Subtitled "Four Impressions," this work evokes in resplendent orchestration and with great dramatic power various religious events depicted in the stained glass windows of Italian churches. "The Flight into Egypt" depicts the caravan containing the Christ child; "St. Michael Archangel" is shown driving rebellious angels out of heaven with a flaming sword; "The Matin of St. Claire" is inspired by the legend of a thirteenth century saint transported miraculously to a little Italian church to take part in the Matin service; "St. Gregory the Great" portrays Pope Gregory (590-604) blessing the congregation at a ceremonial service.
These are no mere guidebook illustrations, and the work cannot in any strict sense be called program music. In fact the music was originally adapted from a three-part piano suite called Preludes on Gregorian Themes, written with no pictorial intent whatever. They were named by Respighi's wife and friends at a dinner when they heard him play the pieces for the first time and made up titles for them. After the church windows idea took hold, Respighi orchestrated them and added a fourth movement. But of course orchestration is everything with Respighi, and the score has the feeling of transparency and subtle coloration appropriate to its title. It becomes as evocative as The Fountains of Rome and The Pines of Rome.
"The Flight to Egypt" has a reverent, modal feeling, and St. Michael sets on the naughty angels with exemplary vigor. "The Matin of St. Claire" is, perhaps, the most evocative of the set -- a tender pastorale with finely touched-in woodwind tints. In "St. Gregory the Great," Respighi unleashes his full orchestral forces, including an organ, to convey the pomp and grandeur of the papal setting. The splendor is almost visible. Bells of various pitches sound through the orchestra, and the wide difference in compass between lowest pedal notes of the organ and the high brasses contribute to the grandest of grand finales. Provided the listener is willing to surrender to the composer's vision, this music can be overwhelming. Otherwise -- dare it be said? -- it can sound a little over the top.