I recently sent a friend in Michigan a short video clip of Piazza Venezia here in Rome, one of the city’s busiest places most of the day. In the early morning, though, before 8:30 am, it is a fairly tranquil thoroughfare and almost exudes an air of peace at an otherwise head-spinning cacophony of cars, taxis, buses, mopeds and pedestrians much of the day and night. Birds can be heard in the trees before the rush hours beginning at 8:30 am, and the atmosphere at dawn is also one of people and machines, though not very many, on the move.

On his way to school here recently, at the nearby Pontifical University of Saint Thomas, usually called the Angelicum, a monk friend from India did the nice thirty second video clip of Piazza Venezia at 8:00 am, described above, and caused my Michigan friend to write me: “I like the idea of seeing a peaceful street scene from Rome.” If this Michiganian only knew what transpires in Piazza Venetia beginning about 8:30 am, it could cause hairs to stand on end!

In addition to the comment above, the friend from Michigan wrote: ‘I am intrigued by the tall trees with trunk or branches and then at the very top, the leaves or greenery. They remind me of mushrooms.” These of course are umbrella pines, or most often simply called “The pines of Rome.”

All this brought me to listen again to the delightful piece of music by Ottorino Respighi, the Italian composer who lived from 1879 to 1936, called “Pines of Rome” (Italian title: Pini di Roma). Respighi called the piece a “Tone Poem,” and that is a fitting description of the work.

“Pines of Rome” is a four-movement orchestral piece that was completed in 1924. Its intent is to illustrate in music the famous Roman pine trees in four locations in the city at different times of the day. The piece is the second of Respighi’s trilogy of “Tone Poems,” and the most famous of the three. The first is called “Fountains of Rome,” completed in 1917, and the third, “Roman Festivals,” is from 1928.

Comprised of four movements, each about seven minutes long, the entire “Pines of Rome” lasts just under half an hour. To go with the score, Respighi wrote a short description of each of the four movements, which once you know, are easy to indentify when listening to the music. There are some excellent recordings of “Pines of Rome” on YouTube to which I invite you to listen.

The first movement of the work portrays children excitedly playing by the pine trees in Rome’s Villa Borghese gardens, very close to the Piazza del Flaminio and where I go to browse used books on outdoor stalls along a busy street.

In tranquil Villa Borghese itself, all is calm, and the music of Respighi is describing, he says, “youngsters twittering and shrieking like swallows.” Keep in mind that 1924 twittering is something quite different from 2017 twittering! The beautiful Villa and its grounds are a monument to the Borghese family who dominated the city of Rome in the early seventeenth century. Thankfully it is now a place open for public strolling and enjoyment; so too in Respighi’s time.

In the second movement of “Pines of Rome,” the mood changes as the entrance to a catacomb outside the city is being described. The majestic sweep of the music conjures up an abandoned chapel and the tall pine trees silhouetted against the sky. The music, for Gregorian chant fans like myself, is recognizably from Kyrie ad libitum 1, (Clemens Rector), as well as the Sanctus from Mass IX, (Cum jubilo), for Solemnities and Feasts of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The sounds of this movement rise and fall almost as if to heaven and then back into the depths of the subterranean catacombs, where early Christians, especially martyrs, were buried.

The third movement of “Pines of Rome” is set on the Janiculum hill. The idea is that a full moon is shining on pine trees where the temple of Janus once was. Janus was the double-faced Roman god of doors and gates as well as of the new year. If you listen closely you will hear recorded sounds of nightingales at the end of this movement, which was part of Respighi’s intent (he used a record player for the bird sounds), and it continues to be part of the orchestrating of the piece today, using twenty-first century technology for the chirping of birds.

The fourth and final movement of “Pines of Rome” takes place on the Appian Way, recalling the pines along the great military road leading into and out of Rome. In the misty dawn Roman troops are marching into the city after victory just as the sun begins to rise. Wishing the ground to tremble while this movement was being played, Respighi indicated that the organ play very low notes. Trumpets are also employed to signify triumph after battle.

Premiering in Rome on December 14th, 1924, “Pines of Rome” was first performed in the United States on January 14, 1926. The conductor that day was the famous Arturo Toscanini, directing his first concert with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Touchingly, Toscanini also performed “Pines of Rome” on his last performance with that orchestra in 1945. Interestingly, the composer Respighi conducted “Pines of Rome” for the first time in the United States with the Philadelphia Orchestra a day after Toscanini’s American premiere in New York.

Those of our friends who knew the late Sister Mary Joaquin Bitler, SC (Sister of Charity), a beloved and great friend of Christ in the Desert, should know that her father was a long-time orchestra member with Arturo Toscanini and I presume would have been part of those who premiered Respighi’s great ode to the legendary umbrella pines of Rome. Come and see them when you can.

As an aside, Ottorino Respighi obviously recognized the intrinsic value of Gregorian chant. In addition to his including it in “Pines of Rome,” he wrote a “Concerto Gregoriano,” completed in 1921, which premiered in Rome in 1922, two years before “Pines of Rome” premiered. “Concerto Gregoriano” also lasts about thirty minutes when performed.