Ottorino Respighi (1879 – 1936)

Ottorino Respighi was an important Italian composer of the early 20th Century. He began his musical studies with his father and excelled at the violin, as well as the viola and piano. (He later accompanied his wife, Elsa, a concert soprano, and performed as soloist on some of his piano pieces with orchestra.) After receiving his diploma from the music school in Bologna, he became the principal violist for the Imperial Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia, during its Italian opera offerings. While there, he studied composition with Rimsky-Korsakov, who left a deep impression on Respighi’s colorful orchestrations, something Stravinsky had learned from the master as well. He may have also studied briefly with Max Bruch in Berlin, (although his wife disputed this).

In 1913, he became the composition teacher at the St. Cecilia Academy in Rome, where he lived out the rest of his life. While there, he served for a time as director of the Academy, wrote a textbook for elementary musical training, and also worked as a musicologist, specializing in the works of Italian composers of the Renaissance and Baroque periods, especially Monteverdi, Vivaldi, and Marcello. Like Messiaen, he also had a love of birdsong and incorporated it into some of his compositions, especially The Birds, which integrates bird songs with earlier Baroque music.

Although Respighi composed several operas, concertos, chamber music, and solo vocal and piano works, he is primarily remembered for his brilliant orchestral works. The most famous of these is trilogy of tone poems based on the surroundings of Rome, which include The Fountains of Rome, The Pines of Rome, and Roman Festivals. These three works have cemented his lasting fame and popularity with concert audiences. Other important works include the Ancient Airs and Dances, which are a set of three suites, based on the works of several Renaissance Italian composers. He also displayed his love of Italian art and architecture in the Botticelli Trilogy and Church Windows. Although he usually avoided composers of the Classical period, he borrowed from Rossini in his orchestral work Rossiniana, as well as the music for the ballet La Boutique Fantasque (The Magic Toy Shop). He also wrote two Biblical cantatas: the early Christus and the Christmas cantata Laud to the Nativity.

A trip to Brazil in the late 1920’s resulted in his Brazilian Impressions, which was premiered in Rio De Janeiro. Respighi also travelled to the U.S., performing at Carnegie Hall with the New York Philharmonic and writing his Metamorphoseon, a set of theme and variations, for the 50th anniversary of the Boston Symphony.

Although Respighi despised the fascism of Mussolini’s government, he enjoyed success under it due to his worldwide fame and popularity. He used this influence to help the careers of younger, more outspoken musicians, including Arturo Toscanini, who later championed his works in America. He devoted his last years to opera, including the very successful La Fiamma and his final work, Lucrezia, which was unfinished at his death and was completed by a student and his wife, herself a gifted composer. It contains some thinly veiled attacks at the Fascism in his country, similarly to Shostakovich’s disguised attacks on Stalinist communism. In early 1936, Respighi became quite ill and finally died of a heart attack in April. His legacy was championed by his widow, Elsa, who wrote his biography. She continued to advance studies of her husband’s work until her death in 1996 at the age of 102.

Suggested Listening:

Suggested Reading:

Elsa Respighi. Ottorino Respighi: His Life Story.