Ottorino Respighi

1879 1936

Ottorino Respighi

Composer

Biography

Ottorino Respighi was an Italian composer born just before the turn of the 20th century. His best compositions are brilliantly orchestrated and full of fantastic colors, but his output is largely unbalanced and features a number of less desirable works. Despite this drawback, he reached a level of popularity in his lifetime that surpassed all Italian composers sincePuccini.

Respighi was born in Bologna, Italy in 1879. He was the son of a piano teacher and learned both piano and violin as a child. He later studied violin and viola at the Liceo Musicale in Bologna with Fererico Sarti and composition with Torchi, who peaked his interest in early music. Respighi was also influenced by the director of the Liceo Musicale, Martucci, a leading composer of non-operatic music. During the last year of his studies, he followed composition classes with Martucci.

Respighi worked primarily as an orchestral musician in the beginning of his career. In the early 1900s, he was an orchestral violist in Russia. There he also followed several very influential composition lessons withRimsky-Korsakov <>; these lessons shaped his orchestration methods. Respighi also briefly studied withBruch in Berlin, but this was an unsuccessful arrangement.

After returning to Bologna, he continued to earn his living playing in the orchestra, while gradually gaining local recognition as a composer. Respighi also worked as a transcriber of 17th and 18th century music in 1906, influencing, even more, his interest in early music.

Respighi’s first major success outside of Italy occurred in 1908 in Berlin, with his arrangement of Monteverdi’sLamento d’Arianna (1908). Influences from his time in Germany can be heard in his first full opera,Semirâma, which enjoyed immediate success, but was later long forgotten.

The beginning of both a long and successful friendship and working relationship with Chiarina Fino-Savio dates back to 1911, when she successfully premiered his cantata,Aretusa (1910-11). Respighi continued to write many songs for her.

Respighi taught intermittently at the Liceo Musicale in Bologna but was never offered a permanent teaching position, leading him to apply for jobs elsewhere. In 1913 he moved to Rome when he was appointed professor of composition at the Liceo Musicale di S Cecilia in Rome. He flourished as a teacher and even ended up marrying one of his students, Elsa Olivieri Sangiacomo, a composer and singer. She eventually replaced Chiarina Fino-Savio as the primary singer of his vocal works.

By 1913, Rome had blossomed into Italy’s greatest city for orchestral concerts, prompting Respighi to focus on orchestral works. This focus brought about the first symphonic poem of his Roman trilogy,Fontane di Roma (Fountains of Rome) (1915-16). This piece, while lacking immediate success, later became widely successful and secured Respighi’s finances and recognition. The work features virtuosic orchestration and is full of both lyricism and bombastic statements.Fontane die Roma, along with its sequels, Pini di Roma (Pines of Rome) (1924), andFeste Romane (Roman Festivals) (1928), are grand orchestral showpieces, of which Mussolini was fond. The series was partly inspired by Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier. The series marks an important turning point in Respighi’s creativity and style. Before his success with theFontane di Roma, Respighi first composedSinfonia drammatica (1914), which was rather disappointing. That same year, he also composedIl tramonto (1914), which has become one of his most commonly performed vocal works. The composition is a one movement cantata accompanied only by strings and is full of lyricism and “restrained dramatic expression.”

Between 1917 and 1919, Respighi was indecisive about his stylistic direction. HisViolin Sonata in B minor (1917) pays tribute to the composers from the time of Martrucci to Franck, and tends to be academic in nature. In the same year, he composed a relatively modern sounding song cycle,Deità silvane (1917). Two years later, hisBallata dello gnomidi (1919) featured controversial orchestral dissonance, rendering it unpopular; this work has only recently been rediscovered. Casella and his Società Italiana di Musica Moderna were active in these years, perhaps leading to the indecisiveness of Respighi.

Respighi’s next set of compositions are part of his ‘happy phase’ and consist of his successfulAntiche danze ed arie (1917) and his ballet La boutique fantasque (1918), which was also a major success. The Antiche danze ed arie  are very colorful and clear and pay tribute to early music, while hisLa boutique fantasquepays tribute to Rossini through the use of borrowed themes. This ballet seems to have also influencedStravinsky’s Pulcinella.

Some of his later pieces from this period include Gli uccelli (1928) which is loosely based on keyboard pieces depicting birds, from the Baroque era.

Though mostly remembered for his orchestral work, Respighi dabbled in opera composition on various occasions and even had several successes. In 1920 he was stimulated to pursue this genre after a meeting with the writer Claudio Guastalla, who became Respighi’s librettist. Respighi’s most popular opera,La fiamma(1931-3), was also his last large-scale opera.

Respighi was appointed director of the Conservatorio di S Cecilia in 1923, but resigned after only three years, as the administrative duties impeded on his creativity and time.

Respighi’s success allowed him to travel the world conducting his works. He was also favoured by the regime, though he remained relatively uninvolved in politics. Unlike his contemporaries, he didn’t find the need to write to the fascist leaders. Sachs stated 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.”

A manifesto from December 1932, which attacked the modern trends of music, was signed by Respighi and his colleagues Pizzetti and Zandonai, among others. The goal of this manifesto was to return music back to its “established Italian tradition.” This event solidified Respighi’s position as a conservative.

Respighi only lived to the age of 56. A heart murmur was discovered in 1931 which greatly weakened him; no more original compositions were composed after 1933. He died in Rome in April of 1936. His wife, who outlived him by nearly 60 years, wrote his biography and continued to fight for his recognition.

Done