Composition and premieres: Respighi wrote Fountains of Rome in 1916, and it was premiered in Rome on November 12, 1920, led by Arturo Toscanini; Pines of Rome followed a few years later and was premiered December 14, 1924, by Bernardino Molinari conducting the Augusteo Orchestra. Respighi completed the “Roman Trilogy” with Roman Festivals later in the decade.
The first BSO performance of Fountains of Rome was November 12, 1920, led by Pierre Monteux, who also conducted the BSO in the first Tanglewood performance, July 23, 1960. The most recent performance of Fountains of Rome at Tanglewood was for Tanglewood on Parade on July 23, 2019; Thomas Wilkins conducted the BSO.
Ottorino Respighi was a minor master, but a master surely. He began as a pianist, violinist, and violist, and in 1900 became principal violist in the opera orchestra at St. Petersburg. There he had the opportunity of taking some lessons with Rimsky-Korsakov, which accounts in part for his dazzling brilliance as an orchestrator. He soon returned to Italy, leaning more toward composition, but still active as a performer, particularly as violist in the Mugellini Quartet. In 1913 he settled in Rome, teaching at and later presiding over the St. Cecilia Academy. He was a cultivated amateur of what was then called “ancient music,” a taste that led him to composing a piano concerto in the mixolydian mode and a Concerto gregoriano for violin, as well as, more famously, making the transcriptions of lute and keyboard pieces he published as three suites of Ancient Airs and Dances and as The Birds. He was one of the composers commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky to mark the BSO’s fiftieth season, for which occasion he produced his Metamorphoseon modi XII, introduced in Boston in November 1930. But what brought Respighi most of the fame and fortune he so thoroughly enjoyed was his trilogy of Roman symphonic poems (Fontane di Roma, Pini di Roma, and Feste romane): the Fountains of 1916, the Pines (above all) of 1924, and the Festivals of 1928-29. Each of these scores has a brief descriptive preface, given below.
Fountains of Rome
In this symphonic poem the composer has endeavored to give expression to the sentiments and vision suggested to him by four of Rome’s fountains, contemplated at the hour when their character is most in harmony with the surrounding landscape, or at which their beauty is most impressive to the observer.
The first part of the poem, inspired by the Fountain of Valle Giulia, depicts a pastoral landscape: droves of cattle pass and disappear in the fresh, damp mists of a Roman dawn.
A sudden loud and insistent blast of horns above the trills of the whole orchestra introduces the second part, the Triton Fountain. It is like a joyous call, summoning troops of naiads and tritons, who come running up, pursuing each other and mingling in a frenzied dance among the jets of water.
Next there appears a solemn theme borne on the undulations of the orchestra. It is the Fountain of Trevi at mid-day. The solemn theme, passing from the woodwind to the brass instruments, assumes a triumphal character. Trumpets peal: across the radiant surface of the water there passes Neptune’s chariot drawn by seahorses and followed by a train of sirens and tritons. The procession vanishes while faint trumpet blasts resound in the distance.
The fourth part, the Fountain at the Villa Medici, is announced by a sad theme which rises above a subdued warbling. It is the nostalgic hour of sunset. The air is full of the sound of tolling bells, the twittering of birds, the rustling of leaves. Then all dies peacefully into the silence of the night.