Finally, I get to play in an orchestra concert. I have not played since Christmas because the winter concert didn't include horn parts. Darn that Bach anyway.
This Saturday evening we will perform Respighi's Pines of Rome among other things. We rehearsed Monday evening with a guest conductor because our regular conductor lives out of state and can't always make it to rehearsals. We were playing through portions of a contemporary symphony written for the composer's autistic son—the movement is entitled "Play," and it conjures up the almost frantic movements of any small boy who plays in his yard, running from attraction to attraction. There is a stretch where the strings have eighth notes underneath everything going on, and the conductor stopped and pointed out that little boys have constant running eighth notes in their systems. What a picture. Of course they do. Sometimes little girls do, too, but this piece is specifically about a boy. I kept that picture in my head for the rest of the movement.
On to Pines of Rome, though, which is certainly not about a little boy playing in the grass with sunshine and bugs to chase. Well, actually, it does begin that way. The first movement is about kids playing in the pine groves of the Borghese gardens. They would have no idea of the history under their running eighth-note feet, so they can play without a care in the world.
The next movement is much darker with reference to the pines near a catacomb. There is no running there, and probably no kids. If there were, they'd be scared out of their socks. That one is followed by a nocturne with a nod to the pines near the temple of the Roman god, Janus. He has two faces, and he opens the doors to the new year, which is why we call the first month of the year January. There might be running there, and there might be children especially since Janus was the god of beginnings.
The final movement, beyond being what would undo even the stoutest horn player with its long and loud and high notes, is completely different. It's a tribute to the pines of the Appian Way, with triumphant soldiers marching along the road—that would be the horns. There would definitely not be kids trailing along behind. This isn't a parade, for Pete's sake. It's war. And it's the defeat of Spartacus and his slave revolt, and it's the crucifixion of over 6,000 slaves whose crosses lined the Roman road until their bodies rotted and were eaten by crows.
Having all these images in my head when I play—happy children or mysterious catacombs or thousands of crucified bodies in tatters—really does help to set the mood, although not always a mood I enjoy. I suppose you should be able to figure all that out from the dynamics and various cues written into the music, but having word pictures in my head makes it that much clearer. It's like using all the senses instead of just a couple of them to discover the world around you. You can't just eat the apple—you have to smell it, too, and hear the crisp bite and feel the juice running down your fingers and see the colors.
I like the idea of playing a picture of kids having fun. I like playing a picture of catacombs and Roman gods. But I would like to imagine something other than 6,000 crucified slaves to finish this thing. Why couldn't the Romans have done something else to prove their point? Why couldn't they have erected a bunch of pretty flags with their national colors or hung portraits of their emperors instead? I could just as easily play that story as I can the more gruesome one. And kids could run around willy nilly to it without looking like blood-thirsty barbarians.