• Ian Passmore

Music that doesn't suck, No. 35: Roman Festivals

As we say goodbye to a decidedly “meh” year (I’m just going to assume we can all agree on that), it’s also customary to celebrate the beginning of another, hopefully much better one. And I can’t think of a better piece with which to do that than Ottorino Respighi’s Feste Romane. Aside from being one of my very favorite pieces, it’s also one of the most shamelessly celebratory, raucous and, frankly, vulgar pieces in the repertoire…and an absolute masterclass in orchestration.

Feste Romane (“Roman Festivals”) was written in 1928, and is the third and final composition in Respighi’s Roman Trilogy; the other two are the more common Fountains of Rome (1916) and Pines of Rome (1924). Of the three, I would say Pines of Rome is the most popular, and is most easily recognized by its glorious finale, “The Pines of the Appian Way.”

The Roman Festivals consist of four movements: Circus Games, Jubilee, October Harvest, and the Epiphany. Rather than try to describe each of these in my own words, I offer this excellent program note by John Mangum, an Artistic Administrator with the New York Philharmonic…

"Respighi hurls us into the bloody world of an imperial Roman circus with a massive brass fanfare. The condemned martyrs enter to a somber march and intone their dolorous hymn as the beasts about to devour them growl hungrily. The crowd erupts, the fanfare returns, and the movement ends with the clangorous din of Nero’s Circus Maximus.

In 'The Jubilee,' medieval pilgrims make the long journey to Rome. The opening motif, marked 'doloroso e stanco' ('sad and tired'), captures the mood of the travelers. As the pilgrims see Rome in the distance, they sing a hymn of praise, played emphatically by the brass. Respighi uses the brass, the winds, and chimes and bells to capture the peals of church bells resounding through the city.

'October Festivals' captures the kind of celebrations that would have followed a successful harvest, including dancing, serenading, and hunting.

In the finale, Respighi portrays the teeming throng of people packed into the Piazza Navona, one of Rome’s central squares, on the night before Epiphany. The effect is cinematic, with Respighi giving us close-ups of the goings-on – raucous dancing, entertaining street performers, drunken revelry, an organ grinder, and so on. Gradually, the camera pulls back from the crowd as they unite in song before the final heady peroration.'"

I’ve chosen two great recordings for this week: a studio recording by the New York Philharmonic conducted by Leonard Bernstein, and a live performance by the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain conducted by Vasily Petrenko. Bernstein has always been a hit-or-miss figure for me, but he’s usually hard to beat when it comes to any repertoire that might be considered “over the top.” The youth orchestra performance is simply electrifying, and you can see the joy in their faces as they dig into this monstrously difficult piece with such aplomb.

Happy New Year, friends! :)

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