In 1830 Mikhail Glinka traveled from St. Petersburg to Milan and upon journeying home brought back to his native land the bel canto sensibilities of a new and refreshing music—a lyricism that charmingly affected Russian opera for almost one hundred years. At the turn of the next century, Ottorino Respighi returned the favor, leaving his Italy to play the viola in the Imperial Theatre Orchestra on the Baltic and study composition with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Returning eventually to run the Conservatorio di Santa Cecilia in Rome, Respighi imbued his music with his mentor’s kaleidoscopic sense of color and pinpoint accuracy of descriptive instrumentation. Although he was primarily a man of the theater, Respighi is best known for three orchestral poems, Roman Festivals, The Pines of Rome, and tonight’s essay, The Fountains of Rome.
The story of the 1917 world premiere of this piece is dripping with historical irony. Arturo Toscanini was set to conduct—of course, in Rome—but suddenly cancelled after he was booed off of the stage when he offered music from Wagner’s Götterdämmerung at a time when German forces were killing Italians in Padua. The actual first performance, without the charismatic leader who would come to be known as Italy’s most ardent anti-fascist, was a flop. Only several months later, in Milan, did Toscanini direct La Scala orchestra in a performance that skyrocketed the composer to prominence. Respighi, who had attended the original Roman debacle, opted to stay away from the Milan event.
The young man with the uncanny physical resemblance to Beethoven—he later politely declined an offer to portray the great composer in a film—created in Fountains a cinematic portrayal of his beloved homeland. Although his wife, singer-composer Elsa Olivieri-Sangiacomo, wrote that he had absolutist ideas when creating his tone poems, the music itself, and Respighi’s titles, showcase the programmatic.
The four snapshots of fountains are molded into a pseudosymphonic whole. “The Valle Giulia at Dawn” depicts a pastoral scene with a hint of Middle Eastern modality evoking the most ancient of music. Descending passages in the flutes remind one of cowbells. All is serene. Without pause, we are catapulted into the “Triton Fountain at Morn.” Horns awaken the water creatures, naiads splashing and spouting. This is the lupine world of Romulus and Remus. Quickly we arrive at the “Trevi at Midday.” Neptune in all of his glory is triumphantly driven in his chariot. Images flood the senses with the world of the earliest Roman civilization, sophisticated in its way but still in awe of the supernatural.
Finally, there is the “Villa Medici Fountain at Sunset” with its urbanity, artistry, holiness. The community of churches rings its bells for vespers. This quartet of aural vignettes captures so expertly that unsettling feeling of Rome, a disorientation wherein you never really know in what century you are living.
For Respighi, water is the lifeblood of history and the fountains are Rome’s circulatory system. Commenting on his effort, he described the marble monuments themselves as “the very voice of the city.”