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8.220418 - RESPIGHI, O.: Sinfonia Drammatica (Slovak Philharmonic, Nazareth)

Ottorino Respighi (1879–1936)
Sinfonia Drammatica


Ottorino Respighi was born in Bologna in 1879and studied the violin and viola at the Liceo Musicale there from 1891 with Federico Sarti. At the same time he took lessons in composition, at first from the musicologist Luigi Torchi, who had returned to Bologna from the Liceo Rossini in Pesaro in the same year, and later from the composer Giuseppe Martucci, who was director of the Liceo until 1902. In 1899 he completed his studies and the following year went to St. Petersburg as principal viola-player at the Imperial Opera. In Russia, where he spent the seasons of 1901–1902 and 1902–1903, he took lessons from Rimsky-Korsakov in composition and orchestration.

During the first decade of the present century Respighi won a reputation as a performer, while pursuing his growing interest in earlier music and in composition. In Berlin in 1908–1909 he attended lectures by Max Bruch, to relatively little effect. The influence of Rimsky-Korsakov, however, was to remain with him and to guide his bold use of orchestral colour.

These years brought a series of compositions. In 1902a piano concerto of his was performed in Bologna and his Notturno of 1905 was played in New York under Rodolfo Ferrari. The latter year saw the first production of his opera Rè Enzo in Bologna, a work followed five years later by Semirama, these operas winning him a reputation that led, in 1913, to his appointment as teacher of composition at the Liceo di Santa Cecilia in Rome.

In 1919 Respighi married a singer, Elsa Olivieri-Sangiacomo, and in 1924 became director of the Santa Cecilia, resigning two years later to devote himself to composition, although he continued to teach and to perform in concerts as a conductor and as an accompanist to his wife. He died in 1936 at the house he had named after one of his most famous works, I Pini.

Respighi’s international reputation, which still exceeds that of any other Italian composer of his generation, depends very largely on the symphonic poems that offer evocative and pictorial representations of Rome. Fontane di Roma, four vivid pictures of the fountains of the city, was completed in 1916. I Pini di Roma, an evocation of Roman scenes associated with the pines of the city, followed in 1924, and this was to be succeeded by the Festa Romane in 1929, a work coloured by a certain contemporary political optimism.

In 1918 he provided the Russian ballet impresario Dyagilev with a score derived from Rossini, La Boutique Fantasque, a work that has continued in popular ballet repertoire since its first performance in London in 1919. A later ballet Belkis, Regina di Saba, was written in 1931, and performed at La Scala, Milan, in the following year. There were, too, other operas which have largely failed to capture the public imagination, although ottering music of considerable interest.

Another aspect of Respighi’s work was his enthusiasm for earlier music. Gregorian chant was to suggest a melodic source for compositions such as the Concerto Gregoriano, for violin, and the Concerto in Modo Misolidio, for piano, as well as the orchestral Vetrate di Chiesa of 1927, symphonic impressions of the windows of four churches. He arranged various sets of lute dances for orchestra, and assembled a collection of orchestral birds for the sequence Gli uccelli, based on bird-pieces by keyboard composers of the eighteenth century. A more thorough example of this tendency to look to the past was seen in his last opera, Lucrezia, performed at La Scala the year after his death.

Respighi’s Sinfonia Drammatica was completed in 1913. It is a substantial work that has been regarded by some as a further example of Respighi’s early Eclecticism. The dramatic mood is established at once as the orchestra launches into music that may at times remind us of Mahler, particularly in elements of orchestration and lyrical melancholy. Richard Strauss was of course, a strong influence in this earlier period of the composer’s life, if not the most immediately apparent here, except, perhaps, in the scale of the symphony and its occasional extravagance of orchestral effect.

The second movement might suggest the influence of Debussy, in mood and idiom, with a an interlude of solemn medievalism, leading to dramatic intensity, which is then replaced by a return to the initial tranquillity, disturbed briefly once again before final serenity is restored.

The final Allegro impetuoso unleashes powerful force again in music that offers a bewildering variety of mood and incident, making full use of orchestral colour in music that does everything to justify the title of the work.

Keith Anderson

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