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Length: c. 25 minutes
Composed: 1926-1928
Orchestration: 3 flutes (3rd = piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, E-flat clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 4 trumpets (+ 3 buccine), 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum with cymbal, chimes, cymbals, military drum, orchestra bells, ratchet, snare drum, sleighbells, tam-tam, tambourine, triangle, woodblocks [high and low], and xylophone), piano (4-hands), organ, mandolin, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: July 23, 1929, Eugene Goossens conducting

Roman Festivals fits squarely into the category of “program music.” With The Fountains of Rome and The Pines of Rome, it comprises Respighi’s Roman Triptych, a cycle that, along with his three suites of Ancient Airs and Dances, keeps his name before the public, although recent recordings have delved into less familiar corners of his output with frequently rewarding results.

Respighi settled in Rome in 1913 when he took up an appointment as professor of composition at the Santa Cecilia academy, the city’s famous conservatory. He met and married his wife there – she was one of his students – and the vibrant concert life in Rome spurred Respighi to action.

Unlike The Fountains of Rome, the opening of Roman Festivals is anything but gentle. 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. The work is like a soundtrack without a film – Respighi composed it during the first golden age of film (Fritz Lang’s Metropolis came out in 1926, the first “talkie” in 1927, and Carl Theodore Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc in 1928) – and, like all great program music, it lets the mind create the imagery.

John Mangum is Artistic Administrator for the New York Philharmonic.