The first movement, Circuses (Circenses), depicts the ancient contest in which gladiators battled to the death, with the sound of trumpet fanfares. Strings and woodwinds suggest the plainchant of the first Christian martyrs which are heard against the snarls of the beasts against which they are pitted. The movement ends with violent orchestral chords, complete with organ pedal, as the martyrs succumb.
Next, the Jubilee (Giubileo), portrays the every-fiftieth-year festival in the Papal tradition (see Christian Jubilee). Pilgrims approaching Rome catch a breath-taking view from Mt. Mario, as church bells ring in the background.
The third movement, Harvest of October (L’Ottobrata), represents the harvest and hunt in Rome. The French horn solo celebrates the harvest as bells and a mandolin portray love serenades.
The final movement, Epiphany (La Befana), takes place in the Piazza Navona. Trumpets sound again and create a festive clamour of Roman songs and dances, including a barrel organ and a drunken reveler depicted by a solo tenor trombone.
Feste Romane is scored for the following large orchestra, including some unusual instruments intended to suggest music of earlier times:
- Woodwinds: 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, cor anglais, 2 clarinets in B-flat and A, piccolo clarinet in D, bass clarinet in B-flat and A, 2 bassoons, and contrabassoon
- Brass: 4 horns in F, 4 trumpets in B-flat and A, 2 tenor trombones, bass trombone, bass tuba and 3 Soprano buccine in B-flat1
- Percussion: timpani, bells, glockenspiel, cymbals, bass drumwith cymbals, field drum, snare drum, horse hooves, ratchet, sleigh bells, tambourine, tam-tam, triangle, high and low wood blocks, and xylophone
- Keyboard: piano (2 and 4 hands), and organ
- Strings: mandolin, 1st and 2nd violins, violas, violoncellos, and double basses
1 Respighi noted that the Buccine may be replaced by trumpets, a substitution which most modern orchestras make.
Arturo Toscanini and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra premiered the music in Carnegie Hall in 1929.Toscanini recorded it with the Philadelphia Orchestra in the Academy of Music in 1942 for RCA Victor. He recorded it again with the NBC Symphony Orchestra in Carnegie Hall in 1949, again for RCA. Both recordings were issued on LP and CD. Indeed, the 1949 performance pushed the very limits of the recording equipment of the time as Toscanini insisted the engineers capture all of the dynamics of the music, especially in Circuses and Epiphany.
The piece was first performed in Italy at the Augusteo in Rome on 17 March 1929, by the Orchestra of the Accademia di Santa Cecilia under Bernardino Molinari.
This work was transcribed (in the original key) for the United States Marine Band by Don Patterson in 2010. This transcription was recorded on the CD Feste, conducted by Michael J. Colburn.