Composer, Musicologist. The most celebrated Italian composer of his generation, he was unusual among his compatriots in winning renown outside the field of opera. Respighi's "Roman Trilogy", a set of symphonic poems evoking the Eternal City, are staples of the orchestral repertory. They are "The Fountains of Rome" (1917), "The Pines of Rome" (1924), and "Roman Festivals" (1928). His fascination with early music is exemplified in the "Ancient Airs and Dances" (three suites, 1917, 1923, 1932). Respighi was born in Bologna, Italy, the son of a musician. He was educated at his hometown's Liceo Musicale (1891 to 1900), excelling in the violin, and studied privately with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov during two visits to Russia (1900 and 1902); he also attended lectures by Max Bruch in Berlin. From 1903 to 1908 he was active as a concert violinist and chamber performer, while his early efforts at writing music went mostly unheard. An exception was his transcription of Monteverdi's "Lamento di Arianna", which scored a hit when performed by the Berlin Philharmonic under Arthur Nikisch in 1908. This prompted his move to Berlin for a few years, where he taught piano and absorbed the culture. In 1913 he settled in Rome as a professor of composition at the prestigious St. Cecilia Conservatory, becoming its director in 1923. "The Fountains of Rome" was his breakthrough opus and from then on his music was much in demand, particularly in the United States. He married one of his students, Elsa Olivieri-Sangiacomo, in 1919. An apolitical man, Respighi attempted to steer a neutral course after Mussolini came to power in Italy in 1922. He resigned from the St. Cecilia Conservatory in 1925 and made several trips abroad, conducting his works. His 1932 election to Il Duce's new Italian Academy was unsolicited, but his failure to reject the position - and in general, to criticize his country's regime - led to posthumous accusations that he was a fascist sympathizer. He died in Rome of infective myocarditis at 56, and was given a state funeral. In 1937 his remains were reinterred with honors in his native Bologna. Respighi's music has long been popular for its powerful and brilliantly colored scene-painting. He was one of the greatest orchestrators who ever lived, on a par with Rimsky (to whom he owed much), Ravel, and Richard Strauss, and never failed to come up with thrilling new effects when the occasion demanded. In "The Pines of Rome", for example, he pioneered mixing recorded sound with live performance when he introduced a phonograph record of a nightingale into the score. But a romantic attachment to the past and pride in Italy's culture were at the heart of his creative processes. (No doubt these traits were why Mussolini was so eager to "adopt" Respighi for propaganda purposes). In his "Roman Trilogy" he sought to commemorate both Rome's present beauties and its former glories. As a musicologist he immersed himself in the study of Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque music, and his characteristic method of composing was to combine these early modes with late Romantic harmonies and modern arrangements. (He also edited important editions of Monteverdi and Vivaldi). Respighi's other major works include "Church Windows" (1925), "The Birds" (1927), "Three Botticelli Pictures" (1927), and "Brazilian Impressions" (1928) for orchestra; the "Concerto in the Mixolydian Mode" (1925) for piano and orchestra; the ballet "La Boutique Fantastique" (1918), adapted from music by Rossini on commission from Diaghilev; and the operas "The Sunken Bell" (1927), "The Flame" (1934), and "Lucrezia" (1937). The latter was completed by his widow Elsa, herself a composer, who devoted the rest of her long life to promoting Respighi's legacy. She died at age 101 in 1996.
Bio by: Bobb Edwards
Elsa Oliveri-Sangiacomo Respighi
1894–1996 (m. 1919)