Ottorino Respighi

From New World Encyclopedia

Ottorino Respighi (Bologna, July 9, 1879 – Rome, April 18, 1936) was an Italian composer, musicologist, pianist, violist and violinist. He is best known for his Roman trilogy and the three suites of Ancient Airs and Dances.

A number of Respighi's most popular works draw from Biblical narratives and incorporate Ecclesiastical modality and Gregorian Chant into the compositional language (e.g., Pini di Roma, Vetrate di Chiesa, Three Botticelli Pictures). His passion for ancient Italian music led to an interest in musicology. This exploration of Italian music of earlier eras became the inspiration for several other popular compositions including the Suites of Ancient Airs and Dances.

By working in a conventional tonal context at a time where the experimentalism and revolutionary methods of the avant-garde were increasingly prevalent, Respighi was merely continuing his personal artistic quest to create music that he hoped would speak to the heart and soul of humankind in the hopes of achieving conditions conducive to community and peace.


Respighi was born in Bologna, Italy. His father was a local piano teacher, who taught Ottorino piano and violin. He continued studying violin and viola with Federico Sarti at the Liceo Musicale in Bologna, composition with Giuseppe Martucci, and historical studies with the early music scholar Luigi Torchi. In 1900, Respighi went to Russia as first violist in the orchestra of the Russian Imperial Theatre in St. Petersburg during its season of Italian opera; while there he studied composition for five months with Rimsky-Korsakov. He also had composition lessons with Max Bruch in 1902 in Berlin. Until 1908 his principal activity was as first violinist in the Mugellini Quintet, before turning his attention entirely to composition.

Respighi moved to Rome in 1913 and lived there for the rest of his life, after being appointed Professor of Composition at the Conservatorio di Santa Cecilia. He married a former pupil, singer Elsa Olivieri-Sangiacomo, in 1919. From 1923 to 1926 he was director of the Conservatorio. In 1925 he collaborated with Luciani on an elementary textbook entitled Orpheus.

Respighi maintained an uneasy relationship with Mussolini's Fascist Party during his later years. He vouched for more outspoken critics such as Arturo Toscanini, allowing them to continue to work under the regime.[1] Feste Romane, the third part of his Roman trilogy, could be seen as a response to the regime's demands to glorify Italy under the Fascists; however, as with much of the work of Shostakovich, the "celebration" is ambiguous, if not satirical. This spectacular, sometimes showy, work was premiered by Toscanini and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in 1929; Toscanini recorded the music twice for RCA Victor, first with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1942 and then with the NBC Symphony Orchestra in 1949, and RCA released both versions, first on LP and then CD.

Respighi was also a musicologist, a devoted scholar of Italian music of the sixteenth–eighteenth centuries. He published editions of the music of Claudio Monteverdi and Antonio Vivaldi, and of Benedetto Marcello's Didone. Because of his devotion to these older figures and their styles of composing, it is tempting to see him as a typical exponent of Neo-classicism. In fact, Neo-Renaissance or Neo-Baroque would probably more accurately describe his compositions that are based on earlier work. Respighi generally kept clear of the musical idiom of the classical period, unlike most neo-classical composers. He preferred combining pre-classical melodic styles and musical forms (like dance suites) with typical late nineteenth-century romantic harmonies and textures.

He died in his Roman villa named "I Pini." A year after his burial, his remains were moved to his birthplace Bologna and reinterred at the city's expense.

A symphonic poet

In ascribing general descriptions to music of the Western classical canon there are two basic categories in which most symphonic music exists—absolute music, which has no extra-musical meaning, and program music, which is based on a distinct program or narrative. In the second half of the nineteenth century European composers increasingly looked to literary and folkloric sources as inspiration for their works. Robert Schumann (1810–1856) was one of the first composers of the Romantic era to look to literature as an inspirational source. This practice led to the development of the "symphonic poem" (also known as tone poem) in which a very definite program was to be presented though the medium of music. Franz Liszt, Antonin Dvorak, and Richard Strauss were among the greatest tone poets.

Ottorino Respighi became the most popular Italian composer of the early twentieth century due primarily to the composition of his trilogy of Symphonic Poems depicting scenes in ancient and modern Italy. These three works, Fontana di Roma, Pini di Roma, and Festa Romanae are among the finest examples of the symphonic poem genre. All three works are four-movement works in which each movement segues to the next and are brilliantly scored for the large, modern symphony orchestra. Another of his programmatic works, Vetrate di Chiesa, also follows the same four-movement structure.

These works display a mastery of orchestration and narrative poetics. Resipghi's use of Ecclesiastical modes and Gregorian Chant contribute to the overall effectiveness of their ability to evoke the spirit and characteristics of ancient and modern Rome. In Pini di Roma the composer utilizes a recording of birdsong (in this case a nightingale) to evoke an atmosphere of nature (which enticed a great deal of booing and hissing at the work's premiere).

Respighi has been characterized as a musical "counter-revolutionary" for maintaining a distinctly traditional style at a time when the "emancipation of dissonance" as advocated by composers of the Second Viennese School (Schoenberg, Berg, Webern) was beginning to shape the compositional landscape of post–WW I Europe. He actually signed a "manifesto" along with other prominent Italian composers of the time to denounce what he viewed as being a decidedly inhumane way of composing.


He was a gifted tone poet and his symphonic poems, especially his Roman Trilogy, remain among the finest examples of pictoral composition. His mastery of orchestration places him in the august company of the greatest of orchestrators of the post-Wagner era, including Richard Strauss, Gustav Mahler, Maurice Ravel, and Rimsky-Korsakov, Respighi's mentor.

Selected works

Respighi's compositions include:

  • For piano:
    • Concerto in the Mixolydian Mode (1925)
    • Toccata for Piano and Orchestra
  • His best known symphonic poems, which now belong to the standard orchestral repertoire:
    • The Roman trilogy (three symphonic poems with a Roman theme)
      • Fontane di Roma (Fountains of Rome) (1915–1916)
      • Pini di Roma (Pines of Rome) (1923–1924)
      • Feste Romane (Roman Festivals) (1928)
    • Brazilian Impressions (1928)
  • Nine operas, which are only occasionally revived:
    • Re Enzo (1905)
    • Semirâma (1909)
    • Marie Victoire (completed in 1913, but not produced until 2004)
    • La bella dormente nel bosco (1922)
    • Belfagor (1923)
    • La campana sommersa (1927)
    • Maria Egiziaca (1932)
    • La fiamma (1934)
    • Lucrezia (1937) (completed posthumously by his wife, Elsa)
  • One choral work is occasionally performed: Lauda per la Natività del Signore (Laud to the Nativity) (1930), a cantata for three soloists (soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor), chorus (including substantial sections for 8-part mixed chorus and TTBB male chorus), and chamber ensemble (woodwinds and piano).
  • His most popular works involving older sources:
    • The Ancient Airs and Dances Suite No. 1 of 1917 is an orchestral piece based on Renaissance lute pieces by Simone Molinaro, Vincenzo Galilei (father of Galileo Galilei), and additional anonymous composers.
    • In 1918 Sergei Diaghilev commissioned a ballet from Respighi, who then wrote La Boutique Fantasque, which borrows tunes from the nineteenth-century composer Rossini. This had its premiere in London on June 5, 1919.
    • Respighi's Ancient Airs and Dances Suite No. 2 of 1924 is based on pieces for lute, archlute, and viol by Fabrizio Caroso, Jean-Baptiste Besard, Bernardo Gianoncelli, and an anonymous composer, plus Antoine Boësset's famous song "Divine Amaryllis." It also interpolates an aria attributed to Marin Mersenne.
    • In 1925, Respighi orchestrated and expanded his Tre Preludi e sopra gregoriane for piano and created Vetrate di chiesa (Church Windows).
    • Following the success of this suite, Respighi wrote Gli Uccelli ("The Birds") in 1927, based on Baroque pieces imitating birds.
    • In 1930, he wrote a ballet suite, Belkis, regina di Saba, which was his last work for ballet.
    • Then in 1932, he wrote Ancient Airs and Dances Suite No. 3, which differs from the previous two suites in that it is arranged for strings only and is somewhat melancholy in overall mood. It is based on lute songs by Besard, a piece for baroque guitar by Lodovico Roncalli, and lute pieces by Santino Garsi da Parma and additional anonymous composers.

Selected recordings

Note: The Roman Trilogy is one of the most ubiquitous works in the catalogue, and has been recorded by all the major world ensembles under many prominent conductors. The recording of the first two with Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is one of the most respected in the catalogue and features prominently in recommended listings in such publications as the Good CD Guide and the Penguin Guide to CDs.

  • I Pini di Roma/Fontane di Roma - Chicago Symphony Orchestra/ Fritz Reiner, RCA (on JVC in Japan)
  • I Pini di Roma/Feste Romane/Fontane di Roma - Montreal Symphony Orchestra/ Charles Dutoit, Decca Records
  • I Pini di Roma/Feste Romane/Fontane di Roma - NBC Symphony Orchestra/ Arturo Toscanini, RCA
  • Brazilian Impressions/Metamorphoseon - Philharmonia Orchestra/ Geoffrey Simon, Chandos Records
  • Ancient Airs and Dances I-III (Antiche Aire e Danze) - Philharmonia Hungarica/ Antal Dorati, Mercury Records
  • I Pini di Roma/Fontane di Roma/The Birds (Gli Uccelli) - London Symphony Orchestra/ István Kertész, Decca Records
  • Church Windows (Vetrate di Chiesa) - Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra/ Jesus Lopez-Cobos, Telarc
  • Three Botticelli Pictures (Trittico Botticelliano)/The Birds - Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra/ Sir Neville Marriner, EMI
  • Belkis, Queen of Sheba - Suite / Metamorphoseon - Theme & Variations - Philharmonia Orchestra/ Geoffrey Simon, Chandos Records
  • Suite in G for Organ and Strings - Robert Boughen/ Queensland Symphony Orchestra/ Vanco Cavdarski, ABC Classics


  1. Liner notes from RCA Toscanini Edition CD Vol 32 (1990)

Biographical sources

  • Respighi, Elsa. 1955. Fifty Years of a Life in Music.
  • Respighi, Elsa. 1962. Ottorino Respighi. London: Ricordi.
  • Nupen, Christopher (director). 1983. Ottorino Respighi: A Dream of Italy. Allegro Films.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Barrow, Lee G. 2004. Ottorino Respighi (1879–1936), an annotated bibliography. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press. ISBN 0-810-85140-7
  • Fontana, Mary Dawn. 2000. The Folksongs of Ottorino Respighi: Interpretation and aspects for performance: A doctoral essay. Coral Gables, FL: University of Miami. OCLC 47205992
  • Respighi, Elsa. 1962. Ottorino Respighi: His life story. London: Ricordi. OCLC 2059688

External links

All links retrieved November 18, 2022.


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