In a world of traditional Italian operas and original dramatic 20th-century works, Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936) emerged as a composer best known for arranging and orchestrating early music. It was his fascination with Ancient Italy and Renaissance composers that led to his obsession with Gregorian chant, found in a lot of his music. His most common form of compositions are tone poems which are visually stimulating pieces featuring musical representations of a range of scenes and sounds from death to birdsong. His music is an insight into his sensitive but highly nationalistic mind.
These are 6 of his best works…
Pines of Rome (1924)
Respighi created this colourful musical work after being inspired by four particular areas of Rome’s famous pine trees. The opening movement is about the ‘Pines of the Villa Borghese’, a wealthy Italian family home in the 17th century. In contrast, the 2nd movement, ‘Pines Near a Catacomb’, depicts the ominous shadows in deserted Campagna. Listen carefully to the 3rd movement, ‘The Pines of the Janiculum’, as Respighi plays actual recordings of birds on the Janiculum Hill, heard on a record player within the music. Respighi’s nationalistic ideas come into play in the final movement, ‘The Pines of the Appian Way’ in which the army is heard marching underneath a row of pines. Respighi perfectly captures the natural beauty of the city in this work.
Fountains of Rome (1917)
Rome is renowned for its stunning architecture, and Respighi found his inspiration for this work in four fountains around the capital city. The opening pastoral movement is about the ‘Fountain of Valle Giulia’ while dancing mythical beings can be heard in ‘The Triton Fountain’. The famous ‘Trevi Fountain’, home to the triumphant Triton is the subject of the third movement, finishing with the contrasting melancholic mood of ‘The Villa Medici Fountain’ to finish the work.
The Birds (1928)
Drawing on his enthusiasm for early music, Respighi was inspired by great harpsichord composers of the 17th and 18th century to create the sounds of birds in this music. He imitates the sounds of a cuckoo, a dove, a hen and a nightingale in each movement through the influence of composers such as Pasquini and Rameau; two of the most well-known harpsichord composers of their day. Many sounds are created to represent the birds’ flapping wings and scratching claws.
Concerto Gregoriano (1921)
Respighi uses his love of Gregorian chants in this violin concerto, combining great chordal moments with virtuosic solo violin passages. The concerto was premiered in 1922 in Rome, a perfect location for a modern arrangement of early Christian chants and plainsong. The violin flourishes in the triumphant ending and leaves a lasting impression.
Ancient Airs and Dances (1917-1932)
Based on various Renaissance lute pieces, these three suites are characterised by each movement’s titled dance. From a lilting Siciliana to a lively rustic dance, Respighi has created a more intimate sound with a reduced-size orchestra in the first and third suites, again most likely influenced by his focus on early music.
Belkis, Queen of Sheba (1934)
Respighi arranged this suite based on his own Ballet about the biblical story of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, after his wife thought it was too long to be performed. It is full of majestic and regal moments which contrast with the more serene movements.
However, this work ends on a dramatic cliff-hanger, as the ballet was so long to arrange that Respighi died before being able to complete the second suite!