Ottorino Respighi

The rather conservative eclecticism of the music of the Italian composer Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936) made it immediately popular. His skill in writing for orchestra was unsurpassed.

The father of Ottorino Respighi was a professional musician and teacher at Bologna's Liceo Musicale, where Ottorino received his first musical training. He was a gifted violinist, and it was not until after his graduation from the conservatory that he definitely decided to be a composer rather than a violin virtuoso. Realizing that he needed a broader musical background than that supplied at home, he went to St. Petersburg to study with Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov and later to Berlin to study with Max Bruch, a rather conservative German composer.

After his return to Italy, Respighi was appointed professor of composition at the prestigious Conservatory of Santa Cecilia in Rome, and in 1923 he became its director. Tours of Europe and the United States in 1925, 1928, and 1932, in which he conducted his compositions with leading orchestras, spread his fame.

Respighi is chiefly remembered as the composer of two tone poems, the Fountains of Rome (1916-1917) and the Pines of Rome (1924), brilliantly orchestrated evocations of the Eternal City. In a preface to the score of the former the composer wrote, "In this symphonic poem the composer has endeavored to give expression to the sentiments and visions suggested to him by four of Rome's fountains, contemplated at the hour in which their character is most in harmony with the surrounding landscape, or in which their beauty appears most impressive to the observer." The Pines also has four sections, depicting the Villa Borghese, a catacomb, the Janiculum, and the Appian Way. These are very effective programs because they allowed the composer to write music of contrasting moods and varying associations, both pictorial and historical.

These compositions show Respighi's complete mastery of modern orchestration. His use of solo woodwinds and brass reveals what he learned from Rimsky-Korsakov, but it is also apparent that he knew the scores of Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, Igor Stravinsky, and Richard Strauss as well. In the third section of the Pines, Respighi introduces a recording of an actual nightingale's song into the score.

Other compositions of Respighi are the operas The Sunken Bell, produced at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1928, Maria Egiziaca (1932), and La Fiamma (1934); a ballet commissioned by Sergei Diaghilev, La Boutique fantasque (1919), written on themes by Gioacchino Rossini; and a Concerto Gregoriano (1922) for violin and orchestra, based on Gregorian chant.

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Further Reading on Ottorino Respighi

There is no biography of Respighi in English, but his wife, Elsa Respighi, wrote a memoir, Ottorino Respighi (trans. 1962). He is discussed in Paul Collaer, A History of Modern Music (1955; trans. 1961), and David Ewen, The World of Twentieth-century Music (1968).

Additional Biography Sources

Alvera, Pierluigi., Respighi, New York, N.Y.: Treves Pub. Co., 1986.

Ottorino Respighi, Torino: ERI, 1985.

Respighi, Elsa, Fifty years of a life in music, 1905-1955, Lewiston: E. Mellen Press, 1993.