Ottorino Respighi falls into that unenviable category of a composer whose reputation rests unduly on a particular work, or group of compositions. In his case it is the so-called ‘Roman Trilogy’ with which he is perennially associated, three separately conceived orchestral pieces penned between 1916-1928, his prime creative period. The popularity of the Trilogy has often been attributed to Respighi’s undeniable brilliance as an orchestrator, his ability to conjure a kaleidosocopic range of crowd-pleasing colours and impressions from his instrumental palette. The composer’s numerous detractors contend that there is actually little more than superficial thrills and spills in the Trilogy’s music, that it is mainly sound and fury, signifying nothing deeper – an allegation given a certain credence by performances which crudely over-emphasise moments such as the gargantuan crescendo depicting a Roman legion’s triumphant procession along the Appian Way at the conclusion of Pines of Rome, the second composition in the cycle.
Closer inspection of the Trilogy, however, and more sensitive interpretations of it, reveal a composer of refined sensibilities, capable of exquisite delicacy of expression, a man deeply interested in and temperamentally attuned to both the music of the past and the immense richness of his nation’s historical and artistic heritage.
That is one reason why Respighi, a proud Bolognese by birth, was attracted to the Italian capital as a source of cultural inspiration in writing his grand orchestral triptych. Respighi had moved to Rome in 1913 (in his mid-thirties) to teach composition at the Conservatorio di Santa Cecilia and Fountains of Rome, the first part of the Trilogy, gestated almost immediately.
In writing Fountains of Rome Respighi’s prime motivation was to render the profound aesthetic impression made on him, the ‘sentiments and visions’ inspired, as he put it, by four exquisitely sculpted Roman fountains ‘contemplated at the hour in which their character is most in harmony with the surrounding landscape, or their beauty appears most impressive to the observer’.
It is worth emphasising Respighi’s own description of what he was aiming to achieve in Fountains of Rome, as his reputation has never quite emerged unsullied from the fact that the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini was a great admirer of the composer’s music. If Mussolini admired the Trilogy, the argument runs, must there not necessarily be something rather unsavoury about the music? Are not Respighi’s own political affiliations and sympathies called into question as a consequence? Conspiracy theories linking Respighi and fascism draw further sustenance from passages such as the pulverising peroration to the Appian Way movement in Pines of Rome, where the implacable tread of the marching consular army to some ears uncomfortably recalls the brutal militarism of Mussolini’s dictatorship.
Again, it is salutary to note Respighi’s own explanation of why he wrote Pines of Rome – to ‘use nature as a point of departure, in order to recall memories and visions’ of the Eternal City, and present ‘a fantastic vision of bygone glories’. His perspective, though proudly patriotic, is that of an enthralled observer of his country’s history and is not intended to be aggressively jingoistic or rawly political. On the contrary, it was intensely personal: tellingly, Respighi’s wife Elsa said that Pines of Rome was ‘one of the compositions in which the Maestro was most emotionally involved’. It makes as much sense to castigate Respighi for expressing such feelings musically as it does to criticise Elgar for composing the ‘Pomp and Circumstance’ marches, or Wagner because Meistersinger was Hitler’s favourite opera.
Roman Festivals rounded off the Roman Trilogy in 1928. Though generally regarded as less successful than its two predecessors, renowned Respighi interpreter Yan Pascal Tortelier points to the ‘really inspired mix of sophisticated orchestration, chromaticism, harmony and powerful driving rhythms’ used in the piece, and judges ‘La Befana’ (The Epiphany), the ‘exuberant, almost orgiastic’ final movement to be ‘much more varied and satisfying musically’ than the similarly eruptive Appian Way sequence in Pines of Rome. For Respighi himself Roman Festivals, with its ‘maximum of orchestral sonority and colour’, represented a culmination of his large-scale orchestral composition. ‘With the present constitution of the orchestra,’ he wrote, ‘it is impossible to achieve more, and I do not think I shall write any more scores of this kind. Now I am much more interested in small ensembles and the small orchestra.’
In fact Respighi had already been writing impressively for more modest forces earlier in his career. Shortly after Fountains of Rome he had produced the first of what would become three suites for smaller orchestra of Ancient Airs and Dances, elegant pieces (four per suite) based on lute music of the 16th and 17th centuries. In the same vein, and equally delightful, is Gli Uccelli (The Birds, 1927), five short movements based on lute and harpsichord pieces by Pasquini, Gallot and Rameau. These compositions are symptomatic of Respighi’s deep and abiding interest in the (mainly Italian) music of bygone eras. Inspired by his studies with Torchi and Martucci at the Liceo Musicale in Bologna, he was an ‘early music’ specialist avant la lettre, and wearing his musicological hat an indefatigable editor of at that time little-known composers such as Monteverdi, Frescobaldi, Tartini and Vitali. He also produced transcriptions of works by Marcello, Boccherini, Pergolesi, and Cimarosa.
Respighi’s predilection for noodling around in the murkier recesses of musical history also yielded a tuneful ballet score based on rarely heard piano pieces by Rossini, La boutique Fantasque (The Magic Toy Shop), probably his most recorded work outside the Roman Trilogy. No less a company than Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes premiered La boutique in London in 1919, and six years later Respighi returned to Rossini’s piano music for a second helping, producing the attractive four-movement suite for orchestra Rossiniana.
Respighi drew on other sources of inspiration in his variegated orchestral tapestries – visual (Botticelli Triptych), geographical (Brazilian Impressions), and ecclesiastical (Church Windows). While many of these compositions are relatively well known nowadays, large areas of his output are rarely performed. His operas are almost unknown outside Italy: the dramatic tale of love and witchcraft La Fiamma is a strong contender for revival, while the smaller-scale La Bella dormente nel Bosco (Sleeping Beauty) would link nicely with a one-acter by Ravel or Puccini in a double-header.
Towards the end of his career, in 1932, Respighi was one of ten Italian composers who signed a manifesto berating obscurantist tendencies in modern composition, re-emphasising their commitment to ‘human content’ in music, and their opposition to the ‘mechanical demonstration’ of composers using pre-determined technical systems to generate pieces (the 12-note methodology of the Second Viennese School was a target).
But there is more to Respighi than a simple reaction to musical modernism, and a desire to honour past cultural traditions. There is a sensuality to his music which is Mediterranean in nature and which is directly at odds with the more intellectual and philosophical mindset of the Austro-Germanic composers whose works continue to exert a stranglehold on the programming of symphony orchestras.
Time for that stranglehold to loosen, and for more Respighi to be heard. Italian music’s relationship with external reality is too immediate to submit to principles of organisation. As Gian Francesco Malipiero, Respighi’s contemporary, said: ‘What does it mean to have style? It means to write The Fountains of Rome…’.