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Ottorino Respighi’s Roman Festivals: The Italian Composer’s Daring Travelogue

Published by Jerome Languell

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Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936) had an innate flair for the dramatic in his music that made his brand recognizable. His orchestrations and his concepts were neither economical nor subtle, but make no mistake: The man could seriously assemble some tone colors.

Respighi wrote in unashamedly and defiantly Romantic terms, and his orchestral palette lent itself to thrilling programmatic journeys. He is most famous, and justly so, for the picturesque vistas he brings to mind from the city of Rome: The Fountains of Rome (1915-16), The Pines of Rome (1923-24), and finally, his audacious Feste romane, or Roman Festivals (1928).

The year 2009 commemorates the 80th anniversary of the premiere of Roman Festivals, with Arturo Toscanini leading the New York Philharmonic on February 21, 1929. This, to be honest, is classical music in overdrive. And that’s readily apparent from the first note.

“Circus Maximus,” “The Jubilee,” “The October Festival” and “The Epiphany”

Played without pause, the first movement, “Circus Maximus,” is everything the subtitle implies: Trumpet fanfares blast away, tasty horn parts dance around the trumpets and forte-piano chords in the entire orchestra do nothing to quell this fiery opening salvo. These spectacular effects probably stretched the bounds of good taste for Philharmonic patrons of the 1920s, but that’s no issue anymore. Respighi ratchets it up with uncontainable panache.

The composer provided the following notes on this episode: “The iron doors are unlocked, the strains of a religious song and the howling of wild beasts float on the air.” As if the listener doesn’t get the picture yet that this is a kitchen-sink composition of the highest and most glorious order, Respighi unexpectedly pits an organ on a sustained chord against stentorian orchestra hits as the movement ends.

Excitement abates in the second movement, “The Jubilee,” with oscillating strings and a new woodwind melody. Respighi’s goal was to portray pilgrims plodding through a worn road, praying along the way until they finally see Rome. At this instant, the music erupts in C major, bathed in timpani and bells.

More horns announce “The October Festival,” the third movement that contains a cinematic violin melody completely in step with a Respighi orchestral statement. A seductive mandolin solo captures the city as colorfully as would a Joaquin Rodrigo guitar concerto in Spain.

And then there’s “The Epiphany,” a finale of exceptional musical pyrotechnics. Whirling woodwinds and fluttering trumpets open the door to thunderous syncopations and a full battery of percussion. The closing moments defy fair illustration – it’s a treasure trove that can’t possibly be spoiled.

Respighi and Drum Corps Shows

The music begs for drum corps arrangements, and it’s no wonder why Roman Festivals shows up on the football field. In fact, the drum & bugle corps Star of Indiana performed “Circus Maximus” and “The Epiphany,” along with “Pines of the Villa Borghese” from The Pines of Rome, in their 1991 season. The show won the corps its only Drum Corps International world championship to date.

The finals of the DCI championships are tomorrow, coincidentally in Indianapolis. Perhaps in future years, Respighi will make a victorious return.

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