Serenity in nature: Respighi

Many listen to Classical music because of its capacity to relax and intrigue the listener. This is certainly the case in Pines of the Janiculum, the third movement from Pines of Rome by Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936). Janiculum Hill is a landmark in western Rome that has some historical and mythological significance. Click the link to read about it on Wikipedia.

Pines of Rome is four programmatic movements – there is a story in each. The scenes take place in a village with children playing, in dark catacombs, climbing a mountain, and on a hill at night overlooking a beautiful city with nightingales chirping in the background, which is the case for this movement. Each movement depicts the great diversity pine trees around the city of Rome.

Pines of the Janiculum begins and ends with beautiful, extended clarinet solos. This excerpt from the first solo is incredibly sentimental. It brings to mind all that is beautiful, sweet, peaceful, good, warm, and right in the world. The character of it is also playful and not too serious, but one of great contentment. The soft dynamic, warm-sounding string chords, and the beautiful tone quality of the clarinet help bring these sentiments about.

This next clip is simply breath-taking. The orchestra seems to sigh, as though it is taking in a beautiful view of nature for the first time. Though I have probably heard it a thousand times, I am often moved to tears by this section. The harmony is mysterious and beautiful. As it gets louder, the chord progression moves in a direction that is a surprise, which helps draw in the listener. The effect is always deeper relaxation.

To people who say they don’t like Classical music I would say listen to all four movements of Pines of Rome. Respighi speaks to the human experience in this piece in a tangible way.

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Fear of Oppression: Shostakovich

The music of Dimitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) is extremely emotional given the context in which it was composed. Shostakovich lived in Russia under the tyrannical reign of Joseph Stalin until Stalin’s death in 1953. He was constantly under threat of imprisonment or death if his music didn’t align with the Communist propaganda. In fact, after World War II ended, many of the Russian bourgeoisie were rounded up and imprisoned and eventually executed. Many Russian composers faced this and many works were censured. Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 9, which commemorated the victory, was deemed inappropriate and didn’t support state values, so it was censured by Stalin.

Shostakovich didn’t write another symphony for 7 years. Finally, after Stalin’s death in 1953, he premiered his 10th symphony. It is widely believed that the second movement of this piece was a portrait of Stalin. After all, the man was responsible for more than 20 million deaths of his own people by starvation, execution, imprisonment, and exile.

This movement has a biting, sinister character. The clip above is the opening of Symphony No. 10, Mvt 2. The oboe melody that is transferred to viola is in a minor key at a fast tempo, invoking aggression. This next clip has the same melody in augmentation, meaning the melody is played much slower. Because it is played by the trombones and tuba, it sounds even more oppressive. In this clip, I imagine the low brass representing state police rounding up peasants, bourgeoisie, or religious leaders (represented by the high strings and woodwinds) and shooting them on site or loading them into trains to be exiled to Siberia. Shostakovich’s music accurately captures the emotions of the Russian people who lived under the terror of Stalin.

Thanks for reading my posts on this week’s emotion: fear & anxiety. Next week: serene contentment.