharmonic Orchestra

Total time: 25:35


  • 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, cor anglais, 2 clarinets in Bb and A,
    piccolo clarinet in D, bass clarinet in Bb and A, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon
  • 4 horns in F, 4 trumpets in Bb and A, 2 tenor trombones, bass trombone, bass tuba,
    3 soprano buccine in Bb
  • timpani, bells, glockenspiel, cymbals, bass drum with cymbals, field drum, snare drum, ratchet, sleigh bells, tambourine, tam-tam, triangle, high and low wood blocks (horse hooves), xylophone
  • piano (2 and 4 hands), organ
  • mandolin
  • strings

The Buccine may be replaced by trumpets, a substitution which most modern orchestras make.

I. Circus Games

He starts in Bb major, the same key he ended with in Pines of Rome. It’s the sound of war. He moves to F minor with snarling trombones and later all the brass, including brass glissandos. He moves to F# minor, three #s, then he moves to no key with a strong feel of C in the strings, but the trupets are clearly play a fanfare in Bb Mixolydian, three b’s.

There are a lot of moves like Fm to G#m, with lots of minor chords sliding everywhere. That’s what John Williams did in Darth Vader, so we know that Williams knew this music well. The music is brutal and reminds me a lot of Holst’s Mars, which he wrote in 1917.

The first movement depicts the ancient contests in which gladiators battled to the death, with the sound of trumpet fanfares. Strings and woodwinds suggest the plainchant of the first Christian martyrs which are heard against the snarls of the beasts against which they are pitted. The movement ends with violent orchestral chords, complete with organ pedal, as the martyrs succumb.

II. Jubilee

This is very static, using a lot of natural minor or Aeolian, but finishing up in C major with a very obvious pentatonic sound, but with a very insistent Bb in the bass at the end giving it a strong Mixolydian sound, but also with a Gb7b5, tritone exchange. At the very end there is a horn fanfare that sounds like C Mixolydian, and it flows right into the next movement.

Jubilee portrays the every-fiftieth-year festival in the Papal tradition Respighi quotes the German Easter hymn, “Christ Is Risen”. Pilgrims approaching Rome catch a breath-taking view from Mt. Mario, as church bells ring in the background.

III. Harvest of October

This has a triumphant sound. It’s in F major. Then it moves to 4 #s, but it’s not really in any key, with strong augmented chords and no real tonal center. Then he moves to Eb, and suddenly the melody sound very Spanish, even though this is about Rome. It’s a really nice contrast to war and the more serious music that went before. The movement ends with a horn fanfare in F major, then over a Gm7b5 chord there is a mysterious line played by mandolin. The music fades to almost nothing, then almost ends in Eb major, then suddenly goes to B major by key , but the final chord is Caug add #9.

The third movement represents the harvest and hunt festival in Rome. The French horn solo celebrates the harvest as bells and a mandolin portray love serenades.

IV. Epiphany

It starts in D major, by key, but the start is the same augmented chord feel from the last movement, so it is again seamless. The insistent sound of G# gives a strong Lydian feel at times at first. From there it is very strongly in D major, but strong modal movement. Then there is an abrupt move to C major, with the feel of a popular tune, but with a lot of brass work that is pretty wild. Back to D major, then a bit of whole tone with the bass still on D. More whole tone, then more Lydian feel. The whole thing sounds like a wild party.

The final movement takes place in the Piazza Navona. Trumpets sound again and create a festive clamour of Roman songs and dances, including a barrel organ and a drunken reveler depicted by a solo tenor trombone.

This is a recording to buy

A recording is ideal because you can start a track and tell it to stop after each track. That way you know when each movement of each part of this trilogy ends. Just by listening you can’t tell. I had no idea what was going on. I had to download the score before I found this YouTube video, which miraculously has all the scores and also has each track shown so that you can start each track and see the name. But you still have to be watching, unless you memorize the breaks.

There are 65 minutes of music in this amazing recording, and it is HERE. I bought this recording. But if you are a casual listener, don’t even think about listening to all this at once. It’s too much. However, you may find, as I did, that after you have heard each movement of all three – there are 12 – you may want to hear all of it.

2 thoughts on “1916-1928: Respighi: Roman Trilogy, age 37-49

  1. This is too big to write about. I ran into Respighi through a documentary, and Parts of the Roman Trilogy were featured. I especially liked that music of his, and am gradually immersing myself in the various movements. It’s fantastic to have it all here.

    In the documentary, it seemed R was concerned about the direction music was taking, and also tried to bring back the Italian or Roman heritage in some way.

  2. Listening to The Villa Medici Fountain at Sunset or The Pines of the Janiculum is very tranquil and calming. I listened carefully and heard the very faint sound of the nightingale towards the end of the latter movement.

    On the other hand, The Pines of the Villa Borghese is more cheerful and merry.

    For me, the music was quite appealing.

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