If you ask people to list some well-known composers, Respighi isn't a name likely to be on anyone's list. Yet this Italian composer, whose life spanned the Romantic and Modernist eras of classical music, has been described as having an "undeniable brilliance as an orchestrator, his ability to conjure a kaleidoscopic range of crowd-pleasing colors and impressions from his instrumental palette."
It's time to get to know Ottorino Respighi.
The Biographical Skinny on Respighi
Respighi was born in 1879 in Bologna. His father was a piano teacher who saw to it that Respighi had violin and piano lessons early in life. He studied both violin and viola at the Liceo of Bologna. After earning is diploma in 1899, he took a position as principal violist in the Russian Imperial Theatre's orchestra.
While in Saint Petersburg, Respighi studied orchestration under Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Respighi had also studied music history and composition while at the Liceo, so these studies with Rimsky-Korsakov were an extension of these interests. He eventually would earn a second diploma in composition, subjects he studied formally upon returning to Bologna in 1900.
While he began his hand at composing during this time, he was also still performing. Respighi's day job was as the first violinist for the Mugellini Quintet. He was a member until 1908 when he decided to focus solely on composing. He spent two years in Germany as part of his studies and then settled in Rome, where he would live until his death in 1936.
The Italian composer started earning accolades outside his home country in 1917, when other European orchestras began performing one of the works which remains one of his best known today: The orchestral tone poem, "Fountains of Rome."
While composing orchestral and chamber works, as well as operas, Respighi also taught at the Conservatorio di Santa Cecilia. He was named its director in 1923 but left that position in 1926. He again chose to focus solely on composing. By this time, Respighi had married former student Elsa Olivieri-Sangiacomo, who was also a composer.
His fame spread to the United States in 1925 when he made his first public performances there. This first American tour lasted two years and featured Respighi both as a conductor and a pianist. He would tour the United States again in 1932.
During his career, he was a member of Generazione dell'Ottanta (Generation of the 1880s), a group of Italian composers all born in the 1880s and who sought to create a rich body of Italian composition that built on Italy's vast cultural history. The most successful member of the Generazione dell'Ottanta, Respighi was elected to the Royal Academy of Italy in 1932.
Respighi's Influences and Important Works
Respighi's musical inspirations put him very much in the Romantic Era of classical composition. From his earliest days at the Liceo, he studied musical history. He was also fascinated by Italy and its cultural history. Many of his works are directly inspired by his country's geography and artistic heritage. Thus, his most famous works are a trilogy of tone poems comprised of the aforementioned "Fountains of Rome" (1916), "Pines of Rome" (1924), and "Roman Festivals" (1928).
"Roman Festivals" had its premiere in 1929 with Arturo Toscanini conducting the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.
Respighi quite literally wanted to envelope audiences in a visual atmosphere with his music. He used three of Botticelli's most famous paintings as inspiration for is "Boticelli Tryptich." A three-movement work for a chamber orchestra, the movements are titled "Primavera," "Adoration of the Magi," and "Birth of Venus.
He was also inspired by earlier Italian composers from earlier centuries, whom he'd studied and written about. He composed a number of works based on music originally composed for the lute in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, such as "Ancient Airs and Dances," three suites of compositions written by Respighi in 1917, 1923, and 1932. He based his "The Birds" on Baroque works.
Respighi even looked back to antiquity and the Middle Ages for his Quartetto Dorico (1923), a string quartet written in Dorian mode, and Concerto Gregoriano for Violin and Orchestra (1921), which took inspiration from early Christian plain chant.
While greatly inspired by his own heritage, he also took influence from the people and places he visited. Most notable, of course, is the Russian influence of Rimsky-Korsakov on Respighi's composing style. He also contributed to a mash up both countries' artistic traditions by composing works based on Giochino Rossini's piano compositions for a ballet commissioned and produced by Diaghilev's Ballets Russes in London. The ballet, "The Magic Toyshop," was really a triple country mashup as the libretto was written by Andre Derain, French artist and leader of the Fauvist movement.
Despite the broad scope of artistic influences, Respighi was not so inspired by the composers of the Classical Era. Nor was he particularly impressed by where he saw classical compositions heading with the Modernists. Respighi was one of ten Italian composers who signed a public manifesto decrying the atonality and mechanization of Modernist composers, like Schoenberg. Respighi and his fellow signatories sought to keep the human element at the center of the musical experience.
Top image of Respighi by Ghitta Lorell, 1934. Courtesty of Gallica Digital LIbrary on Wikicommons.