The nightingale song that ruffled feathers in ‘Pines of Rome’

Composers often use the orchestra like a giant paintbrush, splashing colors across an imaginary canvas, evoking ideas and images through a bundle of instruments.

Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto and Respighi’s Pines of Rome ─ all on TFO’s season-opening Masterworks program Sept. 28-30 ─ are broad brushstrokes. They suggest something intangible. They aren’t meant to be literal.

Except for the nightingale.

Yes, the bird that flutters into the Pines of the Janiculum, the third section of Respighi’s 23-minute tone poem, is really a bird. Well, a recording of a bird anyway. It’s the very same recording, supplied by the publisher, that has accompanied the piece since its premiere in 1924. Some think Respighi recorded it himself.

In concerts, the percussion section triggers the nightingale song and it resonates through the hall’s speaker system, often catching listeners by surprise. People look around and wonder “is there a bird flying around in here?’’

The nightingale has been amusing and confounding people ever since the debut, when Pines of Rome became the first orchestral piece to incorporate electronic sounds.  It sparked a controversy that simmered into the 1950s, when academic musicians began fusing chamber and orchestral music with electronic techniques.

Why did Respighi choose a recorded bird song rather than suggest it through a woodwind, such as a flute or piccolo? Even the ethereal clarinet solo preceding the nightingale could have done the job with aplomb, as Respighi was a gifted orchestrator – comparable to Ravel and Rimsky-Korsakov – and adept in eliciting an emotional response from his music. So, why put down the brush?

Reactions have varied, and one prominent scholar cites political influences. Richard Taruskin, author of The Oxford History of Western Music, sees the nightingale as a symbol of precision designed to “coerce the listener’s imagination.’’ The recording cuts through the abstract tapestry of the orchestra like a razor, jarring any sense of what is real and what isn’t. This view, which seems a bit far-fetched today, needs to be framed by Mussolini’s Italy of the mid-1920s.

“It has been suggested that both the recourse to what in 1924 was ‘high technology’ and the extreme resort to realism,’’ Taruskin writes, “were indicative of a Fascist mentality.’’

Technology, more likely, encouraged Respighi to try something fresh. Phonographs like the Brunswick Panatrope used in Pines of Rome were about to revolutionize the music industry. Armed with this new “instrument,’’ Respighi had another paint brush, one that might even replace a few old ones.

“I simply realized that no combination of wind instruments,’’ Respighi once said, “could quite counterfeit the real bird’s song.”

Quarter note: Pines of Rome was on TFO’s very first program in 1968, when it was known as the Florida Gulf Coast Symphony, under the baton of Irwin Hoffman. “That was 50 years ago, so I wanted the Respighi to start this season,’’ said Music Director Michael Francis. “It’s the most glorious technicolor music, and with a thrilling ending.’’

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Tampa Bay Times Masterworks
Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5

If you only know the beginning – da da da dumm – wait until you hear the rest, conducted by Michael Francis. Valentina Lisitsa returns for Rachmaninoff’s swoon-worthy Piano Concerto No. 2. Respighi’s Pines of Rome is a wondrous ode to nature and the historic city.

Free tickets for kids and teens in advance.

Fri, Sept 28, 8 pm, Straz Center
Sat, Sept 29, 8 pm, Mahaffey Theater,
Sun, Sept 30, 7:30 pm, Ruth Eckerd Hall

Click here for tickets

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