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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

On the Fringe: Respighi

We have another composer focus in today’s post, a composer who is very much “on the fringe” in the general musical firmament, but one who wrote some fascinating music in the late Romantic tradition. A few of his pieces are very well-known, a great many others are rarely heard today. His name is Ottorino Respighi.

This is probably his best known piece: [listen]

The original music on which this piece is based was published in 1650 but Respighi's arrangement for modern orchestra is one of his best-known works. Early music features a lot in this composer’s output but it was just one of the inspirations which led to his highly colourful and individual compositions.

Ottorino Respighi was born in Bologna on 9 July 1879. He was the son of a piano teacher and his own initial studies in violin, viola and piano at the Liceo Musicale in Bologna (now known as the Conservatorio Giovanni Battista Martini) were soon supplemented by training in composition. His early teacher, Luigi Torchi, was a famous musicologist and it was he who brought early music to the attention of Respighi. Another important influence on the young Respighi was the director of the Liceo Musicale, Giuseppe Martucci. Martucci was a composer and conductor, a leading and revered figure in Bologna’s musical life. He also taught Respighi composition in his final year and had a high opinion of his student’s abilities.

Tivoli: Luigi Torchi (c. 1914)
Giuseppe Martucci

Respighi’s early works are largely unknown to all but a few enthusiasts, but they have started to appear on recordings in recent years. Among them is an astounding Biblical cantata called Christus which was written as a composition assignment when Respighi was 19. It was never performed in the composer’s lifetime but considering he'd only written a few small works before this, it’s a fascinating indicator of his later facility in handling large forces. [listen]

In the early years of the 20th century, Respighi worked casually in Russia as an orchestral violist. During this time he had a few composition lessons with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, lessons which the young Italian regarded as very important in his development as a composer, especially with regard to his orchestration skills. He also had a few lessons with Max Bruch in Berlin in 1902 but these seem to have been of little consequence. 1902 was also the year in which Respighi wrote a piano concerto. [listen]

Ottorino Respighi (c. 1902)

Living back in Bologna from 1903 he continued to work as an orchestral player but started making arrangements of music by Monteverdi and other 17th and 18th century composers at a time when such music was almost totally unknown. In 1903 he completed the second version of a suite in E major (which he’d originally considered calling a symphony). This piece not only reflects the lessons Respighi had learned from Rimsky-Korsakov, but also shows the influence of Tchaikovsky, who wrote orchestral suites of this nature. [listen]

A number of Respighi’s works in this early period build on the foundations of his study of earlier composers. The Suite in G for organ and strings completed in 1905 [listen] makes clear reference to Bach and Corelli, while the Concerto all’antica of 1908 [listen] also makes its 18th century inspirations very clear.

In 1910 Respighi’s first opera, Semirâma, was premiered in Bologna to great acclaim, but it has been almost totally neglected ever since. It has been recorded, though:

act 1 [listen]

act 2 [listen]

act 3 [listen]

Also in 1910 he became marginally and briefly involved with an anti-establishment lobby group known as the “League of Five”. Respighi was not really attracted by radical theories of art in general or music in particular, though, and these sorts of involvements don’t feature much at all in his life.

Taking the Baroque solo cantata as a formal inspiration, Respighi produced Aretusa in 1911. This is scored for mezzo soprano and orchestra and he regarded it as more “his” than anything he had composed previously. It’s based on Shelley’s Arethusa, and the water-inspired writing is a definite precursor to the composer's later Fountains of Rome. [listen]

From 1913 Respighi was living in Rome. Having been disappointed at not securing a permanent teaching post in Bologna, he was appointed professor of composition in Rome at the Liceo Musicale di Santa Cecilia. The testimonies of several of his pupils reveal that Respighi had a real flair for teaching.

Rome’s concert life immediately before the first world war was vibrant. It was here in 1914 that Respighi wrote perhaps the best-known of his solo cantatas, Il tramonto (The Sunset) for the same singer who had premiered Aretusa. [listen]

In 1916 he completed his first major work which is still regularly heard today, Fountains of Rome. Booed and hissed at its premiere under the baton of Antonio Guarneri in 1917, Fountains of Rome was a huge success when it was conducted by Arturo Toscanini the following year, and it has been a favourite of audiences ever since. This is the third section, a depiction of the famous Trevi fountain at midday. [listen]

The success of Fountains of Rome confirmed Respighi’s reputation and provided a much-needed boost to his finances. Around the end of the war he seemed to be wavering between following a purely Romantic path and experimenting with more modern, freer approaches to harmony. The former is evident in his B minor violin sonata, completed in 1917. [listen] His flirtation with more modern styles can be heard in the song cycle Deità silvane (Gods of the Woods), also composed in 1917. [listen]

TIt was the more conservative modes of expression which won out, whether in Romantic styles, or in the area of reinterpreting early music. 1917 also saw the production of the first suite of Ancient Airs and Dances, in which Respighi made free arrangements for orchestra of 16th century pieces. This proved immensely popular, not least because of Respighi’s crisp and clear orchestration. [listen]

One of Respighi’s students in Rome was the composer and singer Elsa Olivieri Sangiacomo. In January 1919 teacher and pupil married and she was, according to Grove’s Dictionary, “the inseparable mainstay of many aspects of his existence for the remainder of his relatively short life”. Elsa survived her husband by nearly 60 years, wrote his biography, and worked tirelessly to promote his music and posthumous reputation. She died in 1996, one week short of her 102nd birthday.

Elsa Respighi

In the 1920s Respighi produced some of his most famous and enduring works. After the success of Fountains of Rome came Pines of Rome, completed in 1924. This, and Roman Festivals (composed in 1928), were clearly designed as sequels to the earlier work, and they are extraordinarily spectacular. The latter two works were also much admired by Mussolini, a fact which has led to Respighi being criticised for pandering to Fascism. The facts seem to indicate, though, that Respighi remained uninvolved with politics, unlike many of his contemporaries. Many Italian artistic figures of the time wrote ingratiating and flattering letters to Fascist leaders. Respighi’s few surviving letters of this nature are described in the Grove article on the composer as being “simple and relatively innocuous”. Harvey Sachs has suggested that “Respighi did not attempt to ingratiate himself with the regime because he was the one composer of his generation whom the regime backed without being asked.” In relation to a much-better known example, the possible (but unproven) connections between Carl Orff and the Nazi party have never caused his music to be tainted in the public eye, despite the enormous popularity of Carmina Burana in Nazi Germany after its premiere in 1937.

Respighi’s supposed fascist sympathies are especially mentioned in connection with the portrayal of the ancient Roman legions on the Appian Way at the end of Pines of Rome, but it really is unlikely that Respighi had any political intentions in writing this music. That Mussolini saw more in it is not the composer’s fault. [listen]

Via Appia (Appian Way) near Casal Rotondo

Between Pines of Rome and Roman Festivals came a number of smaller-scale works, perhaps the most exquisite of which is the Botticelli Tryptich of 1927. Scored for small orchestra, this work takes three paintings of Botticelli which hang in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence as its starting point, and each movement displays Respighi’s intimate knowledge of early music. To my mind, it’s one of the composer’s true masterpieces. The middle movement is inspired by Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi, and uses the ancient hymn tune Veni, veni emmanuel (O come, O come Emmanuel) to evoke not only older times but a feeling of radiant wonder. [listen]

Botticelli: Adoration of the Magi (1475/76)

During his later years Respighi travelled widely, visiting the United States and South America. A trip to Brazil in 1927 turned out to be a total joy for the composer. On his return to Italy he wrote a three-movement orchestral suite called Brazilian Impressions; he returned to Brazil in 1928 to conduct its premiere in Rio de Janeiro. One writer has noted that Respighi wrote this piece at the same time as Gershwin was writing his impressions of the French capital. An American in Paris was exactly contemporary with these musical reflections of an Italian in Brazil. [listen]

Ottorino and Elsa Respighi (1920s)

An important part of Respighi’s compositional output almost entirely unknown today is that comprising his theatre works: eleven operas and eleven ballets. Of the latter, only the light-weight La boutique fantasque is really known much at all, and even then the music is not originally Respighi’s but rather his arrangement and orchestration of music by Rossini. [listen]

In 1931 Respighi completed his final ballet, Belkis, Queen of Sheba, probably his most lavish and exotic work. The final “Orgiastic Dance” is contained in the orchestral suite from this full-length score. Total abandon and excess are portrayed on stage in the presence of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, who appear near the end seated on thrones of gold. [listen]

Among the operas, the last large-scale work Respighi completed himself was La fiamma, a grand opera set in 7th century Ravenna. The subject of hysterical witchcraft trials in a Byzantine setting drew from the composer a hugely dramatic and colourful score which was an enormous success at its premiere in Rome in 1934. The opening of third act will give a taste of this rarely-heard work. [listen]

By the time Respighi was at work on La fiamma he had been diagnosed with a serious heart condition and this worsened considerably by 1935. He died in Rome on 18 April 1936 at the age of 56, leaving a large and impressive body of work which is only recently starting to be considered on its merits. Beyond the better-known pieces, there are hidden treasures which await discovery by the general public, not to mention performing arts organisations.

Ottorino Respighi (1935)

I'll conclude with Respighi’s last orchestral work, the Concerto a cinque, for oboe, trumpet, violin, double bass, piano and strings. This dates from 1933, and is his take on the Baroque concerto grosso. After its premiere in Rome in May 1933 it was immensely popular, receiving performances in Europe, North America and South America. In recent years it has been rediscovered, and rightly so. [listen]

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in September, 2007.

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